"You just don't know what Indy means."
Al Unser Jr. in Indianapolis 500 Victory Lane, May 24, 1992.
It was 1897 when New York Sun editor Francis Church wrote the words, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." It's an iconic line that summarizes the magic of Christmas: If you believe, the spirit of the season shall never fade away. Which, with all due respect to the holiday, takes us to race fans' version that runs with a strangely parallel epiphany: Yes, my friends, it is May.
No, it is not a faith-based holiday and, no, the Indianapolis 500 was not around at the time of Mr. Church's famous editorial. But there is, indeed, a common theme. It's the Cathedral of Speed in which we converge in May, and for all of us it has meaning. If you are like me, it goes beyond just being witness to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
I was just over 6 when my grandfather and I were leaving a west-side grocery store in Indianapolis. My maternal grandparents lived in Clermont, west of Speedway. For as long as I can remember, the smell of spring in their backyard was synonymous with the faded sounds of engines roaring somewhere off in the majestic horizon. On this particular 1979 spring day, "Honey," as I called my grandpa, and I were climbing into his Buick Century when a car full of race fans pulled into the lot. It was painted with a large "9" on the hood.
"Look at that," Honey said. "Those guys really love Rick Mears."
There, in a strip mall parking lot off Crawfordsville Road, was where I became Virginia.
"Yes," I realized at an age still adorning ToughSkins and Stride Rites, "it is May in Indianapolis. And everyone feels the magic."
My first memories of the Indianapolis 500 are based in hearing the description from Paul Page and Lou Palmer through the speakers of my grandparents' AM radio intercom system in their Clermont home. In each room of the house, each lap was described. It was a safe haven for me on race day.
As my parents took in the race in person from their Paddock seats, my sister and I would listen to A.J. Foyt's pursuit of records, Tom Sneva's run for 200 mph and Johnny Rutherford charging from the back to the front. There is not a year of my childhood where I can't recall the sounds of the 500, the scent of Nana and Honey's house still as immediately recognizable in the memories as the jingles made familiar through the frequency of WIBC Radio.
I eventually was deemed old enough to attend the race and my dad meticulously trained me of the traditions that came with the honor. He mastered a driving route to the track. We parked at my Great Uncle Walt and Aunt Helen's house off 14th Street. My dad would cut the timing charts and driver bios out of the Indianapolis Star, my mom packed our box lunches with two each of each sandwich. They were traditions I recite and cherish to this day.
By 1983, I was sitting with my dad in the Southeast Vista, taking my seat the first time I could finally exhale that, indeed, our hopes for tickets came to fruition. My dad was a steel salesman and it wasn't until I was an older and more sage man that I realized I had probably been representing that year's fictional prospective client.
We watched Little Al block for his dad, Danny Sullivan spin to win and Roberto Guerrero's annual quests; the drama unfolding each year different than the last, but the traditions that brought us never wavering with the new year.
In 2009, I received my first radio network assignment to call a turn and realized my blessing that my broadcast location was atop the same Southeast Vista. As the prerace festivities unfurled before me, I do as I always have: I escape in the emotion of the moment.
Memorial Day weekend is a time to pay homage to those men and women who gave their lives unselfishly, and without fear, to make it possible for us to witness, as free men and women, the world's most spectacular spectator sport.
I think of those heroes at that time. I think of my Grandpa Query who served this country. I also think of Nana and Honey. I think of Uncle Walt and Aunt Helen. I think of my Great Aunt Dawty, who loved watching the crowds from her home on 25th Street. I think of the family traditions and the collective human spirit that has converged on 16th and Georgetown.
For that, I am not alone. You all have it. Yes, we love the speed, the sound, the competition. But we love the traditions. We love that we share a collective passion of private rituals and personal memories of years gone past and races moving forward. We love that Mr. Church's words ring true at our own Cathedral of Speed, that so long as we converge, the magic never goes away.
Perhaps Al Jr. was correct. Perhaps we don't know what Indy means. To him. Because to all of us, it may mean something different.
Yet, to all of us it has meaning, and that's why we meet. Yes, folks. It is May. I look forward to sharing with you as we again reach for our collective pieces of the magic.