Sunday, January 21, 2018

Indianapolis 500's glory reflected in century of memories

Today, in a town named Speedway, they'll run the Indianapolis 500 for the 100th time. The inaugural winner, Ray Harroun, took 6 hours and 42 minutes to make it 200 times around the 21/2-mile oval. Last year's winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, raced to the checkered flag in a little more than three hours.

But some things don't change at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Time slows. The 500 is something people lean on, and not just back home in Indiana. It's the same event at the same place. It's Memorial Day weekend. It's flags and patriotism mixed with engine blood roar. And history.

Talk to Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. He'll set you straight.

A.J. Foyt, 81, the first four-time Indianapolis 500 winner (later joined by Al Unser and Rick Mears), has been competing at Indianapolis since 1958. He ran in the 500 for 35 straight years before retiring at the track in 1993.

"Best place to do it," Foyt said by phone. His race team has three cars in today's 500. Foyt remains a tough customer, despite serious health scares in recent years. Tough Customer says he gets a lump in his throat every year during prerace ceremonies and as the field roars to the start line.

"When people say they don't get one, they're just lying to you," Foyt said. "It's something about the place and this race. It's an American kind of thing, if you ask me."

"You can count on us," said Indianapolis Motor Speedway track historian Donald Davidson. "There are families, there are tens of thousands of people who've been coming here forever. There are people who came as kids with their parents, and their parents came with their parents. It goes on and on."

"This track has something money can't buy, and that's history," this year's pole-sitter, James Hinchcliffe, said during a conference call. Hinchcliffe nearly died at the speedway last year after a crash in practice. "You could go build a brand new racetrack, a billion-dollar facility, state of the art, but there's no substitute for history."

"My grandfather raced there in the 1940s," said Joie Chitwood III, president of Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR's race cathedral. Chitwood of Tampa also served 61/2 years as president and COO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "The legends of open-wheel racing made their names at Indianapolis. When all your legends make their name in one place, it becomes special."

His grandfather, Joie Chitwood Sr., finished fifth in the 500 three times and is the answer to a trivia question: Name the first 500 driver to wear a seat belt. It happened in 1946.

"The thought back then was that it was wiser to be thrown from your car," Chitwood III said. "There was no fuel-cell technology. Everything went up (in flames) in crashes."

In some ways, the Indianapolis 500 remains gloriously trapped in the past. Where else do the winners drink milk, a tradition for 83 years? Name another sporting event where people hail Jim "Gomer" Nabors as an icon, 40 years belting out Back Home Again in Indiana before stepping away in 2014? Where else but Indy is born-and-raised Hoosier Florence Henderson, Carol from The Brady Bunch, still an A-lister? Fans hang on Henderson's rendition of God Bless America. She's race grand marshal this year.

"People want their traditions to remain the same," Davidson said.

Davidson first made a pilgrimage to Indianapolis in 1964, a young British man obsessed with what went on in the middle of America. Foyt won the 1964 race, on one set of tires, no less. On the first lap, drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald died in a fireball after a wreck.

Davidson does a popular radio show, The Talk of Gasoline Alley, during race month. It's carried on ESPN radio. His encyclopedic recall of all things 500 has more horsepower than the cars. Leading up to the 100th, the speedway held events in all 92 of Indiana's counties. Davidson hit 70 of them.

"Everywhere we went, there were race fans coming up and telling me their stories with tears in their eyes, about where they used to sit, the first time they went and family that were with them," Davidson said. "It's not just a motor race. It's a festival, a reunion."

You don't even have to be from Indiana.

Earl Garcia, longtime football coach at Hillsborough High, grew up in Tampa but is attending his 32nd 500.

"The place gets to you," Garcia said.

His father first took him to the race in 1956, when Garcia was 4. Garcia and his wife, Gilda, love the 500. So much that after years of overpriced hotel rooms and race traffic, they threw up their hands and …

"We decided to buy a place up there," Earl Garcia said.

About nine years ago, they purchased a duplex a few thousand feet from the southwest corner of the speedway. They use it about 15 days a year, for the 500 and NASCAR's Brickyard 400.

"From my front porch, I can see the pagoda, the scoring tower," Garcia said. "At 5 a.m. on race day, they set off an explosive to signal they're opening the gates. That's our signal, our wake-up call to get going."

The Garcias will tailgate at the duplex before the race, checkered flags everywhere, Gilda cooking up her usual storm for about 50 folks they've met in Indianapolis over the years.

"You know how some people get emotional on New Year's Eve at Auld Lang Syne and everything?" Garcia said. "That's what Back Home in Indiana means to us. We're not from Indiana, but the 500 tells us we made it another year. Life is good. Still alive, still together. It sounds corny, but we get choked up every time."

It's an American kind of thing.

Here's to a hundred more.

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