The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Gentlemen, start your engines! – Tony Hulman

While the first person to utter those famous words (now used all over the country/world to begin races) remains the subject of much conjecture, the phrase is universally recognized to have started at the Indianapolis 500. And the late Tony Hulman, the man who saved the 500 from utter ruin following World War II,  is the one who made them famous.

May in Indianapolis!

To anyone who has grown up in or around Indianapolis, I needn’t say anything more. Those three words are all it takes to bring a smile to their faces. The month of May in Indianapolis is more than just a month. It’s an attitude that permeates the entire soul of the city. It is, of course, the month leading up to the annual Indianapolis 500 held every Memorial Day weekend. Starting early in the month checkered flags begin to appear in gardens. Drivers tend to get a little more competitive on their way to and from work each day. People start whistling “Back Home Again in Indiana,” much to the delight of some and perhaps to the annoyance of co-workers originally from out-of-state.

And for yours truly the meaning is even stronger. The little town of Speedway (entirely surrounded by Indianapolis) is where I was privileged to grow up. Yes, the town got its name from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which lies entirely within its borders. For the first several years of my life I lived in a house on 16th Street about 8 blocks down from the famed oval which shares an address on the same street.

I remember my youthful sights and sounds of Race Day in the 1970’s very well. I would listen as the sound of 33 engines, accompanied by muffled calls on a loudspeaker and occasional massive cheers, roared blocks away. The race was not on television. So people would have radios blaring in the background while they were gardening, grilling, and otherwise enjoying the day. A few times my mother would take me on walks up and down 16th Street to look at all the parked cars. We made a game of spotting license plates from different states and, yes, countries. There were more Canadian plates than you would expect.

While my mother would take me (on foot) to the track for qualification days, we never made it to a race.

Then in the mid 1970’s we moved away from that house to another house still in Speedway but about a mile farther away from the track and off all the main arteries. Things changed a bit. The sounds were a little duller. But the excitement never faded.

However, it was while living in THAT house that I got my first experience at the race itself. My dear mother got tickets in 1979 on the front stretch not far from the finish line. I remember seeing Rick Mears cross first to win his first of 4 races. I also remember the crowd cheering LOUDLY for A.J. Foyt who coasted across the finish line to take second. But the seats were on the lower level under the second tier. So save a few pits and finish line it was difficult to see much. I longed to go back again someday with better seats.

Fast forward to 1984. My mother again, colluding with her sister, got tickets for my cousin and I to attend. These seats were at the exit of Turn 1 in the absolute top row. MUCH better. The two of us, both in our teens, were like kids in a candy store as we watched the Air Force jets fly over, listened to Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again” and cheered when Mary Hulman said those words her late husband had made so famous. Everything became a blur after the cars first appeared in Turn 1. I was just too excited to remember all of it. And as fate would have it Rick Mears won his second race that day.

We renewed our tickets the following year and the following year. Little did I know at the time that those tickets would remain in my name for the next 30 years. As years progressed my cousin could no longer attend. But that didn’t stop me. Friends, other family members, girlfriends, co-workers and more recently my wonderful wife all took the seat at my side every year. Unable to find a buddy one year I went alone. And it never EVER got old. The pre-race and post-race traditions would always give me the chills. And the race itself was always exciting. Take this, this and this as examples of how exciting this race can be. (NOTE: Be sure to watch all these short videos to the end.) I was there for all of them.

Then last year I attended with my brother-in-law. My wife, getting older and wary of the long walk back to my mother’s house after the race, decided she could no longer attend. I was disappointed. But I understood. When she started experiencing medical difficulties during one particularly hot walk back one year I knew times were changing. Track officials also announced that ticket prices for the following year would be raised. The same seats next year would be $100 each.

The race itself was particularly exciting with leads swapping between 14 different drivers a record 68 times. Think about that! The race is 200 laps. That means the lead changed an average of once every three laps. A HUGE Tony Kanaan fan, I watched with hope but ever present fear as he ran near the front most of the day. I knew all too well his history over the past 11 years at the track, finishing second one year, crashing another year and otherwise experiencing all kinds of bad luck. He ended up winning his first race! I was so happy I nearly leaped from the stands to give the guy a hug.

His winning the race drove the final decision. With my wife’s difficulties, the higher ticket prices, and finally getting to see TK win his first race, I made the hard choice not to renew my tickets for 2014. Sadly, the time was right.

So this year on Race Day, I will not have tickets to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And I can’t help but feel that a tiny part of me has died. I know I will be longing to be sitting there in the stands watching all the festivities. But in the end, I made the right call.

Perhaps someday I will go back to that amazing race. As long as the checkered flag waves and someone is there to utter those famous words, this gentleman’s engine will never truly die.