With fans not able to attend the 2020 Indianapolis 500 due to the threat of Covid-19, the Speedway has invited fans to leave messages in a bottle outside the track to be read in 2021. I’m too far away and my message is perhaps too long. But here is my message in a bottle for the Indianapolis 500 and its place throughout my life.
I found my love of racing through two much older brothers who took me at age 4 to my first race at Funk's Speedway, a high-banked track in Winchester, Indiana. At age 5, they introduced me to the Indianapolis 500, listening to Sid Collins on a crackling Philco radio.
It took more than a decade before I attended my first 500, marching around the 2 ½ mile oval on Race Day morning with my high school band. A few years later, I was sitting with a college buddy under plastic sheets in the Turn 2 infield, surviving three days of rain.
My professional career got its first bump as a reporter covering the month of May. My stories won my first professional awards.
A few years later, I was attending graduate school and living in Speedway, just blocks from the track. I took my 70-year-old mother to her only 500. Not long after, the scourge of Alzheimer’s took her memory of that race and of me. But it could not touch my memory of that day with her.
For a decade, I worked in the Dr. Thomas Hanna Medical Center on Race Day morning. Later, I cooked hot dogs and picked up trash at the track to raise money for my children’s high school bands.
Each of my three children (and several nieces and nephews) attended their first 500 with me. All are now grown, living in distant cities with careers and children of their own that keep them from attending the race. But those memories are with me each time I walk into the Speedway.
Now I’m retired. But Race Day is still my Christmas, birthday and Fourth of July all in one. I arrive early to walk the grounds and watch the throng of people as the grandstands slowly fill. As pre-race ceremonies begin, I make my way to my seats at the top of Turn 3. The rhythmic thump from the Snake Pit sweeps over theTurn 3 stands like a wind bringing memories of my infield partying days, when so much was new and most of life's experiences lay in front of me.
Convertibles and trucks roll by filled with service men and women. Drivers who were once young and brave circle the track in vintage race cars. They have memories, too.
Sounds. Colors. Cheers. A flyover. The mournful playing of Taps and mighty singing of Back Home Again in Indiana leaves a lump in my throat and maybe a tear or two in my eyes.
Then those words, and the engines roar to life.
This year I will sit at home. For the first time, I will watch the race live on television. My head will fill with memories – of brothers now gone, of children now grown with their own lives, of days sitting sometimes in rain, but most times soaking up glorious sunshine of an early summer day. Of speed beyond comprehension, of courage and daring, of tragedy and ultimate triumph – all those memories of a lifetime of days in May.
And a race runs through it.*
*Thanks for the inspiration to Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It.