Another Reason To Be An IndyCar Fan
Just last week, I wrote a post wondering if most fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series followed just motorsports or if they followed some or all of the “stick & ball” sports. By the responses I got, it seems that at least half of readers of this site follow one or more other sports that have nothing to do with racing. As I said at the time, you can put me in the category that follows other sports also.
Well, this past weekend – I was reminded why motor racing is a much more pleasant sport to follow.
The 1965 Indianapolis 500 was the first race of any kind that I ever attended. I was still five months shy of my seventh birthday. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I was pulling for Parnelli Jones that day. My brothers and my father were for AJ Foyt. My mother just wanted to get through the day. Jim Clark won the race, Parnelli came in second, while Foyt fell out with gearbox issues on Lap 115 and finished fifteenth. Although none of us were pulling for Clark, we all left IMS on a happy note that day.
It was another two years before I attended my first football game of any kind – at my oldest brother’s high school. The team lost 6-0 and I was devastated. The next morning, I remember promising to never attend another game. Of course, I did. But I always found myself too heavily invested. I beamed when our team won, but was crushed with every loss.
Meanwhile, my family kept making two trips per May, while I was growing up throughout the sixties and into the seventies – Pole Day and Race Day. I loved our trips to Indianapolis and relived each May throughout the following summer. Some of the best memories of my childhood took place at 16th and Georgetown. But then football season showed up and I would become pre-occupied with that for the next few months. Winters were bleak, and not just due to the weather. There were no sports I was passionate about, until the next month of May rolled around again.
I always had bad timing with my teams. My junior and senior year in high school were the two worst seasons in my school’s history; 2-8 and 1-9 respectively. Each of those seventeen losses caused great anguish, while there were only three wins to celebrate. My freshman year at the University of Tennessee in 1976, saw the firing of Coach Bill Battle; who had several 11-1 seasons with the Vols, before flaming out with a 6-5 record my first year of college. It got worse.
I was on the extended plan, meaning I stayed a little longer in school beyond the four years, before I finally graduated. I wanted to stick around for a good football team. By this time I had quit going to the Indianapolis 500, but still followed it closely. The hiring of Johnny Majors in 1977 saw subsequent seasons of 4-7, 5-5-1, 7-5 and 5-6 through 1980. As luck would have it, Majors finally got the program to respectability just after I graduated; but in my mind – he never matched the hype that came with him.
The nineties brought changes. First of all, in 1992 I returned to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in twenty years. I usually like to take a few pot-shots at my ex-wife on this site every now and then. She’s an easy target. But I’ll credit her with one thing on that cold day in May of 1992. When the command was given to start engines, the car of John Paul, Jr. would not fire. As the field pulled away and headed down the backstretch, Paul’s crew worked frantically to get his D.B. Mann Development Lola-Buick started. Finally, the car fired and Paul pulled away with tires screeching on the front straightaway. The crowd roared with approval. My ex-wife leaned over and said “Unlike football, I guess this is a sport where everyone pulls for everyone”. I hate to admit it, but she was right.
Later that year, Tennessee changed coaches. Exit the crusty and underachieving Johnny Majors and enter Philip Fulmer, his quiet and understated offensive coordinator. Fulmer recruited Peyton Manning in his second year on the job. In 1998, the Vols had their long sought after National Championship – just as I had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina for three years. I left the state for the first time in my life and they produced a championship. It figures.
Meanwhile, the Houston Oilers had just relocated to Tennessee and were in the midst of changing their name to the Titans. They proceeded to go to the Super Bowl, while I sat in Charlotte. In the meantime, the Carolina Panthers were in the midst of a three-year lull, culminating with a 1-15 season my last year in Charlotte. When I returned to Tennessee at the end of 2001, the Panthers would soon go to their first Super Bowl, while the Titans and Vols were sliding into mediocrity and beyond. My timing was as good as ever.
The Vols fired Fulmer in 2008 beginning a series of bad coaching hires; and the Titans began a downward spiral in 2009 that continued into yesterday.
All along the way, my football suffering began to up the ante with me. I am not proud of some of the things I have done as a result of watching my teams lose football games. I began to take it personally. In my twenties, I was known to kick over tables and throw objects as the Vols kept tweaking my temper. When I hit our front door with my fist after a UT kicker missed a game-winning field goal, the wooden door split down the middle. I was approaching thirty and I decided it was time to stop letting the actions of eighteen and nineteen year-olds ruin my weekend (and my belongings).
