Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Day at the Races

Annual traditions are a way of life. Having something that you look forward to year after year seems to make each day that passes that much more exciting. At times the traditions are passed down through generations; other times they develop from an event first shared with friends that makes it's way into an annual personal holiday. It could be opening day at Yankee Stadium. It could be an annual labor day cookout on the lake where everyone watches Aunt Linda slowly get tanked on wine coolers. It could be waiting for that day every year where "the Miz" goes into a full-blown roid rage on The Gauntlet. Whatever it is, these traditions define where we all came from and what is truly important to our being. For tradition in the Midwest, there is nothing that touches Memorial Day weekend at the hallowed ground of a century-old race track.

I first went to the Indy 500 in 1986. I was 8 years old when Bobby Rahal won by passing Kevin Cogan 2 laps from the finish. Looking back, his victory may have heavily contributed not only to my early exposure to alcohol product placement, but also my lifelong fascination with moustaches - an obsession that endures to this day. In the 20 years since then, my knowledge of the race became encyclopedic. If it happened in May, I memorized it year after year. My allegiance was pledged to the Andrettis over the hated Unsers (a decision which resulted in many unhappy race endings.) I always hoped for somebody other than a Penske driver to win. Emerson Fittipaldi will always be dead to me after he refused to drink milk after winning in 1993 (hope that orange juice tastes good when you're burning in hell, Emmo.) And I quickly learned that the race never truly began until Roberto Guerrero or Stan Fox did something stupid. The ultimate proof of Stan Fox's ineptitude of course was in 1995 - check out Stan's legs dangling free in mid-air below:

But enough about dangling extremities from the past. The 2006 race stood on it's own as everything that people love about Indy. From a storyline standpoint, I was nervous about how things would transpire. Last year's race was a perfect script for putting IndyCars back into the national spotlight, and it guaranteed that more people would be watching this years race than any 500 in a decade. A disappointing race this year would probably just lead to more public malaise over the future of the sport, while the lemmings continue to flock to the joke that is NASCAR. On a more personal level, these drivers had to impress an east coast hotshot known only as "Jerrey McClure" who took his maiden voyage to the Brickyard. He had never been to a race before, and was just coming off a trip to the Preakness where a horse previously hailed as one of the greatest athletes ever broke his leg after 20 yards, so Jerrey would demand nothing short of a spectacular performance from everyone involved.

After enjoying some quality day-before-the-race festivities, such as a pig roast and cornhole games, race day began with a 6:40am wake-up call. Our party of 9 arrived at the parking lot before 8am, with the sun already unrelenting and few clouds in the sky. As the parking lots filled up, the beers started flowing. By 11am we were ready to begin a heated flipcup battle. The Scecina all-star team jumped out to a quick lead, but a back and forth war (and a few unnamed participants vomiting mid-game,) we fell in defeat. At that point, it was nearly race time and after loading up the coolers, we were ready to take our place in turn 3 and burn alive for 3-and-a-half hours.

The nuts and bolts of the race on the track have been told by now. Jerrey got in a solid mid-race pitstop, passing out under the shade outside the track, and by the end of the race I think he actually had a handle on the scoring of racing (pace car position, pit stops under yellow flags, cars getting lapped, etc.) For the 2nd straight year I had goosebumps as the race neared its conclusion. Last year, it was witnessing a 23-year-old girl nearly pull off what would have been the biggest upset in the history of ANY sport. This year, it was watching Michael Andretti - hands down my all-time favorite Indy driver as a kid - 4 laps from winning the one race he's never gotten., only to see him get passed by his 19-year-old son, who in turn got edged out at the checkered flag in the 2nd closest finish in history.

It was a sequence that perfectly encapsulated everything that is simultaneously triumphant and heartbreaking about this racetrack. The ghosts and legends of the brickyard help ensure a history of tradition that is enhanced year after year, far beyond the boundaries of sports.

And the trashy chicks are hot too.


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