It was late 2005, and I was stationed on a remote Air Force base in a rugged, quiet part of Spain, away from the tourist buses, any major metropolitan area, and worst of all, my young family, who had returned to the States to take care of a family emergency. They would not return for the entirety of my tour. Despite the amazing country I was in, I was miserable, drank too much, and wished more than anything I could be home once more.
I had been away from Indiana ever since I enlisted in 1999, and had seen the world, both good and bad. I was stationed and deployed both stateside and overseas, from Korea to Texas, dealing with some truly nice places—and a few truly unpleasant ones, as well. Yet, in my mind, Indiana was forever home. When I was young, having the Indy 500 on in the background during family Memorial Weekend celebrations was taken as an assumption. I’ve mentioned before how I used to bet my grandpa $1 that Rick Mears would win against the field. Growing up in Indiana or even elsewhere, if you’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance you have similar childhood memories.
At that moment, however, back in 2005, it was Memorial Day weekend, and once again the Armed Forces Television channels were not cooperating. I was trying everything I could to watch the 500, but all I could do was catch glimpses in between the hissing static and snow that obscured nearly the entire picture.
I’ve never told anyone this before, but it just seemed a perfect representation of how I felt at the moment. I was low. I was cut off from everything, unable to connect to something that was a part of my heritage and family. I’ve certainly been in worse situations, but it was one of those moments of pure frustration. I’m pretty sure I threw an epic tantrum in an empty house, complaining to the universe and God about—well, everything.
Miraculously, at the end of that petulant rant, the picture came back in. I was able to watch the end of the Indy 500. It brought back so many connections to home, so many memories. It’s funny that things in the background can jump to the fore so quickly. Just watching that grainy feed made me feel connected again to the world I had known, and by association, my home and family.
I have written countless times on this site about just what is special about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500. We often talk a lot about the parts of Indy we love, from the personalities to the traditions to the history and more. Yet none of that really addresses why Indy moves us, and becomes such a passion for people.
Sometimes, things just hit us on some deep, nearly subconscious level. Perhaps it’s a fond childhood memory, perhaps it’s the way we feel when we’re at a place. Perhaps it’s nothing we can ever explain. But the fact remains, hundreds of thousands of people find the Indy 500 during May a place that feels very much like home. There are very few places in the world I can feel entirely at peace, but Indianapolis is on that list.
So, with the excitement and affinity for the place and the spectacle, perhaps not precisely knowing why we love Indy, we return every year. The Gordon Pipers, the pork tenderloins, the grumpy yellow shirts, the drive in underneath the track, the sight of a former driver barreling past on a golf cart, the bronze badges, the electric thrill that shoots through you when someone starts a qualifying run, and the incomparable events of race morning—they’re aspects of something we’re drawn to. It calls to us.
Sitting at work leading up to the race, how readers catch themselves looking out the window wistfully, their mind miles away, reading every update they can from practice, and generally being at about 5 percent of normal productivity? All month of May, we sit in our offices, hearing a siren call to a place we can’t wait to see once more. And if we get defensive over our traditions, spirited in our discussions over drivers and teams, wildly opinionated in our defense of matters ranging from the pace car driver to advertising strategies, or seemingly illogical about this track and this race in any dozens of other ways, it’s because love is illogical. Love simply is, and has no need of reason.
This year, 6 years and 50+ pounds removed from my Air Force career, I’ll be taking my oldest daughter to Fast Friday, just as I took her younger brother and sister to days of practice earlier this month. Ultimately, I don’t know if Indy will mean the same thing to them that it means to me. I do know that hearing the excitement in their voice when they see a favorite driver, watching their amazement at the cars zipping past, explaining the history and magic of the place, and just happily experiencing what Indy can be with them is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. Maybe I can’t explain it, but I feel it in my soul.