Wednesday, May 1, 2019

"You Just Don't Know What Indy Means"

It's May 1st. Despite my best efforts, I have no date to the big dance. As a matter of fact, I don't even have a ticket to go alone if it comes down to it. It's funny, when you're 17 and you can't find a prom date, it only *feels* as if you're missing out on the biggest event in the world. But when that simile becomes reality, and you're missing out on genuinely the biggest event in the world, well, it's a sort of surreal, gut wrenching feeling that you feel half lucky to even get to experience, half flat out miserable for the same reason. My entire social circle in this city, all have business at IMS this raceday. As of now, I don't. Now, I could have one of two attitudes about this. I could stay pissed off and depressed, moping about for the next month, which serves nobody but me. Or I can embrace this feeling. You see, I've been following The 500 long enough to know that much like a dignified lady down south, The Speedway can be cruel and unforgiving just as much as it can rewarding and loving. You have to be patient, respectful, and above all humble. Yes, I know nobody looks at the story of how a media member got to The 500. And why should they? We aren't the stars. But the same principles apply, whether you're competing for a chance to kiss the bricks, or whether you're competing for a slightly better paying job interviewing the driver that finishes in 12th. I've seen enough unrequited passion and heartbreak surrounding The 500 to know that sometimes a person's love for this place can be agonizingly one sided. But this event has become a major part of my life, the personification of my American dream. As weird as it sounds, I cannot imagine my life taking any path different to the one that has led me so close, yet so far away from finally making my own small mark. It was 1999, the first time I vividly remember watching The 500. My Dad and I were both cheering on Robby Gordon, half because we knew him from driving stock cars for Felix Sabates, half because he had a hell of a run going. Four year old me didn't know what the split was, didn't care that this period was one many considered a dark age for The 500. All I knew was that this was the biggest event in the world, and the guy I picked to win was knocking on the door. Then my Dad yelled out, "Aw, son of a bitch!" Robby had to stop for fuel. He surrendered the race to Kenny Brack. Brack won. As the kids today say, I was shook. Flash forward to 2002. My Grandmother, Marylin, had lost her battle with cancer just 3 weeks prior. When you're 7 years old and you lose a close relative, you don't understand the emotions you're feeling. I remember it was a very somber day, but for some reason The 500 broadcast was an escape for my parents and I. If only for a few hours, we forgot our troubles. The controversial finish inspired a more innocent household argument than in months prior. De Ferran, Rice, Wheldon, Hornish, and Franchitti would reign supreme in subsequent years. I watched,some years more interested than others. It happens as you grow up. But then 2008 came. The Split was over and DanicaMania was running just as wild as 3 years prior. She was hot off her win in Japan and was hot off the shelves in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. My friends, especially the boys, were crazy for her. So much so that I had a pocket of about a dozen 7th grade nerds invested in the run up to The 500. It was the first time I had experienced the social element of Indy, discovering that this race is one big, month long excuse to party. But in the race, Sarah Fisher tangled with Tony Kanaan. I was a big TK fan as a kid, going back to his days in CART. So I was mad that my driver was taken out. ABC took an interview with Sarah after the crash that reduced me to a blubbering mess. Still to this day, it's hard to watch. And that's when it hit me, just how important this race is to all who play a part. 2011. I'm 16, a kid who has no sense of identity. We were on a family vacation and I convinced my Mom to drop me off at The 500. I had a GA ticket in my hand and nothing else. For the first time, I could feel it. The overwhelming sense of passion, pure joy, and celebration. When Jim Nabors sang "Back Home Again," tears filled my eyes. This was Indy. I knew from that moment I had to some day be part of the magic. 2015 Comes, and I'm 20 years old. I had been to back to back races, Barber and the Indy GP. Being at IMS always has an almost religious, cathredal feeling to it, but this May was different. My Mom was sick, and doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong. She spent most of May in the hospital, and the GP trip became more about that 2002-esque escape. I remember, on the drive back somehow my Dad and I got to discussing Patrick Swayze. I remember having the passing theory that Mom had pancreatic cancer too. Weekend of The 500 comes, and the race is almost an afterthought. While I still had that "Christmas morning" feeling, it felt empty. Dad and I still enjoyed the race, even if we both awkwardly avoided talking about the elephant in the room. It was the last happy day I'd have for a long time. A few Days later, we got the news. My fleeting guess was right. Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. A year goes by. Mom left us in March. My heart is shattered. It is zero exaggeration when I say wanting to see the 100th running is what kept me going. For some silly reason, I was fixated on this race. It felt like, for both my Dad and I, that doing this thing that we had done every year for 20+ years would make life feel "normal" again, even if just for a day. Thankfully it was just the two of us at home, and we put on the race as we had every season, neither admitting out loud the added gravity that this day held. So we enjoyed the race, waxing nostalgic for years when it wasn't just us. We talked racing, our favorite memories and stories from 500s past. It was cathartic. It was healing. It didn't matter who won that day, even though a star was born. What mattered was we did as Mom would have wanted and just enjoyed the race. When the day was over, I cried. Hell, I'm tearing up now just thinking about it. On that day, it wasn't just a race. It was passion, it was family, it was love. I had never experienced tears of joy before, but the notion that it was now okay to try moving on moved me. 2017 Comes, I'm now 22. I'm on the heels of a failed relationship that has me in another identity crisis, and I've just a month prior covered my first IndyCar race as a journalist. I didn't know yet, but this period would transform my life. At this point, I'm a heavy drinker and very much still very much grieving over my Mom. The two are related. I convinced my Dad to go. The race fell on the same date of Mom's diagnosis 2 years prior. I didn't want him to dwell on it. If I were able to bottle up how I felt that day, my thirst for life would be unquenchable. The interaction between my Dad and I, it was like I was his small child again. It didn't matter that I was 22, the look on his face watching me was like that of a parent watching their 6 year old at Disney World. The fact we were able to laugh and experience so much joy on a date laced with so much pain made me feel invincible. A year later, my brother and his wife joined the fun. Now I can say the whole family, even Mom watching with us at home so many years, has felt the magic of Indy. I'm 24 now. I wouldn't exactly say I feel like an adult, but every May I feel like a kid again. The sport of IndyCar racing has transformed my life. The friends I have made gave me a renewed sense of purpose on the other side of tragedy. They gave me motivation to move to Indianapolis, they inspire me to better myself, professionally and personally. My love for the Indy 500 pulled me through my most morose, and led me to the people in my life who have brought out the very best in me. In July, I'll be one year alcohol free, it seems I'm dipping my toes into my first relationship of my 20s, and overall I've learned to embrace and love who I am thanks to it all. Yeah, racecars are pretty and the stories going in can be riveting. But to me, The Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is a celebration of life, it's the celebration of the ties that forge an unbreakable bond between friends and family. Indeed it is "A human struggle against all odds," as Paul Page once said. It brings strangers together, it brings family closer. It was Al Unser Jr. in 1992 who said "You just don't know what Indy means," and he's right. It means something different to winners as to losers, fans to drivers, media to mechanics. To me, individually, after all it's done for me, Indy is life. It's hard to be humble when you love something so much that you just want to dive in and make your mark. I've worked very hard, both in cleaning my life up, and in my media career. I feel like I'm ready. To find out maybe I'm not, well it sucks. It's hard for me to think about sitting on the sidelines this year, watching probably on the mound in turn 2 like I did 8 years ago. But if it means that one day, I'll be rewarded, that I'll get to reciprocate the love I have for IMS, I can do it. I guess, until I get there I'll just have a little extra fun along the way.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. Here's hoping that one day, I'll sense the magic of Indy.