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.
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