Friday, May 26, 2023

The 500, My Dad, Always Has Been, Always Will Be

The sun is coming up over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's carb day, and if you're unfamiliar with what  that is, it is the final practice before Sunday's 107th running of the Indianapolis 500. I'll be in the flag stand, displaying the flags for the race. My dream job. My 30th Indy 500 in person, and fourth working. There will be a big piece of my heart missing here though.

photo by Walter Kuhn
Two years ago, the crowd went into a frenzy as Helio Castroneves took the lead for the final time. The crowd was louder than the cars! The frenzied crowd wanted to see Helio join the four-time winners club of the 500, and as he flashed across the line under my checkered flags, he did. As the rest of the field crossed, and the last running car took the checkered, I looked over to the stands on the other side of the track where my dad was watching. He could see me a whole lot better than I could see him, but he was there, like he always has been.

I got a call during the GP week two weeks ago. It was my dad. He's been fighting a health issue and the doctor advised that he shouldn't come to the race. He was heartbroken, so was I. My earliest memories are of racing and dad. The two are inseparable. I can remember attending practice in 1987 and the cars were way too loud for my ears at the time as I wasn't prepared for the unfiltered sounds of those engines. He asked if I wanted to go home, but as bad as the sounds were, my love of the colors, smells, and speed were stronger than my sensory issues. The next time at the track, my dad made sure I had better ear protection. 

Racing and my dad... it's been a lifelong thing. I started racing karts in 1995, and we spent many weekends over the years at the track. He tried his best to get me into something bigger than karts, and we came close so many times, but driving wasn't in my calling. That being said, while I couldn't see my dad across the track, I could certainly feel the smile resonating from that section of the grandstand.

A misconception about those on the autism spectrum is that we lack empathy. This isn't the case, it's just that we have an extremely difficult time putting emotions into words. Perhaps this is why I'm writing this. I've known he won't be here on race day and... I'm okay with it. I didn't think I would be, but working practice, and then qualifying last weekend, I haven't felt him missing.

Each and every time I go under the tunnel into these most hallowed ground of the Speedway, I remember all the times he took me here after school. I remember coming to every day of the rain soaked 1997 running. I remember leaving my souvenirs in turn three after the extremely hot 2005 race. We were almost to 16th St when I remembered so that made for an extra-long walk. And, I'll never forget that he was there, in 2021, for my first double checkered of the 500.

My heart breaks for him, but I know he'll be watching with the rest of the world on television. This race is steeped in tradition, and this is just my story. Families have been coming to this race for generations and I wonder if others have this same sense of connection on race day. Perhaps race day morning will be different for me. I know I'll be a teary-eyed mess during Taps, and Back Home Again in Indiana, but come the command to start engines, I'll be game ready and focused. I'll look across the track and I'm sure there will be a little hole, but missing an event doesn't delete the memories of all the years prior. The feeling of a shared experience, the countless hours of travel, the early mornings at the track with my dad. No matter how or when, in my heart at the track he has always been with me, and always will be.


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