Returning to the Indianapolis 500 last Sunday, I felt like a flower budding again after a long, icy winter. Last year, the race was closed to spectators due to COVID-19. On Sunday, only 137,000 fans were allowed, just 40% of the usual 300,000. But the cars and enthusiasm were as loud as ever.
When Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske welcomed the crowd before commanding, “Drivers, start your engines,” he sounded genuinely moved that so many of us were back.
Of course we were. It’s the Indy 500, the greatest spectacle in racing.
The Indy 500 is a 98-year, five-generation family tradition launched by my grandfather in 1923. I went to my first race 50 years ago and missed only a few when my two children were small.
That streak screeched to a halt last year when the race was postponed due to COVID, then finally run without fans Aug. 23, but even that race was a family affair. A dozen of us watched it on TV at my niece’s house in Muncie, Ind.
Early this spring, we all held our breath, waiting to see if fans would be allowed to return in May. Although millions of people are vaccinated, many are not, and shots are still unavailable for kids under 12.
Even after the speedway said fans were welcome, we 25 race-going relatives teetered back and forth. Phone calls flew. Is it safe to go?
In the end, just seven of us went. I was the proud, unwavering matriarch, the only one in my generation who attended. My ticket was a Mother’s Day gift from my children.
Since the speedway assigned seats to make sure the crowd was socially distanced, only my nephew and his 12-year-old son sat in our family’s regular spot in Stand B, Box 8 on the main straightaway.
I sat alone between the first and second turn. Alone, you grimace? Spare the pity. I had a great time. I bonded with four late-30’s tattooed fellows from Clinton, Ind., who sat beside and in front of me. (Social distancing, remember.)
“This is my seventh race,” one of them boasted.
“My eighth,” said another.
“This would’ve been my father’s 10th, but he’s home on kidney dialysis,” a third one said.
Last August, they bragged, they’d come to the Speedway when fans were shut out and watched the 500 on Jumbotrons set up outside the track.
“How many races have you seen?” one of them asked.
“This is my 45th,” I said. Their boasting deflated like a worn Indy tire. “I came for the first time 50 years ago and sat way over there,” I said, pointing to the north end of the track five-eighths of a mile away, invisible to us beyond TV trailers and the 18-hole Brickyard Crossing Golf Course in the middle of the track.
I told them about my family’s Indy roots, and about my late cousin Jenny, who was the pit producer for NBCSN’s IndyCar series until she dropped dead of a heart attack after a race in Toronto in 2016. “She’s up there smiling down on us today,” I told them.
We quickly became best buddies. We all sang “Back Home Again in Indiana.” We heard a solitary trumpeter play “Taps.” We watched fighter jets streak past overhead and heard prayers from the archbishop of Indianapolis.
Then came the words I live for every May: “Drivers, start your engines.” All 33 cars roared by, and the race was on.
In my usual seat across from the pits, I can see the checkered flag and cars flying down the main straightaway. I watch pit crews fill fuel tanks and change four tires in about seven seconds. My view this year was different, but no less exhilarating.
Best of all, when Helio Castroneves won his fourth race — a feat matched by just three other drivers in 105 years — the place erupted. He climbed the fence like Spiderman, ran up and down the main straightaway and was so exuberant he almost forgot to drink the traditional milk.
His infectious joy ignited all 137,000 of us in the stands. At last, after the shackles of COVID-19, Indy was back.