Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dreams Really DO Come True, Under the Checkered Flag

I mentioned in a previous post that the story of my first Indy 500 could make a whole blog post on its own, so finally here it is. 
At the main gate to IMS, Race Day 2010.
 First I have to give you a few bits of backstory.  My family lived in Indianapolis, up on the north side near 54th Street and Keystone Avenue, when I was younger.  For as long as I can remember, the Indy 500 was part of my Memorial Day weekend, although we never attended in person. We watched every year on our 19-inch black & white Motorola television set, munching on popcorn and having Kool-Aid (my brother and I) or iced tea (my parents) as we cheered our favorite drivers on.
We moved away just before I started the fourth grade, but I remained a fan. (It amuses me that my brother never did care as much about it as I did; I have very clear memories of being a total pest to my mom one year, BEGGING her to get my father to take me to the race.  But if I had gone then, the rest of this story wouldn't be nearly as fabulous).

Huge billboard on the back of the grandstand near Turn 1, Race Day 2010
 My parents had several reasons for us not attending (at least ones they would tell me; I think in retrospect that at least part of their refusal had to do with the Snake Pit of the late 1960s and early 1970s) - noise level, the fact that fans near the track often were hit with flying tire and car debris, and the chance that someone would suffer fatal injuries in a crash.
So we never went to the race.  We did go to the museum once or twice, but actually seeing the race in person was a dream, first appearing in my childhood and recurring on an annual basis every Month of May.

Wing and wheel logo on the sidewalk outside the track, photo taken from inside!

Some of the now-legendary drivers were fixtures at the Speedway every Month of May (and it makes me chuckle to realize that most of the 'household name' drivers of today weren't even alive when my heroes were behind the wheel - Al Unser Sr., A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Gordon Johncock, Jackie Stewart and so many others).

Fast forward to me as a (chronological) grownup.  I served in the US Army from 1986 to 1990, and my second-to-last assignment was at a wee tiny artillery base in Turkey.  By this time I was in the habit of stopping everything to watch the "500" on television every year, and whenever I met anyone with whom I was stationed who was from Indiana, I always asked if they were a race fan.

As luck would have it, the supply clerk in my unit in Turkey is from Indiana (he still lives there, actually, but I'm getting ahead of myself).  We listened together to the 1989 race on the Armed Forces Radio network, but I had to wait until I got back to the States to find out about Emerson Fittipaldi drinking ORANGE JUICE instead of milk in Winner's Circle.  (The following year we were both back in the US, again stationed at the same post, and we watched Arie Luyendyk (???????) take the checkered flag...... Arie WHO? we said).

Here I remember that we talked several times about going together to the 500, before we lost track of each other......

(Trust me, all this not-specifically-related-to-the-race stuff is important.  You have to know it to understand the total and complete awesomeness of my 2010 Indy 500 experience).

So, life goes on, I get out of the Army and end up back here where I am.  Supply clerk goes to Desert Storm,   life continues, he gets out of the Army and ends up where he is. I have to say that while he was not the person with whom I spent the most time while we were stationed in Turkey, he is the person I remember the most about.  I made halfhearted attempts to reconnect on several occasions, but it wasn't until late 2009 that I had
the brilliant idea to see if he was, by any chance, on Facebook.
Resting the feet before we find our seats, Race Day 2010

BINGO!  I sent him a message, asking if he remembered me, we friended each other and after a short while he invited me and the kids to come to Indy for the 2010 race.

Phone calls and facebook messages began flying back and forth, overtime hours and extra projects were taken on, no job was too small and no hour too late to make the money to have my long-held dream come true.  Plans were made, arrangements decided upon, caretakers for the menagerie were engaged.

Cars to the starting grid, 2010
 Here is where I remember, and tell Birdman, that I remember the promise I made to him when he was 9, that I would take him to the "500" the year he turned 13.  That would be 2010.  Heheh.

OK, I have to have a name for my Army buddy so for reasons I care not to divulge, he will be Jimmy henceforth.

We spent Friday night and Saturday morning at Jimmy's in a town about an hour from Indy.  We left there in mid-afternoon, stopping on the way to go to Saturday evening Mass at a conveniently-located Catholic parish.  We stopped for gas, dinner and box lunches in Speedway and then began running the traffic gauntlet to the Coke Lot where we would car-camp overnight.  (I should say now that the night before the race is kind of like Mardi Gras, in May, with race cars instead of Krewe parades.  There were portions of Georgetown Road where I made my kids put their heads down below the windows, because you know what has been seen cannot be unseen......)

I can't believe I'm here.  2010
Breakfast the next morning was a delicious all-you-can-eat deal at the American Legion post, after which we walked across the street to the gate and BOOYAH I am inside the fence, on Race Day, for the first time in my life!

We walked up a set of steps to a landing in one of the grandstand stairways, and stood next to the fence and looked out at the track.......all of a sudden I realized, I'm HERE.  I'm not at home in front of my TV, I am actually part of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing this year!  I could see the pit area, the Pagoda, the scoring pylon, and as far as I could see, seats.  Hundreds of thousands of seats.

Pace Car, 2010
 I got to hear Jim Nabors sing "Back Home Again in Indiana" and I felt like I was back home again.  Balloons?  check.  Flyover?  check. (well, we heard it, but couldn't see the planes because we were under the overhang in C Stand; a good thing because temps set a record that day).  National Anthem?  check.  Lump in throat and tears in eyes?  check, check.

Excitement? in spades.  Emotion?  I can't begin to tell you.

I could go on for a whole book's worth but I think maybe you get the idea that I had a really good time.  :)  So good, in fact, that right now we are planning our trip to the 2011 race, only this year we are camping in Lot 2 from Thursday through Sunday, and  we've decided to brave the viewing mounds in the infield instead of springing for grandstand seats - by doing this we can do Carb Day, A.J. Foyt Day and Race Day very nicely.

And to Jimmy - you know who you are - I know I didn't thank you nearly enough for helping me make my dream come true. I wonder, do you remember when we were stationed at Fort Sill and we talked about going to the race together?  I do, and I'm really glad you were the one to see my face when I looked down the front straight at the Pagoda for the first time.  You're an awesome person and I hope I see you at the "500" this year so I can say what I didn't say last year.  ;)

Dario Franchitti on his Victory Lap, 2010

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