Thursday, May 26, 2011

A 500-mile common thread

Where has the year gone? It's the end of May already. Perhaps at least a month of 2011 washed away in the rains without me noticing. But now that May has arrived and has almost departed, I can take a little reflection time.

For as long as I can remember, the Indianapolis 500 has been a part of my month of May. Is it mere coincidence that The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is celebrating its 100th anniversary the same year as I celebrate my 50th? Well, yes, probably it is. But I'm going to ignore that fact. You see, I grew up in Indiana, and the Indy 500 was "our race." So when Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again in Indiana" on the Sunday before Memorial Day, it's kind of like a family reunion.

One of my earliest childhood memories is rooting for Parnelli Jones to win the 1967 race. I was thrilled because I heard my driver was ahead so much of the race. My parents had to explain that Parnelli had car problems in the last five laps and did not win. My next favorite driver, Al Unser, took up the slack for me, winning in both 1970 and 1971. How did I get these drivers as my favorites? I'm not sure. I'm thinking I probably just liked the name Parnelli, and since I had a cousin named Al, that was probably the determining factor. Childhood decisions don't require a lengthy thought process.

The race in 1973 was a mess. I remember listening to the race when it finally was run on Tuesday after two rainy days. Art Pollard was killed earlier in the month in a crash, then at the start of the race on Sunday, a huge fiery crash almost killed driver Salt Walther. The images of his legs sticking out of the bare remnants of what had been a race car are still burned in my mind.

The next year, my parents took me to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. The cars, the colors, the crowd, the pageantry -- and this was just for qualifications! I saw many things I had never seen before, and in the stands I saw things I probably shouldn't have seen. But life goes on. I made the trip to the brickyard whenever I could after that, even getting free reign to the media center as a college student since one of my professors was a long-time announcer for the race network.

Twenty-five years after I first visited the speedway, I took my own boys to the track for the first time. After sitting around watching the track dry for close to three hours, my elementary-aged sons finally got their first taste of real racing. We were sitting near the pits when the first two cars went out to warm up. The boys had seemed fairly disinterested up to that point. About 45 seconds after the cars had pulled out, I got their attention, pointed to the north, and said, "Boys, watch this." Five seconds later the two cars came screaming by at around 210 mph making a terrific noise and almost blurring my vision as I tried to watch. I looked at my boys to see them jumping up and down, cheering and screaming in utter excitement. I understood exactly how they felt as I smiled.

I think most people have something that warms the heart, reminding them that there is a common thread in our lives from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to cynicism. It could be a love of baseball or the familiarity of an old building or an often-played song. Family traditions and favorite places keep a sense of home in our lives. For me, it's a 2.5 mile oval track in Speedway, Indiana and a race that brings me "back home again" no matter where I am. Our family won't be attending this year, but you can bet we'll be sharing the race experience. And the common thread of my life will continue to run much farther than 500 miles, all the way to the next generation. I hope each of you have a thread to share that leads you back home again.

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