From a child, to a man-Why the Indy 500 will always be back home for me.
I would like to hear from all of you out there, being that this will be the 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The Indy 500!
When was your first taste of the milk, either in person, on television, or perhaps over the airwaves of AM radio? Was it your love of the Indy 500 what started you liking open-wheel racing? Was it national pride that made you choose your favorite driver? Or was it the cool color of his, or her car? Maybe, the car you liked wore your favorite number on it, or maybe it was the sponsor handed out great sticker’s you could stick on your bike? As for me, it has been a culmination of many things, that have led me down to that row of bricks as a child, and into adulthood. So what path throughout your lifetime’s have brought you to this place we lovingly call the “Brickyard”? Moreover, I would like to know what makes you stay a fan of the IndyCar Series, and expect the coming month of May?
So here is my story:
I’m a kid living in Indiana, and we’re listening to the Indy 500 on AM radio. (Back then races were blacked out live in the state of Indiana) It is Memorial day weekend at Highland Park, in Kokomo, Indiana. It was at this time during our holiday family reunion I find out a couple of things about my dad. #1: How important it is as an Italian, that when we watch, or in this case listen to sport’s that we root for the same nationality, if possible? This would also mean that even if someone didn’t have a last name with lots of vowel’s in it. But they were still on our team, was an actor, singer, or dated one of our family member’s. They most likely changed their last name, or somewhere in their bloodline, they must have had red gravy running through it. #2: This guy everyone called “Mario” was sure popular, and just won something really big.
The following year would be my first taste of actually seeing the track in person. And this would be, at my first Indy 500 qualifying day. I will never forget that day for a few reason’s. The first being, the excitement of watching these low to the ground cars, with these large tire’s doing laps. The other was the sound. Oh that beautiful sound. But the thing I remember most was that back then you could walk down from the stands, and almost press your face against the fence. It was a different time then. We rode in cars with our parents that had no child restraints, or for the most part seat belts. So I’m sure as my parents saw it back then that if it was good enough for IMS to have a wall and a fence between me and any peril, then it was safe enough for this young race fan to stand between turn’s 3 and 4 just inches away from all the action. To this day. I can still hear the squeal of the tires, a car coming straight for me, and then the massive collision into the wall, as parts, and vapor christened me into the family of new Indy 500 fandom.
Why getting kids involved at a young age is so important: “Cub Scout’s the IMS, and the Pinewood Derby”
As a child being brought up in the Hoosier state, I can recall many visual cue’s that gave me my first impressions of the Indy 500. One of these is walking outside Kroger’s Market way back in the day to find a shiny new IndyCar sitting out front. My dad would lift me up, and seat me inside the cockpit, and I would imagine myself flying around the track. But this had its downside when it came to school. While other kids where taking notes in 3rd grade, I was drawing race cars.
I had it all as a child. Hot Wheel’s, Johnny Lighting Indy 500 track, Indy 500 slot car’s, and even gas-powered IndyCars made by a company by the name of Cox. Heck, even after the whiskey had been poured (never drank) out of its decanter, my grandfather gave me a beautiful sprint car decanter.
The funny thing is, out of all those things that made me feel like a real Indy 500 driver, nothing much compared to what I got for free. Right next to the YMCA I was a member of in Kokomo, Indiana was this small automotive shop, and low and behold they gave out for gratis STP sticker’s. Some just said STP on them, and some had a cool Indy 500 on the front. I stuck these everywhere. On my bike, on my lunch box, on my kid brother, and on my dad’s car. Which he hated by the way.
Oh, I almost forgot. The Pinewood Derby. This was not just a chance to design my car, but it was a chance for father, and son to bond. It was also the chance for your father to show off his designing skill’s, with a little input from the child. Say what you will, but not many kids end up doing the wood work on these chunks of pinewood. All I know is that fluorescent red was the color of the day back then, and mine glowed like a black-light poster in Spencer’s Gifts store. My dad did the cutting, I did some sanding, and we both did some spray painting. All I know is that if my car with lead drapery weights used as ballast, wasn’t going to win me a trophy for the fastest car, I was sure as hell going to have the best hippie looking Indy 500 car ever run down a Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby track. I must admit I blame the aero-kit my dad used on that car for not winning even an honorable mention. But the memories of working on that together has remained steadfast in my brain for all these years. Just a note: It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, I was looking at some photo’s of some old IndyCars, when I came upon the one shown below. I always wondered what muse was used for my father’s inspiration back then? This was it!
So all of this and more has made me the fan of the Indy 500, the Indy 500 Festival Parade, and the IndyCar Series. Leaving Indiana, for California as a teenager meant that it wouldn’t be as easy as driving 50 miles south to watch qualifying, Carb day, and most importantly the 500. Between those years, and now I have never missed an Indy 500, by hook, or by crook. When In Hawaii on vacation, I sat in my room and watched the Indy 500. On a job I was on, I took the time to go back to my hotel to watch the race, knowing that this would cause me to get home later than expected. While in Yosemite National Park, staying at a place called Curry Village in 1989 I actually paid the chef of a restaurant to bring out the TV he had in back to my table (No television was available in this camp) so I could watch through squiggly lines the whole Indy 500.
They say that time waits for no man. And it is true. In 2006 my dad and I would watch our last Indy 500 together. And yes, we would still be screaming the “M” word all these years later. Though this time it was for Michael, and Marco Andretti. The race didn’t end the way we wanted it to. But as life would have it, my memory of our first race listened to together, could never replace that last one we watched together. We truly were “Back Home in Indiana”