Last Sunday, the engines didn’t roar to life, drowning out the sound of over 300,000 people cheering in unison. Thirty-three of the world’s finest drivers didn’t battle it out, mere inches apart, for 200 laps, around a track that’s over a century old. Celebrities from all different facets of the entertainment industry didn’t flock to the town of Speedway, Indiana, which — on a normal day — has a population of about 12,000 people. Because that’s all that last Sunday was, in Speedway, Indiana: a normal Sunday. It wasn’t supposed to be. Last Sunday was supposed to be the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, but, because of the precautions taken due to the coronavirus, the race has been delayed until August.
While those who have never been to the race may balk at it, deriding it as a redneck sideshow or a relic of a bygone era, those who make the trek to central Indiana every Memorial Day weekend view it very differently. As the famous author, John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) points out on his podcast, Anthropocene Reviewed, there is much more to the historic race than meets the eye. Green points out that the race — which in its 100th running in 2016 drew somewhere north of 350,000 people — is the largest non-religious gathering of people in the world. It clearly holds an allure far beyond people merely interested in seeing cars go around a circle for 500 miles.
I suspect it’s the tradition. Countless fans I’ve spoken with in my years of attending the race proudly share stories of their seats. The same seats they’ve had their whole life. The same seats their parents had before them. People compare memories of races past, and show off the paraphernalia they’ve collected over the years. People tear up as Jim Cornelison sings Back Home Again, In Indiana, appreciating a job well done, but still missing Jim Nabors. Racing’s biggest legends, like Mario Andretti, will navigate the crowds, signing thousands of autographs along the way, and taking just as many selfies. Parents of young children beam as their kids experience the sound and power of cars traveling over 230 miles per hour. Most of all, people revel in these shared experiences — the community that everyone in attendance creates in watching a single event, together. All in attendance share that bond, for the rest of their life. Whether it was watching a hot-shot rookie from F1, Alexander Rossi, win the 100th race in 2016, or seeing Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear battle it out in 1992 for a win that would have surely gone to Michael Andretti had it not been for a mechanical issue late in the race; all those in attendance share that experience forever.
That’s what makes this delay so hard for so many. It’s not that we’re missing a race, it’s that we’re missing a shared moment. Perhaps it’s that we all must be so distant these days that makes the lack of this community so much more apparent. It would be easy to feel despair, but I don’t. The Indianapolis 500 has been cancelled before, admittedly for World War I and World War II. So, I take solace in the fact, that when this is behind us, the Indianapolis 500 will return. I don’t know when; it’s currently scheduled for August of this year, and I certainly hope that will be the case, but it’s far from a certainty, given the nature of this pandemic.
Regardless, I know it will be back. I know that we will once again gather in that small town just outside of Indianapolis. We will once again weather the seemingly endless line of cars trying to get in, eventually parking in the “secret spot” we all seem to have found in a nearby neighborhood. We will walk under the tunnel, or to our grandstand seats. Will hear those famous words, “start your engines.” And, when those engines start, we won’t hear much of anything else. On the way out, in the throngs of people finding their way to their cars, we will share our stories of races past. Stories of Marco Andretti’s heartbreaking second-place finish, and a curse that we all want to end. Stories of Dan Wheldon’s win, and a great man gone too soon. We’ll talk about winners old, and new; and those who probably should have won, but never did. And we’ll talk about this year. We’ll talk about a virus that delayed the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And we’ll talk about how we all got through it: together.
Featured image: Jonathan Weiss / Shutterstock.com
When it comes to sports, certain locations possess an iconic significance in the minds of fans. The mention of Augusta suggests golf’s Masters Tournament. “The Garden” only means the home of the Boston Celtics, while Wrigley is forever Wrigley Field, the friendly confines of the Chicago Cubs. In racing, two cities rise above all the others: Indianapolis and Daytona. Indy is the center of the open-wheel racing universe every May, and Daytona remains the most important race (with the biggest payday) in the world of NASCAR. Sixty years ago this week, the modern version of the Daytona 500 began, and its winner would become the patriarch of one of the most successful family dynasties in sports.
Bill France, Sr. founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in February of 1948 in Daytona. The Florida city had already built a reputation as a prime spot for land-speed record attempts, and various races had taken place in the city at the Daytona Beach Road Course. France’s innovation was to create an organization that would implement rules and codes that applied specifically to stock car racing, a driving tradition that had grown out of regular vehicles modified for speed by liquor runners trying to outrun the authorities during Prohibition.
By 1959, France and NASCAR inaugurated a new race, the Daytona 500, at the recently finished Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile, four-turn course. It’s remarkable today to think of a major sporting event not being televised, but it’s true; the 41,921 spectators present on February 22 were the only witnesses. That’s too bad, because the rest of the country missed a classic contest with a controversial finish. Though the entire race was run without a caution, things got intense down the stretch.
During the final 30 laps, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp battled furiously for the lead. Petty went ahead with three laps left, and the duo crossed the finish line close enough for a photo finish. Each driver was convinced that he’d won, and in fact, NASCAR officials unofficially declared Beauchamp the winner. However, nearby observers like driver Fireball Roberts had a contrary opinion; it took three days of France studying photos and news footage before he awarded the win to Petty on February 25, 1959. The controversial finish and delay helped expand the NASCAR brand, as the extended time to decide the winner kept the race in the headlines.
Coming out of this race, the popularity of NASCAR would steadily grow, with Daytona remaining its most prestigious race with the biggest purse, annually. It’s part of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and a crucial piece of the series championship. As a stark contrast to its untelevised beginning, 20 million people now watch the race every year.
After winning that first race, Petty went on to major success in NASCAR. He finished in the top five in points for each of the league’s first 11 seasons and won the Grand National Series championship three times. He also became the patriarch of a racing dynasty, as his son Richard would go on to become NASCAR’s all-time race winner, and his younger son, Maurice, would become a successful crew chief and engine builder for the family’s Petty Enterprises. Richard, nicknamed “The King,” won the NASCAR Championship seven times and took 200 individual races, including a record seven wins at Daytona. Richard’s own son, Kyle, would win eight races in the Monster series and finish in 173 Top Tens. Kyle’s son, Adam, followed the other three into racing, making him the first fourth-generation competitor in modern American sports, but he was unfortunately killed in an accident during practice laps for the Busch 200 in 2000. Maurice’s son, Ritchie, also competed in several races in the 1990s.
Despite the humble (and not entirely legal) origins of stock car racing, the efforts of Bill France, Sr. and an untold legion of drivers, crew members, track owners, promoters, and fans grew NASCAR into a worldwide brand with an audience of millions. The Daytona 500 remains the center of that universe. As long as racing remains popular in the U.S. (and it shows no sign of getting the checkered flag anytime soon), Daytona is going to stay one of the two most important cities in the world of wheels.