With the holidays upon us, it's always a time to reflect on the closing year and recall the good times and good stories we'll share for years to come. I'm very fortunate to travel with the Verizon IndyCar Series, so without further ado ... grab your cup of eggnog (the one cup per season).
Here are my top 10 memories from the 2016 INDYCAR travel season and they don’t all involve activities on the racetrack.
No. 10, “Fast Times” at Long Beach: The "Fast Times" tour while at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. No, we didn't hit the indoor karting track. Rather, my Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network co-worker Nick Yeoman and I sought out all the filming locations from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," the 1980s “coming of age” film. The high school (Van Nuys) is the alma mater of Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe), the infamous baseball dugout known as "the Point" is at the Encino Little League park (which featured a host of parents curious why I introduced myself as Ron Johnson, stereo salesman) and the Hamilton home is owned by an incredibly kind real estate appraiser who gave me a tour. All of that and Yeoman later confessed he'd never seen the movie! He's that close to working at Mi-T Mart.
No. 9, Return to Road America: INDYCAR’s return and my initial visit to Road America. Picturesque in landscape alone, it was a beautiful weekend in Wisconsin on a track perfect for Indy car racing. Taking a boat on Elkhart Lake was enjoyable enough, but seeing the fans flock to a perfect venue was the icing on the cake of a super-sweet weekend.
No. 8, Flyin’ to see Jimmy Bryan: While INDYCAR has been to the Phoenix International Raceway mile oval in Avondale, Ariz., before, this was my first trip to the Valley of the Sun. On the way to the track on race day, radio network anchor Mark Jaynes and I found the resting place of 1958 Indianapolis 500 winner Jimmy Bryan. His gravestone is unassuming, but we couldn't help but hum his ballad (listen to it here) as we paid our respects. There he was, Jimmy Bryan, big man.
No. 7, Newton becomes Newgarden: We don't have rooting interests or bias as radio announcers, but I think all of us are aware when we are witnessing something that is good for the sport. And when Josef Newgarden dominated the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway in Newton, less than a month after sustaining a fractured right hand and right clavicle in a serious crash, we knew we were watching something special. An American kid on an American team with an American engine dominating a race in the heartland was exactly that. Nothing corny about it.
No. 6, The day the music died: No, I do NOT have a fascination with the morbid. But I am fascinated by history, in particular the spots where historical events took place. On the way to the aforementioned Iowa race, Yeoman and I took a slight (give or take three hours) detour to Clear Lake, Iowa. There, in the cornfields, we found the spot of the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of rock-and-roll legends Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens (and pilot Roger Peterson). It was memorialized in Don McLean’s 1971 song “American Pie.” The farmer that owns the farm where the plane crashed still leaves the area clear, including a half-mile path off the road that leads to a small memorial. We also visited the Surf Ballroom, sight of the musicians' last show, about 7 miles away.
No. 5, Happy birthday to me: An 11th-hour schedule amendment, the race at historic Watkins Glen International in New York track fell on my birthday weekend. What a gift. The weather was perfect, the crowds were massive and the racing was clean and spectacular. A home run by all involved.
No. 4, A drive with IMS PA legends: Dave Furst is the sports director at WRTV, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis, one of my best friends and a co-worker on the radio network. We drove back from the April race at Barber Motorsports Park together. Dave does a spot-on impression of the late Jim Phillippe of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway public address team and I've been told my Tom Carnegie impression is passably good. So there we were about mid-Tennessee, after miles of zoning into our own thoughts, when suddenly I hear Dave say, "Tom, I'm here with Roberta ‘Guerrera’" and BAM! We had a 15-mile "conversation" as Phillippe and Carnegie at the 1992 Indy 500 time trials. It was magical.
No. 3, There’s no “I” in team: That leads me to my favorite part of the job: the team with which I work. As a kid who grew up listening to the Indy 500 on the radio, I have the absolute upmost respect for the men who have served as chief announcer for the radio network. It is the greatest of privileges to have had worked with three of them: Bob Jenkins, Mike King and Paul Page. When Mark Jaynes took over the seat this spring, he didn't miss a beat. We call every practice lap, qualifying lap and race lap on the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app, Indycar.com, Sirius/XM and terrestrial radio. Mark is like Tony Kanaan … an ironman. His respect for the job, the sport and his predecessors allowed us all to continue to have fun each and every weekend. It's a great group to be a part of.
No. 2, St. Pete is pretty neat: The Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg is ideal. Simply put, it's Florida, it's sunny, it's spring break time and it kicks off the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Enough said. Best of all, we’re only 80 days away from the green flag for the first practice session of the 2017 St. Pete weekend.
No. 1, 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500: One hundred of them. The mass of humanity. The pageantry. The anticipation. The celebration. The heritage. The passion. Ninety-nine previous races. I thought of the millions of people who attended the 10th, the 25th, the 50th, and wondered aloud what the 100th would be like. I got to see it. And I, like more than 300,000 others, felt like I was a part of it. Alexander Rossi will always be labeled as the one who won that day. But he wasn't alone.
Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and will offer his musings Tuesdays on IndyCar.com.