INDIANAPOLIS – You know those banners hanging outside Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on the underside of the grandstands along the back straightaway? Every driver in the 2020 Indianapolis 500 gets one this weekend – or would get one this weekend, if it weren’t for the godforsaken coronavirus that postponed the 104th running of the race to Aug. 23 – but I’m struggling to remember what they look like.
Ever done that? Ever wanted to picture someone or something you’ve seen a million times … but just can’t? The brain does weird things.
Celebrate the 2020 Indy 500:
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Especially now, in these weird times. We should be at the track right now, basting ourselves in sunscreen, lugging our rolling coolers of Budweiser, wearing our cargo shorts and tank tops. For those of us who don’t park in the IMS infield, we should be walking across Georgetown Road and staring up at those banners.
There’s Helio Castroneves. Pretty sure he’s smiling that big smile of his, but I can’t picture it right now. Seen it a million times. Smiled up at Helio every time. Can’t see it right now. My mind’s a blank.
There’s Ed Carpenter. Local boy made good, Butler grad, Indy 500 specialist.He has that straight blond hair that always reminds me of Val Kilmer in “Top Gun.” That’s Ed Carpenter on the banner, the Ice Man. Wish I could picture him up there.
Maybe you can see what I cannot. If you’ve ever been to the Indy 500, the biggest loudest craziest day on the American sporting calendar, you have your memories. Bet you’re seeing something right now.
Here’s what I see.
Matchbox cars from my childhood
Those cars on the track.
This is before ladies and gentlemen start their engines, before “(Back 真人百家家乐官网网站home Again in) Indiana.” It’s an hour before that green flag drops, and the cars are lining up on the track in order of qualifying. Ed Carpenter is almost always in the front row – since 2013: three pole positions, and twice starting second – along with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Alexander Rossi.
The drivers aren’t here yet, but their cars are. Soon enough the drivers will be the immortals of IMS, hurtling around this 2½-mile speedway within feet – if not inches – of the cars to their front and rear and left and right, and doing it at speeds exceeding 220 mph. Soon they will get the attention they deserve, but now it is quiet on the track.
Now, there are only cars.
And they’re beautiful down there, aren’t they? From up in the IMS Media Center they look like toys, like the Matchbox cars I used to line up at the top of my driveway in Oxford, Miss. That driveway sloped steeply to the bottom, leaves and twigs and bugs and whatever else between the cars and the finish line. I’d release those cars, beautiful and yellow and red and orange, and follow them down. The yellow one always seemed to win. If I’d been smarter, I’d have named it “A.J.” or “Unser.”
There they are again, the cars from my childhood, just as small down there on the track, just as beautiful. For whatever reason I can see this as plain as day, those cars gleaming bright yellow (hello, Helio) and red (Marco Andretti) and orange (Fernando Alonso). And green (Danica Patrick) and black (Will Power) and blue (Takuma Sato) and pink (Pippa Mann).
Every year this happens: I’m sitting in the media center, reading a book or doing a Sudoku puzzle, killing time – hey, I’ve been here since 7 a.m. – and then those cars start lining up, and I’m putting down my book and walking down the stairs, out of the media center, toward the track. Show my credential to the security officer guarding an opening in the fence, show it to one more security guard and … now I’m on the track.
Walking toward those cars.
They are just as beautiful, more beautiful, the closer you get. They look like big toys, their gleaming liveries masking the monster engine underneath.
I walk past every car, but I do not touch.
This weekend, that’s what I’ll miss most.
Missing Calabro, Hinch, Pippa, Power
Dave Calabro’s voice. To me, as much as almost anything, Dave Calabro is the Indianapolis 500. Don’t you dare tell him I said that – no chance of him reading this; TV people can’t read – but Calabro is the soundtrack to my Indy 500, the voice above the buzzing of all those beautiful bees around the speedway. I’ll miss Calabro’s voice this weekend, but even now, right here writing this, I can hear it as I cross Georgetown Road, under those banners I can’t see, and head for the entrance.
Walking past the vendors under the grandstands, selling fried this and ice cold that, smelling all of it, wanting all of it.
Joining the line of people walking down that sloping hill into the tunnel – into the half-dark, half-light – and emerging on the other side into the brightest sun you’ve ever seen. Hello, infield.
The warm-up laps the cars take minutes before the race begins, the way drivers test their steering, their tires, by weaving back and forth. As they disappear around Turn 1, all those cars twisting left and right, it looks like a multi-colored snake slithering down the street.
The access, the thing you hear first and foremost when you go to IMS and contemplate the awesome, intimidating assignment of covering your first Indianapolis 500. The access to drivers, you are told by everyone. You’ve never seen anything like it. And everyone is right.
Sure, Pippa Mann will give you 30 minutes at a table inside her garage before Pole Day to talk about her pink message of hope.
James Hinchcliffe? Because you're asking him about a fan who literally risks dying to watch him race, he’ll talk all day long. And because it’s loud in his garage a few days before the race, he’s walking us past Legends Row, into an empty Gasoline Alley Suite. We're sitting down, alone in a room with James Hinchcliffe!
Will Power? Get this one:
My first Indy 500, in 2015, Will Power should have won that race. He knew it. He had the fastest car, but at the end he didn’t have the tires, the grip, to stop Juan Pablo Montoya from zipping around him on a turn late in the race and holding on to win by one lousy tenth of a second. At this point, in 2015, Power is among the best drivers never to have won the Indianapolis 500, and this was his chance. He’d win the race in 2018, but on this day he doesn’t know that.
On this day in 2015, he’s leaving the media center and walking to a golf cart after doing his obligation with reporters. He’s not obligated to tolerate my nonsense – he has no idea who I am – but I ask if I can ride with him in the golf cart back to his garage. He lets me.
He lets me!
Fans are spotting Will Power in his black fire suit, and they’re shouting words of encouragement. One of them yells something like, “You should have won!” And Will Power, sitting next to me in that golf cart, is muttering quietly:
“Yeah, I should have.”
When this weekend is over, we can look forward to Aug. 23. Maybe the 2020 Indianapolis 500 will happen then. Probably so. Maybe fans will be there as well, but I doubt that. Meantime, we can unite over our love of this event and our loathing of the coronavirus, which robbed us of our beloved Memorial Day tradition. Go ahead, yell: “We should have been there!”
I’m remembering what Will Power said on that golf cart.
Yeah, I should have.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.