That vastness helps explain how the Indianapolis 500 can corral and enchant someone who didn’t grow up with the Indianapolis 500, someone who goes all narcoleptic amid talk of engines and chassis, someone who never watched the event on TV before turning up in 1991, both clueless and on assignment.
A Memorial Day weekend without the Indianapolis 500, which the novel coronavirus pandemic shoved to a rescheduled Aug. 23 at best, means a sigh for those who might have hankered to watch on TV. It means still more for those who might have turned up in person on those giant premises, perhaps first-time witnesses to the incomprehensible bigness that remains a profound expression of the country’s global reputation for spectacle. You don’t need to know anything about engine specifications to be enthralled by that spectacle of 250,000-plus seats and the plot twists of the race below.
By 1996, when a split between racing organizations meant a depleted field with a lot of the honchos boycotting, leaving an Indianapolis 500 skeletal with inexperience, I had become a convert. That’s clear if you consider that, after Buddy Lazier’s triumph two months after an injury at Phoenix left him temporarily paralyzed, I wrote a column in the Lexington Herald-Leader drunk in the magic of Indy while sneering at the famed drivers doing whatever they were doing in Michigan that weekend.
(They were driving in a race.)
By then, I had stopped calling people during race week — sometimes on a Mesozoic Era device known as a pay phone — to let them hear the futuristic sounds of cars practicing. That stuff was amateurish. By then, I had settled into my annual and cherished habit.
I had had years of learning how Indianapolis 500s animated the city’s culture in a barrage of lead-up events. I had had umpteen dinners in the Broad Ripple neighborhood with sportswriting bright lights Tom Archdeacon and Vinnie Perrone, in an Italian restaurant where the woman in charge sat in a chair and seemed to frighten the hell out of the staff. I had learned to go see the scene around the track on Saturdays, which one year availed the sight of a hellish potential son-in-law in a convertible, cruising down the road with an ample snake crawling around his shoulders in the sun, the both of them smiling diabolically. I had had years — years! — of the curious frivolities of the event, such as when Florence Henderson sung the national anthem and then Jim Nabors crooned, per custom, “(Back Home Again In) Indiana,” meaning this venerable race had opened with “The Brady Bunch” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
I had had, after all, 1992.
In a 2016 Associated Press poll of previous Indianapolis 500 winners, the 1992 race finished first among all the editions. It managed to contain so much rich stuff that a person who had absolutely no idea of so much of it, whose eyelids would start shutting at the mention of “Chevy” or “Lola” or “Cosworth” — and still “Dallara” or “Honda” — might sit in an Indianapolis bar afterward hyperventilating about everything that happened, thus unrecognizable even to himself.
That year, the temperature lurked around, oh, 48, and the wind menaced. The big premises seemed primed for a Big Ten football game, with sufficient space for same. Then, in the parade laps — the parade laps! — the pole sitter, Roberto Guerrero, who had set a four-lap qualifying record exceeding 232 mph, tried to warm up his tires and wound up crashing and exiting before the race started. It still defies belief, and it meant the race began with Eddie Cheever, who had qualified second, leading the way through the green flag.
You could talk about that forever, but there was too much to talk about. Canada’s Scott Goodyear started in the 33rd spot out of 33 and wove his way all the way to second. His closing chase of winner Al Unser Jr. would be one of the most hair-raising sports moments ever, evidenced in Unser’s statement of Goodyear being “right under my exhaust” and in the closing margin of 0.043 seconds, narrowest in all the Indys. There was Lyn St. James, who finished 11th and won the rookie honors. There were the big names of past winners Al Unser Sr. (then about to turn 53) finishing third, Danny Sullivan fifth, Bobby Rahal sixth. There were 13 cars in crashes in the hard cold, including one involving Mario Andretti, who suffered broken toes, and another 31 laps later involving son Jeff Andretti, who suffered more serious leg injuries.
However impossible, neither was the most aggrieved Andretti on that autumnal day.
The Indianapolis 500 résumé of Michael Andretti, Jeff’s older brother, remains a beacon of the hostility of sports. Look it up, and he is the 11th-best driver in event history in terms of laps led, with 431. It’s just that he never did win. Heaving beneath him in laps led are 61 drivers who did. Rick Mears, who led 429 laps, won four times. Jacques Villeneuve, with 22 laps led, has a win. Gaston Chevrolet, with 14 laps led, has a win. Graham Hill, with 10 laps led, has a win.
Joe Dawson, with two laps led, has a win.
In 1992, Michael Andretti led for 160 of the 200 laps. His lead had yawned to around half a minute when he finished Lap 188. He went along so dominantly for so long that many of us began to assume, even if we all know what we do when we assume. Suddenly, his car stopped, between the third and fourth turns, for want of an ideal fuel pump.
“It was to the point I could have almost walked it in,” he said afterward. “And it just shut off.”
It left the mind all boggled and reminded how even the uninitiated among us can get caught up in a preposterous drama. Around then, Unser Jr., who during the week had shared his team’s assessment of his own hopelessness, passed Goodyear. Soon the biggest cornucopia of an Indianapolis 500 would end with two Unsers, the four-time-winning father and the first-time-winning son, shedding enviable tears.
Just 12 cars crossed the finish, a fascination of attrition.
The last seven laps of Unser-Goodyear were about as breathless as sports can get.
Michael Andretti, then 29, one year after finishing an excruciating second with most laps led, got out of his car and said his deathless, “This place is just so cruel.”
I was at the race in 1993, when Formula One champion Nigel Mansell turned up and we insular goobers followed him all along until he finished third after leading on Lap 184. (Emerson Fittipaldi got the second of his two wins.) Unser Jr. won again in 1994. There came the nuttiness of 1995, when Villeneuve, whose father, Gilles, died at 32 during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, took a two-lap pinch for passing the pace car, then became the lone Canadian winner after Goodyear got pinched for passing the pace car on Lap 190. That birthed a post-race set-to as Goodyear claimed he had not passed the pace car.
There came 1996, when Lazier held off Davy Jones to win two months after breaking his back in 16 places; and 1997, when rain pushed the race to three days and the finish all the way to Tuesday and Arie Luyendyk won as his wife tried to make her flight out; and 1998, when Cheever held off Lazier across the final 22 laps; and 1999, when the win went to a soft-spoken Swedish driver (Kenny Brack) and a non-soft-spoken and very Texan owner (A.J. Foyt, who won four times as a driver), if you can imagine.
From there, my career shifted, and the Indianapolis 500 left my year-to-year experiences. I would read about it, mostly.
But for us engine-and-chassis novices, the lure of the Indianapolis 500 is being in its mighty presence, something about the setting and the witnessing and the view of that distant grandstand. Maybe we need sound and sight to obsess over the plots.
Yet it keeps that unmistakable residence in the heart and consciousness. After all, I had reached the point where I used to walk out on Sunday early evenings and stare at the grandstands long since emptied. I would think I still could hear their noise as if through some gigantic conch shell. And I would feel sad that another edition had ended, that everyone had gone home and that 51 weeks seemed long to wait, even as such waits seem trivial right about now.
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