How Do You Explain The Indianapolis 500?

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When I returned from the Open Test held at IMS a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t get home until after 1:00 am that night. Needless to say, I was dragging the next day at work and it apparently showed. Someone asked if I was sick and I explained that I was just tired, and why. My co-worker has apparently been intrigued for the last few years about my fascination with the Indianapolis 500 and asked me some fair questions about how and why I became somewhat obsessed with it.

The more I talked, the more puzzled the look was on his face. He didn’t have the usual snarky comments that we have all experienced about how boring it is to watch cars going around in a circle. This is a really good guy who can always talk football and sports in general. He said he has watched the “500” a few times and has enjoyed it, but he just didn’t understand what it was that has always made me base most of my vacation time around it.

The more I talked, the more difficult it became to express why I fell in love with this event at the young age of six when I went to my first race in 1965. I talked and said all of the usual superlatives of how your stomach feels at the start when thirty-three cars go roaring by at over 220 mph or how the entire venue goes silent at the playing of Taps. He didn’t get it, but he never came out and said it. He didn’t have to. His face said it all.

When I started thinking about it, I’ve been trying to properly convey how important this event is to me for my entire life. I was wrapping up first grade by the time I went to my first “500”. By third or fourth grade, May 30th was the most important date to me on the calendar – with the possible exception of December 25th, for obvious reasons. Back then, the race ran on May 30th no matter what day of the week it fell on. That particular year, May 30th fell on a Sunday. That was the only time they would change the date, when the 30th fell on a Sunday. Then it would be run on Monday the 31st.

But third and fourth grade kids are sometimes not willing to listen. If it was something they knew nothing about, it would be something to ridicule. I remember wearing an Indianapolis 500 T-shirt one day in the summer. The bully down the street (we’ll call him Edward M) couldn’t even pronounce Indianapolis, but he knew it was something different than football or baseball. Therefore, I obviously deserved to be beaten up for it.

While that may be a drastic example (that really did happen), I’ve encountered the same blank stares that I got last week throughout my entire life. I’ll never forget going to a formal gathering with my then-wife about a week after I had attended the 1992 race. These were mostly her snooty friends. When I told a group gathered around that we had just returned from going to the Indianapolis 500, one of her friends asked me what they did with those cars for the rest of the year. He asked if they just stored them at The Speedway for the year until next year’s race came around. Imagine the look of shock on his face when I told him there was an entire sixteen-race season that featured these same cars and drivers.

But even those that are vaguely familiar with IndyCar racing, have trouble understanding why I would go to the track multiple weekends in May or keep going year after year. They ask if it isn’t just the same thing year after year. I try to explain that as each race unfolds, they take on a trait or personality that defines each one.

When you think of the 1982 race – chances are you think of one of two things, if not both; the aborted start involving Kevin Cogan, Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt or the great battle at the end between Rick Mears and Gordon Johncock. 1981 is when we think of Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti both passing cars while coming out of the pits. It led to Unser being declared the winner at first, before Andretti was the next morning. Five months later, Unser would be declared the winner again, robbing Andretti of his second win that he would never replace.

The Indianapolis 500 is special. Each year is special. We all know it, but how do we tell others to get them to understand how special it is. You can’t just say tell them to come and experience for themselves. Many go to the race and come away with either ambivalent or even negative feelings.

What is it about the Indianapolis 500 that gets in the blood of some of us, and gets under the skin of others? My first wife went to the race three times, her last being the 1995 race. She was very indifferent about the entire thing. We divorced in 1996. Susan, my second, current and final wife; will be attending her fifteenth straight Indianapolis 500 this year. Is she as obsessed with the race as I am? No and not even approaching my level. But she understands and appreciates the tradition and has grown to love it. She can’t tell you the years that Wilbur Shaw ran or how he saved The Speedway after World War II, but she knows the name and knows he is an integral piece in the history of this great race.

On May 27, the stands and the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will swell to near capacity with fans who obviously love the Indianapolis 500. Millions more will watch it on television. But many won’t and they won’t even miss it. What is it that decides which group will follow what path? When I first went in 1965, I don’t think anyone in my family would have thought that I would become so passionate about the race and the track, fifty-three years later. I’m not alone in this passion. Is it the sounds, the smells, the spectacle, the danger or the traditions? Is it all of the above? Is it none of these things?

