The Indy 500 is 100 Years Old: “The Race” as Cultural Experience

My view of the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

Race day in 2014.

I didn’t grow up as a racing fan. In fact, I used to joke that that a competitive activity wasn’t a “sport” unless there was some sort of spherical object involved. But there was still something about attending the biggest car race in the world for the first time back in 2012 that felt like a cementing of my hoosier identity.

While I won’t be in attendance for the Indy 500’s 100th running this weekend, I did go back again in 2014, so I guess my first experience must not have been too bad. It helped that first time when a former neighbor of mine who organized the outing had attended 15 out of the last 16 races. If I’m going to brave unfamiliar territory, then I want to do it side-by-side with a connoisseur.

It was somewhat of an accident that in 2012 we happened to pick the hottest day in race history (and I remember my shoulders being plenty red  to show for it). That weekend, we didn’t have tickets for the affair going in, but we were assured that there would be plenty available from scalpers or maybe even general admission. And sure enough, we snagged $70 tickets for $30, maybe ten rows up in the corner that would start the home stretch of the race. We parked for free, which was good for our wallets and also for our legs, since we walked a good two miles to get to the Speedway. Somehow I don’t think fans this year are going to be so lucky, as the race is completely sold out. Traffic will be lined up for miles, but the beer will be flowing.

Make no mistake: the 500 is its own cultural phenomenon. I remember joking, for example, that the race must be the biggest gathering of white people in the world. I did run into an African-American friend of mine from Chicago who happened to be attending the race. Of course there were more minorities than that, but you had had to look closely to find them. And the people who do show up, I assure you, love America. The pre-race routine included not just the Star Spangled banner, but “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and about any other song that’s ever been written for the good ol’ U.S. of A. And if the “You’re all going to hell” sidewalk evangelist outside of the grandstands wasn’t enough, then the rousing, call-and-response prayer from some Bishop was also fairly memorable. It is surely not an accident that the event is held on Memorial Day weekend, and I should admit to feeling goose bumps as I sang the national anthem with that particular crowd. There was also an air of reverence that year because the previous year’s winner, 33-year-old Don Wheldon, died in a Las Vegas race in October of 2011. Sports  both stretch and remind us of our mortality, but it seems all the more real in racing.

What about the race itself? It’s kind of like flying: the beginning and the end are thrilling, but the middle gets really long. I’m not sure I would have maintained my sanity either time without a meandering stroll through that part of the race. But I would still recommend going at least once no matter who you are: racing fans, non-racing fans, white people, black people, or anyone else who feels a little curious!

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