Going to sleep the day before the race is difficult as the anticipation is almost too much. Flashes of previous years' races go through the mind. Flashes of the people met, and the almost "pilgrimage" made to the track just adds to the painful anticipation of what the next morning will bring. Then, morning comes.
With morning comes the rush of activity that, for me, is the best day of the year. It starts with the drive to the track which isn't as easy as it sounds as 250,000-300,000 other people are making the annual pilgrimage to the same hallowed ground. The next step is parking which also isn't as easy as it sounds because this entails finding the right house at the right price and parking at the right angle that gives the best exit.
After parking, the walk to the track among thousands, no, tens of thousands, of people is my favorite walk of the year. It's more than a walk, this is a walk that is getting me to the biggest "Kansas" of the year. This walk brings me to the brink of tears. Tears? This walk gives me flashbacks from when I was six and making this first trek to the track with my entire family. This walk gives memories from when I was nine years old and needed about ten layers of clothes to combat the bitterly cold weather (seriously, great finish, miserable day that year) and then as we get a little closer to the railroad track bridge I think back to the walk of 93 when my dad, sister, and I walked to the track which that year was my last year as a native "Hoosier" as my dad, mom, and I moved to Saint Louis later that year.
As we come out from under the bridge the years start flying by and I think about how many more times I'm going to make this walk and how many more times those around me will be making the same walk. I think of my dad who introduced me to the Speedway at the age of four and in my life that might be the most defining moment that set so many wheels in motion to place me where I am today.
Once the navigation through the sea of people is complete, and reaching a gate happens, there's this magical moment when the "Yellow Shirts" (the Speedway's staff) takes the ticket, marks it, and then I'm on the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day! This moment is just another moment that brings chills.
We quickly go to our seat to wait. However, while waiting doesn't seem like the most memorable of things to do this wait is one I anxiously look forward to as a quarter full grandstand eventually turns into this.
The time passes and the stands fill up and there is this collective anticipation as everyone is awaiting the same things. The waiting continues until one hour until the start of the race when the radio broadcast begins. Then, the schedule of activities are scheduled like a religious schedule and for many of us, this is just as sacred as one.
When the program begins I am a shaky mess of emotions because, for the most part, it's been the same process each year. It's the same songs, the same anticipation, but I'm a different age and the year is different.
The driver introduction kicks off the program to lead up to the race and from there "America the Beautiful" is sung. While there is usually a household name singing over the PA they are usually joined by most in attendance. From that song there is a military address marking Memorial Day and then God Bless America is sung.
Then, soldiers take to the victory podium and do a 21 gun salute with then a trumpeter taking the front and playing Taps to which, as he begins, every conversation that was being had ceases and instantly a quarter million people all are hushed and the silence outside of Taps is eerie. When Taps ends there's a hushed applause. A minute later the National Anthem is sung and the tension is building as we're now just minutes away from 11 rows of three coming off of turn four to start the largest and oldest race in the world.
Before the call to start engines is made there's one last song to be sung and each and every year this song causes me to cry and this year it was even worse as this would be Jim Nabors 35th and final time performing the song, "Back Home Again in Indiana" at the Speedway. This puts into perspective what I thought of when making the walk to the track that we only have a finite amount of times to enjoy race day at Indianapolis and as I heard on the television broadcast, "The Indy 500 was here before we were born and will be here long after we're gone."
I know I wasn't the only person having trouble with emotions during this song but when it was over that only meant one thing and that was the call to start engines was just a moment away. In a stunning twist the Speedway allowed Jim Nabors to say along with a member of the Hulman-George family (they've been the only ones to say "Gentlemen (or lady or ladies when appropriate) start your engines!" which was the first time a non-member of the family said it on race day since the 50's.
The engines fire and there is an extreme roar from the crowd; the race, after a year of waiting, is about to begin. It takes a moment for the engine temperatures to get to a point that they'll roll the cars, which this time seems to take as long as the previous 364 days, but finally, finally! the cars roll off. We were seated in turn two and the marvelous blur of colors rolls past and the sweet smell of ethanol fills the air.
One warmup lap, then a 2nd, and this year a third before the starting field was given the "one lap to green" signal. On this final lap, the lap leading to the race, there is tension in the air because the start of the Indy 500 is one of the most dangerous and unique starts because, as I mentioned, they don't start two wide at Indy they start three wide and the groove in turn one barely supports two wide.
The eleven rows of three made there way to turn three, then turn four and then the green flag flew and all the emotions of the previous three hours were lost in the blur of speed, the smell of exhaust, the thought of strategy, and the thrill of one of the greatest races ever ran and another year of countless memories will be filed away and will live on forever.