It’s an interesting phenomenon. For eleven months a year, I can remain a rational and logical person that does a fairly decent job balancing my work life and my personal life. But in the Month of May, normalcy goes out the window. Nothing else matters. I care nothing about anything other than immersing myself in that year’s “500”. Perhaps that’s why when that dreaded week after the race hits, I spiral into a funk for the next few days. I wake up to reality and realize that I’ve still got a day-job that needs tending to. There are still bills to be paid and my yard has been neglected. And it dawns on me that the next “500’ is almost a year away and I need to turn my focus on the real things in life.

What is it about the Indianapolis 500 that makes normally rational and responsible adults, turn into little kids that only want to focus on the fun things in May at the expense of realty? How come no one else gets it besides us?

Am I the only one that tends to ignore the mundane things that everyday life brings, in order to experience everything possible about the Indianapolis 500 – or are there others out there just like me? Are we the lucky ones because we get the Month of May, while others don’t – or are we the nuts that others simply don’t get? I tend to think that we’re the lucky ones and how sad life would be if the Indianapolis 500 was not a part of my life.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “How Do You Explain The Indianapolis 500?”

  1. I really enjoyed watching on TV then I visited for the 100th. Once you go there then you’ll know….

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I think we’re both the lucky ones and the nutty ones. I don’t even attempt to explain it, it’s just something you have to experience in person. When you do, you just get it and you’re hooked. I had a buddy go for the first time last year, he’s not a racing fan at all but he can’t wait to go back this year.

  3. tonelok Says:

    I don’t try and explain it either. After you get “the look” enough you tire of trying to explain the Indy 500 to people. My Dad raced in the SCCA in the 70’s and early 80’s and he can’t hold a candle to the enthusiasm I have in the month of May.

  4. james thomas Says:

    as a kid i’m now 60 years old i would always watch the 500 replay at night and dream of going to the 500 in person. 2003 i moved to kentucky and decided after going to watch practice session 2002 i would buy 4 tickets. somehow i lucked up for first turn tickets B stand and i’ve not missed one since 2003 and plan to make this a yearly trip until i’m not physically able. nothing like 500 raceday and thinking of the month of may all month, i’ve made several more fast friday trips too because once it gets you hooked you want to see every session possible. Now my next wish list is when i retire i’m able to watch every session and 500 for the full month.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    The speed and spectacle, the competition, the noise, the smell, the crowds, the memories, the danger… but I think just using the word “love” explains it best. Most folks love something that does not have universal appeal, and they’ll understand one’s love for the 500 on some level from that standpoint at least if they really think about it. Some folks, sadly, won’t think about it.

  6. M.Lawrenson Says:

    I have a family that will never understand racing. Even if we had the channel that shows the Indy 500 in the UK, they’d never let me watch it over their sappy Sunday evening TV dramas. I’ve booked a table in the local sports bar for the 27th so I can see it.

  7. James T Suel Says:

    George you hit on something I have struggled with for years. This year will mark my 58th consecutive 500, all since 1960! I think about the race everyday of my life. As you said in May nothing else matters, but I have trouble telling other people what the magistrate is. It all started for me as aå little boy sitting at my dad’s side as he told me about Indy and the big cars. I can remember 1955 when Vuky lost his life,being only 5 years old don’t know how much I understood, but I new one of my dad’s heros was gone. I had to wait till 1960 before I got to go. It’s been the true passion in my life. But it’s hard to explain to someone.

  8. Robert Brown Says:

    So much. One of the most memorable moments for me was during my first trip to the 500 in 2008. I’d been to the speedway and seen practice and qualifying in years past, but the anticipation of all 33 cars coming to the green was just amazing. The colors, the cars weaving back and forth on the parade laps, the engines revving and exhaust popping… then the green. Those cars screaming down the front straight to the green flag… the Honda V8’s were so raucous and loud. Just that one visit made me crazy about not just the 500, but Indycar. Obviously a lot more I could point to, but that got me hooked.

    Another moment was arriving to the 2013 race late. While carrying my son to our seats in C Stand, we stopped to hear Jim Nabors sing and my son grinned ear to ear as he watched the balloons float into the sky. Tearing up just thinking about it. It was my son’s first 500 and the last time I got to see Jim Nabors sing. As a native Hoosier, that song means so much.

    God I love that place and that race.

  9. Spot on George. It’s even worse when you live in Indy. I used to take half personal days to go to the track. Yard work? That’s what June is for.

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    Keep pressing these words George. This is a good one. I will respond in the morning after thinking about this through the night.

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