It was in the nineties that I realized I was enjoying racing more than football. I didn’t agonize over the results of each race, and consequently – I enjoyed every single one. What my ex-wife had said was true – we pull for everyone to succeed in racing.
Fast-forward to this past weekend. Although it had been a while, I found myself with that same sick feeling I had experienced in the seventies and eighties. Since Fulmer was fired, my Tennessee Vols had fallen on the hardest of times. At no time since they started playing football, had Tennessee suffered through five consecutive losing seasons; but that’s exactly what happened from 2009 through 2013.
After winning a bowl game to close out the 2014 season and three strong recruiting classes under new coach Butch Jones, expectations were high for 2015. Florida had beaten Tennessee for ten straight years, and the Gators were at a low point of their own. The time was right for Tennessee to end that streak and to show the nation that they were ready to resume their spot as an elite program. The Vols led 27-14 in the fourth quarter, but lost 28-27 in the final seconds through a series of mishaps.
Normally, I’m not one to blame the officiating or the coach. The coaches don’t miss tackles, throw interceptions or fumble the ball. The players do that. Blaming the refs is generally a lame excuse that fans use when they don’t fully understand the game. They think the refs are out to get their team. They’re not.
Saturday, the refs were not the problem. The thing is, the players weren’t the problem either. Our coach made a series of boneheaded gaffes and appeared to be genuinely confused on the sideline. After giving up an even bigger lead at home against Oklahoma just two weeks earlier – it’s becoming obvious that Butch Jones is one of those great recruiters who has no clue what to do once the game starts.
As the seconds ticked away Saturday night, I was coming unglued. At my ripe age, I’m fortunate to not have an issue with blood pressure. But I felt like I was about to explode Saturday night. But I calmed down as I reminded myself that Susan and I were to attend the Colts-Titans game on Sunday. The Titans were showing promise with rookie QB Marcus Mariota, and the Colts had looked terrible in their first two games. Surely the football gods would even the score and allow me to enjoy at least one victory this weekend – especially with us in attendance.
The Colts jumped out to an early 14-0 lead yesterday, but the Titans took complete control of the game and led 27-14 in the fourth quarter. We joked that that was the same score of the Florida game less than twenty-four hours earlier, before the Vols started their meltdown. We knew nothing like that was in the cards for Sunday. And then it started.
The Titans defense suddenly fell apart, while Mariota began to look like the rookie that he is. With five minutes to go, the Colts led by that same 28-27 score from Saturday. The Colts ended up winning the game 35-33 and I was left sitting in Nissan Stadium as the raindrops began to fall, appropriately enough.
Twice in a twenty-one hour period, I was left stunned and feeling like I had just been punched in the gut.
As Susan and I blindly followed the bewildered crowd out of the stadium, a thought occurred to me. I’ve been to a lot of races at a lot of tracks over the years, yet I’ve never left a track feeling like I had just had the rug pulled out from under me. I’m fortunate that in all the years I’ve been going to races; I’ve never been to a race that involved a driver fatality. That would make for a different feeling altogether. For this discussion, we’ll omit that devastating factor or life-threatening injuries out of the equation. But other than that – I’ve enjoyed every race I’ve ever attended or watched on television.
Now are some races better than others? Of course. But there is always some silver lining to every race, even though my favorite driver may have had a bad day. I can’t say that about football. It’s either all or nothing. In the near fifty years I’ve followed football, there’s been a lot more frustration than jubilation. I can’t say that about racing. I get significantly more joy than pain with racing.
This weekend took its toll on me. My stomach was tied up in knots for two days. I ate very little Saturday night or last night. I had no appetite. I don’t ever get that worked up over racing. I just sit back and watch it unfold and take whatever happens. The night before each Indianapolis 500, I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I go to bed early, so I can get up before dawn and head for the track – just so I can experience the entire day and add to my many memories. There is no tradition for me to go to or watch a football game. Once it starts – that’s when I get worked up.
Susan and I have no more tickets for the Titans this year and that suits me just fine. I’m also comfortable having no plans to go to any more Tennessee Vols games after attending their season opener over Labor Day. I allowed myself to get sucked in by two bad teams in two days, thinking they might both come away with wins. I’m done. Sure, I’ll continue to watch them on television – but I’ll keep them both at arms length. They both let me down too much and it’s not worth it.
Thanks for letting me vent. My furniture thanks you, too. So while I’ll continue to watch football, my focus and passion will continue to be the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s a lot easier on my nerves to throw my energies into that sport, even during the offseason. There’s also the added comfort knowing that they’ll just let me down off the track – not on it.