Sunday, May 4, 2008

Countdown to Indy: Day Zero

The countdown to Indy is over and the time has finally arrived for the teams to hit the track to prepare for the Indianapolis 500. I will be heading out this morning for rookie orientation runs and all the opening day ceremonies. It will be my first chance to see many of the new teams and it's likely that this opening day could be one of the busiest in years. By the time the track closes at 5:00 p.m. today, we could have a very good idea of which teams are really ready to be considered contenders. Rookie orientation continues tomorrow and I should be back online later today with a rundown of today's action on the track, in the pits and in the garage area. Until then I want to talk about the magic that is Indianapolis in May, and how this town becomes a special place imbued with race fever every year. If you are not from Indy, the infection with all things racing may be difficult to understand, but the Speedway and the 500 are what gave this community its identity for decades and that is not likely to change anytime soon. Even with the Colts' success, Indy is still known for the race wherever you go in the world.

Of course, there are thousands of people who have lived in Indy their whole lives and have never even been to the track or the museum. Many even hate the race with a passion - for the crowds, the increased traffic, and the inundation of race-themed events. On race day, the Speedway becomes the second-largest city in Indiana and the track grounds and surrounding neighborhoods are teaming with people, a human zoo which has only recently been tamed somewhat with the elimination of the legendary "snakepit" areas in the infield. Increased police patrols have basically eliminated the "anything goes" atmosphere that used to prevail in the infield through the 1990's, and for some of us oldtimers, that is a bit unfortunate. Certain photo ops are no longer available, but for women who attend the race, that's probably a good thing since the drunks with the "show your t___s" signs have largely disappeared.

If you're in town in May, there's no way to escape the race. Everything seems to take on its identity and there are all kinds of races promoted in the media, or available for people to participate in. Yesterday, the 500 Festival Mini Marathon took nearly 35,000 runners from downtown to the track and back and it ended in a photo finish. Retailers promote their own "races to savings" in advertising - car dealers arguably cash on in this theme the most, and there are show cars and driver appearances all over town in connection with team sponsors. Kids race big wheels or run with boxes decorated as race cars at schools, day care centers and community events. And then there are the folks like me who put out race flags or banners to decorate their homes and yards.

You want to talk about parties? The 500 has often been referred to as the biggest party in the world, but the action is not confined to corporate events or the neighborhoods around 16th & Georgetown. If you can't find a party the night before the race, then you probably aren't looking very hard and you need to get out more. Race parties in Indy are as plentiful as Super Bowl parties as people come back to town for the 500 year after year - to renew friendships and talk about their memories of races past. Tickets are handed down generation to generation and you see some people at the track every year and nowhere else, some of whom you don't even know by name, but the race connection is the bond with lasting ties. My family moved to Indy in 1968 and at my first race in 1970, my dad and I sat in the third turn infield bleachers, ate fried chicken and oreos and watched Al Unser Sr. win in the Johnny Lightning Special. I think I spent as much time watching the drunks in the infield as the cars on the track and I've often wondered whatever happened to the guy drinking from a leather bag who every few minutes would holler out, "Hi! I'm Sparkel Farkel". For Gen-X, the Farkel's were a dysfunctional family on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" TV show, so that should give you some idea of how old I am. Today the Unser family will be honored with a ceremonial lap around the track and autograph session so I am looking forward to seeing them in their winning cars - Al Sr. and Jr., and Uncle Bobby. The Unsers have been called the "first family of racing" and among them they own nine Indy 500 wins so the title has been well earned, both in Victory Lane and in family tragedy associated with the race.

I'm an oldtimer and although my memory isn't what it once was and I can't run down the winners like Speedway historian Donald Davidson, it takes me no time at all to wax nostalgic about the races I've attended and things I've seen at the Racing Capital of the World. This year promises to be among the best ever and I couldn't be more excited. And I will not be alone in saying I live for the Month of May. Even though we don't have the "30 Days of May" anymore, there's still nothing like going to the track. Where else can you get a whole day's action for five bucks? I wonder how many people I will see this month dresses in black & white checkers? If all you know about Indy is what you see on television, then I urge you to set aside what you think you know and get to the track as TV just does not do the cars justice. There's nothing like the smell of ethanol in the morning. But if you can't get to the track this month, then I hope you will enjoy these pix and many others I will post this month - scenes from past months of May are linked today and I hope to post more from each day I'm out there.

When Al Unser, Jr. won Indy in 1992, he said with tears in his eyes in Victory Lane, "You just don't know what Indy means." My hope is to provide a glimpse into the world at the track this month and what he meant by that statement. See you there!

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