Race day began at a bleary 4:30 a.m. David Abbey piled into his uncle's 1964 Buick Riviera with his father, two uncles and brother to make the 150-mile trip to the state capital for the 1965 Indianapolis 500. He had received a ticket from his father for his eighth-grade graduation, an event which, in the small town of Cropsey, Ill., still drew a crowd.
Sitting in the seats at the head of the main straightaway, it clicked. There was something about seeing three lines of 11 racers speed around the track that compelled him to return the next year and the next.
This year, the St. Petersburg resident will once again make the trip to the venerated track, this time for his 50th race.
"It's kind of one of those things to where I have limited interest in various sports, but this is the one that I know," Abbey said.
Now a lawyer with Abbey Adams Partners & Attorneys, Abbey has a sharp memory for Indy detail. Even 50 years later, it doesn't take more than a second for him to recall that Jim Clark won the race in 1965, in the first rear-engine car to take the 500.
"The thing that is really amazing about it is we're doing something that involves automobiles (and) the change in technology 100 years down the road from when it started," Abbey said.
It's not something he believes can be fully appreciated from the comfort of home.
"One of the disappointments with sporting events in general, and especially racing, is so many people think that they know something about a particular sport because they watch it on TV," Abbey said. "And automobile racing, certainly Indy car racing, is much different to watch live than it is with your limited ability to appreciate watching it on TV."
To get the full effect, Abbey and his family and friends make it a long weekend. His son, Michael Abbey, who hasn't been to a race since 1998, will join him for his 50th start. Though race day isn't until the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, their festivities begin Friday.
Per tradition, the group begins at Carb Day (formerly Carburetion Day). Drivers who qualified have the opportunity to drive an hour of practice and calibrate their carburetors, an event attended by few more than fiercely loyal fans. After practice, Abbey and his group head downtown to their favorite steak house. Saturday is similarly low-key, as the group will join another small crowd for the drivers meeting to see awards given out and the ring passed from the previous year's winner.
Sunday is when the action truly begins. One of the cornerstones of the race for Abbey is the people who attend it, and though the day is packed, he makes a point of visiting old friends.
One such person is a friend an uncle who bought a house across from the track. After finding a prime parking spot near the house in the 1960s, the man purchased the house, turning it into a parking business with his children in 1966. It took only two years for him to make back the money he'd spent.
"Those are the sorts of people and associations and relationships that surround the race," Abbey said. "He hasn't been there for a few years, but I like to go and say hello to his sons."
After pleasantries, Abbey will head up to his front-row penthouse seats on Turn One. The location is a far cry from the seats of his first race, as the cars come directly down the straightaway to right under the seats. It took until 1991 for him to acquire them. From there, Abbey was able to see what he believes was the best racing moment of his 50 years at the track.
"Best move that I've ever seen on a track was Rick Mears driving around Michael Andretti in 1991 right in front of us for the lead 20 laps from the end," Abbey said.
Mears ended up winning that race in a final pass for the lead. Back then, it was common for passing to happen going into the turns, but it was particularly unusual for a racer to pass going through a turn.
"I didn't think that it was possible, and it happened right in front of us," Abbey said. "I think you probably had to be somebody like us who had seen a lot of races to know how unique and difficult what we were seeing was."
This year, Abbey has his eye on Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"It would be nice to see Ed Carpenter win," he said. "It's been a while since a native Midwesterner has won."
Malena Carollo can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8215. Follow @MalenaCarollo on Twitter.