Think about everything that goes into the Indianapolis 500. The tireless preparation, the planning, the execution, the hundreds of thousands of people, and of course the field of 33 cars and drivers. It’s a day that will drain us all, but leave us with memories that will last long after we are gone. It’s the busiest day in motorsports, and the equivalent of Christmas to many people. You can feel the energy and the chaos that accompany the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. People will tell you, you simply can’t put it all into words.
As you descend upon 16th and Georgetown, an indescribable feeling overwhelms you. The sun glistens over the pagoda, and the crisp morning air in the shadows of the grandstands surrounds your body. Generations of people have experienced the cultural touchstone known as Race Day at Indy. Massive crowds flock to this Roman Colosseum for race fans, setting the scene, like a Van Gogh painting that comes to life every May.
What happens before the winner tastes the milk is even more sensational. What about before Ryan Hunter-Reay made the move going into Turn 3, or before the green flag was waved? How about before the sun even thinks about coming up?
Before the video screens are turned on, long before the scoring pylon lights are checked, and even before some of the lights are turned on in Gasoline Alley, the speedway sits quietly in the darkness. Nearly eight hours before over 300,000 people rush in to witness the biggest race in the world, you can hear a pin drop. This is when you soak it all in.
This is a place where the “ups and downs” are magnified a million times over. Immortality is sculpted in silver, which is guarded more heavily than the President of the United States.
When most people talk about fast cars and racing, it’s associated with loud engines, squealing tires, earplugs, and the hot summer sun. I wanted to feel it from a different perspective. A few years ago, I began somewhat of a new personal tradition. I arrive early at the track on race day and sit in the darkness. It’s an early alarm, and I only pass a few people on my way to the grandstands. Once I’m up there though, it all hits me like a yard of bricks. The history, the tradition, and the countless number of remarkable events that have taken place here over the past century. It’s beyond surreal.
There is something eerie about sitting in a place where, in just hours, hundreds of thousands of people file their way in, eager to hear the roar of 33 engines going 230 mph down the front stretch. This is when all of the eyeballs are watching. This is when the historical moments take place. This is when, well, it gets crazy. Think about the calm before the storm, how quiet and peaceful that seems. Now magnify that as you sit in front of the illuminated Pagoda tower in complete silence, in utter darkness.
Go back to a time when the hair on your arms stood straight up. Remember the last time you got chills down the back of your neck? Those sensations and emotions you felt were caused by something electrifying. Think about why you encountered these things. What made it happen, and why don’t you experience it that often? The answer is, because it’s rare. So rare in fact, that you simply can’t experience it as often as you would like to. There is only one opportunity every year to do this, and time closes that window very quickly.
Imagine being here in 1910, before the first ‘500’ ever took place. Carl Fisher had a dream, which he described as he looked over the place. “We’re talking about the greatest automobile race ever put on anywhere on the face of the earth. Everything connected with it is going to have to be bigger and better than ever before – or we’ll miss the boat.”
No matter how many times you visit the speedway, you never grow tired of it. It is a place that speaks of tradition, smells of glorious victory, and reminds us that she is in control. It oozes with captivating stories, and carries a wave of nostalgia that has swept over us all.
If you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Gettysburg, or Arlington National Cemetery, you know what it’s like to have a sense of veneration. The world is standing still, and everything is in slow motion. Reaching the point of jubilation, you try to take it all in – to digest it – but you simply can’t. You get lost in the moment, and think about what all has taken place, long before you, your parents, and even your grandparents arrived.
Looking around, your eyes widen, along with your perspective of everything. What would Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler think, standing here today?
Obviously Al Unser Jr knows what Indy means. So too did three-time winner Wilbur Shaw, who resurrected the Speedway after WWII. Before his death in 1954, he said “To me the track was the last great speed shrine, which must be preserved at all cost. I felt that all I was, or ever hoped to be, I owed to the Indianapolis 500 mile race.”
As you would expect at this time, it’s very quiet. If you listen closely though, you can hear Tom Carnegie calling Robert Guerrero’s 1992 record Pole run. You can hear Sid Collins and Paul Page describing the battle entering Turn 1. You even hear the comical, fast-paced piano music that plays on every video documenting the first two decades of the International 500 Mile Sweepstakes. You can relive more than a century of memories inside of this historic temple. So much has changed, and even more hasn’t.
You can call it mystical, or you can call it magical. In a sense, it is both.