Each May, volumes are written on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 500-Mile Race. While many articles and features focus on drivers, speeds, and results, some look to go deeper.
We’re often asked this time of year just what the Indy 500 is all about. It could be a curious friend or neighbor, or it could be a columnist looking at the place of this legendary race in today’s society. After all, we are constantly told that today’s youth car culture is not as it was, and that perhaps the Indy 500 means less than it did 50 or 60 years ago.
So does the 500 have meaning in this day and age? Is it still relevant, whatever the ratings or online pundits might say? I’m not sure about you, but I see meaning every May, when I make that trip to 16th & Georgetown.
- I saw some of that meaning when a very elderly gentlemen and his son sat in front of us last year, emotionally watching the race in person for the first time, completing a “bucket list” event for both of them.
- That meaning is out in the campgrounds and in the infield, as the latest wave of college kids do immeasurably stupid things that they’ll remember (well, partially) their entire life as one the “best weekends ever”.
- The meaning sweeps across a crowd of 250,000+, as tears come unbidden to even the toughest souls during “Back Home Again in Indiana” and “God Bless America”. Remembering loved ones, remembering home and family, and pride in a nation—these things have meaning.
- For the adrenaline fans, the meaning is watching the best multi-discipline drivers in the world roar three-wide into Turn 1, trying everything they can to keep the car under control as the vie for position with scant inches of clearance from one another. Every pass, every unexpected twist, every clever bit of strategy rewards the hardcore and casual racing fan alike, and makes it such an unforgettable experience.
- When gearheads and racing fans from all over America congregate in one spot at the end of May, to greet old friends and make new ones, with the chance to talk shop and racing with folks who share their passion, it’s little wonder it’s such a meaningful annual trip to so many.
- The meaning is there when I hear the old-timers talk about legends that have left us—names like Bettenhausen, Vukovich, Sachs, and Brayton—and how recalling old moments of despair and triumph at this place can make them seem like excited kids once again. It’s also there when you remember trips with your father, and can bring back the sight and sounds of a day long ago, when you hear those whispers in those strangely intimate quiet moments that IMS produces.
- The meaning is present when I see the looks of wonder from my daughters and son as they see their favorite drivers roar past at top speed, and marvel at how anyone with that cool of a job is so approachable and fun. Seeing grandparents watch their grandchildren romp in front of the pagoda, or hang out by the pit fence, hoping for an autograph—that’s meaningful, too.
- I saw that speed and pride still have their place this year, as I watched a crowd go wild as a hometown hero won the pole, and again as the 230 mph mark came ever closer to being toppled once again. There is meaning there, too.
- The meaning was on display this past Bump Day, as I saw a team and driver who had given their full effort to try and make the field see their month end. The tears, the raw emotion, the crushing disappointment—those men and women involved will tell you how much it hurts, and how very much making it here means.
- The meaning grows each time one of us brings a loved one or friend to the Greatest Race Course in the World for the first time, when they have their “moment” where it all clicks, where they understand that some things can’t be explained through fine analytics or logical comprehension. There’s a certain instance when a car roars past on a qualifying attempt, where the wind whips, the air quavers, and an electric shock fills you with life. That’s when you begin to get it.
- For the veterans in the audience, each moment highlighting the military and their sacrifice, from “Taps” to the flyover, brings back the thought of the brave generations who fought before, and of this generation’s sacrifices and pain on a changing field of battle. Some of those sacrifices are physical and obvious, while others are deeper, even more painful scars. Seeing happy, contented, excited fans, cheering for the troops, cheering for the cars and drivers, and cheering on one of the greatest of American sporting traditions helps remind them, too, “It was worth it. These sacrifices, these long months and years away, it meant something, something immeasurably powerful and strong”.
The Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway mean something different to everyone. Eras change, crowds ebb and flow, and as any racing fan knows, sometimes the rain comes. What can’t be argued is that it still means something. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is large enough to account for many dreams, many memories, and many different meanings.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter (@indycaradvocate), or via email at mail.rpgblog@gmailcom.