Attending Indy 500 creates a passion that never goes away

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The year was 1986, when cell phones were the size of microwave ovens and people dressed all fancy to get on planes. An earnest and simple kid from Iowa was working as a part-time copy editor on the sports desk at a daily newspaper. He had a buddy who made the same soon-to-be regrettable vocational error, toiling as the sports editor at a neighboring newspaper.

Buddy had been to the Indianapolis 500 a few times, but Earnest & Simple hadn’t. He’d seen it on TV many times, but never in person. The ‘86 race had been rained out the previous weekend, so Buddy and E&S had a 24-hour window to make a semi-spontaneous journey and witness a rare Saturday running of the 500.

Late that Friday, after final editions of their newspapers had been put to bed, they loaded a van with essentials – including a Radio Flyer red wagon, explanation forthcoming – and headed east. Destination, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Wasn’t long before E&S fell asleep. Buddy drove the entire seven hours, arriving in the infield shortly after 8 a.m.

“Wake up, E&S,” Buddy yelled. “We’re here!”

E&S stepped out of the van into a pile of sand. “Buddy, why am I standing in sand?” he shouted.

“You’re in a sand trap, dude (people didn’t say ‘dude’ back then, but we’re trying to reach a slightly younger demographic, so bear with me, dude),” Buddy said. “The place is so big, there’s a golf course in the infield. We’re parked in a sand trap.”

Buddy continued his sermon about the size of IMS, pointing to the southwest horizon. “See the top of that grandstand way over there?” he said.

E&S nodded while emptying sand from his shoes.

“That’s Turn 1,” Buddy said, making it sound magically delicious with a pot o’ gold buried somewhere nearby.

“No way!” E&S declared, knowing he couldn’t reach it in a fortnight without a sherpa and a compass. “That’s a long walk from here.”

Buddy turned to point at the other three grandstands in the distance, all barely noticeable over the trees. Then his sermon turned to stats. “It covers 560 acres. The track is two and a half miles around. The pole speed was 217.548 mph. More than 300,000 people will be here today, give or take. They never know the exact count. It’s the largest single-day sporting event in the world.”

He rambled on about gallons of beer consumed and number of hot dogs eaten and millions of balloons released and floats in the parade, but E&S wasn’t listening. He was focused on the red wagon in the back of the van.

“Buddy, why did you bring this?” he asked, simply yet earnestly.

“That’s for our beer,” Buddy answered.

“Get out!” E&S stammered.

“We’ll put our coolers in it and take them to our seats,” Buddy said.

“Wait. We can take our own beer to our seats?” E&S asked, simpler and earnester than ever. He repeated his question, as if unicorns were in charge of the whole darned speedway. “WE CAN TAKE OUR OWN BEER TO OUR SEATS?!”

“Yep,” Buddy answered. “You’re never going to want to leave, dude. Trust me.”

Michael AndrettiIt wasn’t until Michael Andretti (shown at right) took the lead, though, that E&S truly understood that IMS was his forever home. An attractive young woman (who apparently real-l-l-l-ly liked Michael Andretti) was seated to the right and a few rows in front of E&S. And every time Michael roared past the main grandstand in the lead, she lifted her T-shirt and screamed, “Michael-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l!”

Every. Single. Fantastic. Lap.

Immediately, E&S pledged allegiance to Michael Andretti forever and ever, amen. Michael led the first 84 laps divided by two. To this day, E&S barely remembers the color of Michael’s car. He just remembers how heartbroken he was when it fell out of the lead, because that’s when Michael’s fan stopped sharing. For a brief moment later in the race, Michael re-emerged in the lead, then faded out of it. At that point, there was no joy in the world.

But all was not lost. E&S noticed everything else that day: The speed (Bobby Rahal won in what was then a race record of 170.772 mph), the sounds, the smells, the electricity, the pageantry. The Indianapolis 500 isn’t a sporting event that can be fully appreciated through a screen, E&S concluded. It must be witnessed live. Preferably with fans of Michael Andretti.

He kept his promise to return, even if he wasn’t consistent about it. He came back in ‘87, when Al Unser won his fourth, and in ‘88, when Rick Mears won his third. Somehow, through no talent of his own, he stumbled into covering the Indy 500 as a sportswriter. He’s been here writing about it every year since ‘94 or ‘95. (Forgive him. He’s old now and forgets things.) He’s almost certain that this year is his 23rd or 24th Indy 500 as a journalist. Twenty-seventh or 28th as a pro-am. Give or take.

Back in the day, E&S occasionally had to dictate his stories back to the copy desk on a pay phone. (Google “pay phone,” dude.) He remembers when fellow sportswriters smoked three packs a day and exhaled all of them directly into his face. He remembers standing at pit exit when Arie Luyendyk rearranged his collar with an astonishing lap of 239.260 mph during practice in 1996. He remembers when Kenny Brack took a call from Sweden’s King Gustav just as the winner’s press conference was about to begin in 1999.

Others have worked this race far longer than E&S, but this is his thing, his reason. He’s proud to have written about some of the best racers of his time. He’s humbled to be on a first-name/nickname/initials basis with Dario, Helio, TK, Dixie, Simon, Will, RHR, Seb and Marco. He’s honored to have interviewed A.J. and Mario and Rick and Al.

He has talked to Michael dozens of times, yet never once told him the story of his greatest fan and those 84 laps divided by two.

He’s hardly ever left the place, and he’s back again for another one.    

It’s fun to be Earnest & Simple, dude. It’s been a great run. I’m never going to leave. Trust me.

From the fans