A month after my dad and brother’s first Indy 500 experience, I was given the opportunity to join in for the race in 2006. My other brother and my grandpa had already committed, and I was curious enough to do the same. I’m not sure if they really thought I would want to go, but I defied the odds, and committed to the experience.
When Memorial Day weekend rolled around, I was more than ready to join my dad, my two brothers, and my grandpa on our family’s second ever Indy 500 adventure. I was thrilled at the chance to be in on all the excitement, but also nervous to take on the predicted record-breaking heat. Though I hadn’t yet begun to follow the series, I had taken mental notes on some names I had heard throughout the month of May. However, it wasn’t until the night before the race that I heard the story about the 19-year-old rookie, and his dad who came out of retirement to race alongside his son. I couldn’t believe that a person so young, only a year older than my brother at the time, could already be racing in the Indianapolis 500. The story of Marco and Michael Andretti was one that would give me my first taste of “what Indy means.”
On my 13th birthday, my alarm rang at 3:30 am to start the long day—an ungodly early hour. I tried to sleep in the back seat of our minivan, but to no avail. Rolling into lot 2 at 6:00 am with no breakfast food was a realized mistake as well; Brickyard burgers for breakfast it was! By mid-morning, the record-breaking heat was already upon us, mandating a trip to the museum. I was fascinated with every single corner of this large room, but as my brother and I lapped our dad, we looked at the clock to realize it was only 8:30. I was tired already.
By the time we got to our seats, the heat was blistering. The green flag was over an hour away, and we were sitting in full sun with not a cloud to be seen. I felt sick, and I knew that my skin was burning, as we all forgot to bring sunscreen. I started to think that this trip to the Indy 500 might be both my first and last.
The pre-race ceremonies began to distract me from the torture of the heat, and when the green flag waved, I couldn’t even remember what was bothering me. The first green flag lap was like nothing I had ever seen or heard. I could try to write a book on explaining the magic that happens during the first green flag lap of the Indy 500, but no words could ever take the place of the personal experience of the sights and sounds. “Wow.” This was the only word I could utter for the first three laps.
Despite the heat, the action-packed race held my attention for all 200 laps. The whole time, I had followed Danica, Marco, Michael, and Sam Hornish Jr. For the last 20 laps, the entire speedway was on its feet as Marco and Michael Andretti ran in first and second. I had heard about the legacy, but even if I hadn’t, it was clear to anyone from the crowd’s reaction. When Marco made the pass on his dad, the crowd erupted. “Can a teenager win the Indianapolis 500?” I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and the history I was about to witness. Though I was a good bit shorter than most of the crowd, I could still manage to see Sam’s white and orange car speed by Andretti at the finish line, directly in front of our seats.
So many emotions happened all at once. I was thrilled for the guy that came from nowhere to win with that perfect timing, and heartbroken for the kid who barely lost and almost set a record, with his dad finishing in third. “No one remembers who finished second here.” These words coming from 19-year-old Marco Andretti were gut wrenching to me. I couldn’t even imagine the sting of losing by the length of half a car. At the same time, I had just seen the greatest spectacle in racing, and I knew it wouldn’t be my last time. I was a fan, and I was hooked.
This array of emotions in such a short span is part of what makes Indy what it is. Today, when people ask me “what Indy means,” I tell them that it’s something that cannot be put into words: the sights and sounds, the stories, the magic, the history, the emotion, and experiencing that which defies description. But most importantly, it’s the fact that at the end of the day, no matter who wins, no fan leaves unhappy. To me, that is what Indy means.
Heat, sleep deprivation, feeling sick, and painful sunburn are all things that alone have been known to make me an unhappy camper. The combination of all of the above could easily have made this day in 2006 one to forget for the rest of my life. Rather, the magic of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing prevailed, forcing me to defy all odds, and become captivated fan for life.