Seven years ago tomorrow, I was on my way to the Indy 500 with my buddy Gregg and his dad. We stopped off at a gas station to pick up some stuff to stuff in the cooler, and I grabbed an Indy Star (to make sure I had the commemorative lineup poster).
I'll never forget the lead column that morning (I believe Curt Cavin wrote it, but it might have been John Oreovitz), on how this Indy 500 was the most important of them all, because literally the entire future of the sport was riding on the outcome.
Being a biased IRL fan, I thought that was absolutely ridiculous speculation. But the author was right -- what had become a (please, God, don't strike me with a lightning bolt for what I'm about to type ...) what had become a boring non-spectacle, roared back to life that afternoon.
I've been privileged to attend many a magical sporting moment. Most of those moments were pretty damned loud. So trust me when I tell you, that I have NEVER heard anything as loud as the roar of IMS on lap 189, when Danica Patrick overtook Dan Wheldon on the restart to grab the lead with 10 to go. The noise was absolutely indescribable.
I wasn't rooting for Danica that day -- I was rooting for my favorite driver, Kenny Brack, making his final start of his career nearly 18 months after he should have died in a horrific wreck at Texas ... and at that point, was rooting for my other favorite, Sebastien Bourdais, who was running third (and finished third). But even I was pumping the fist hard when Danica passed me where I was sitting in turn four, the leader with 50 miles to go.
Danica didn't have the fuel to maintain the "full rich" effort she was giving, and Dan Wheldon eventually retook the lead, and held on to win his first Indy 500. He would win his second one last May.
Sunday ... neither Danica nor Dan will be in Indianapolis for the 96th running of my favorite event in sports. (And sadly, I won't be there either. Although I will be watching, poolside, with anyone who cares to join me.)
Dan Wheldon tragically passed away last fall in a crash in Las Vegas. Danica Patrick will take the green flag tomorrow ... at Lowe's Motor Speedway, in the nightcap of the greatest racing trifecta known to man (the Grand Prix of Monaco kicks things off at the ass-crack of dawn).
My point of this post is this: just like seven years ago, I think the IndyCar series is incredible to watch, I wish to God they still ran at Kansas, and I'll tune in for any race they stage. But I'm in the minority. NASCAR has once again all but buried the IndyCar series.
Which is why, I'd argue, like that columnist did seven years ago, that this year's 500 matters. It matters big time, to those of us who prefer open-wheel racing to stock car racing. (And that would be me).
Sunday? Is arguably the most important race IMS has ever hosted. The three "stars" from last year, won't be there (Jim Nabors is recovering from emergency heart surgery in Hawaii, and please, dear Lord, let him recover. I can sincerely say this, and even Dusty defended me on this last night -- if you have never been to the 500, you don't understand how awesome the prerace ceremonies are, culminating with Jim Nabors welcoming us "Back Home Again in Indiana" as the balloons launch. I need to see that at least one more time).
And Sunday? It would behoove the IndyCar series to find a way to send Marco Andretti to victory lane, to the ultimate celebration of the ultimate triumph in sports. A triumph Marco was 100 feet from having in 2006 (still to this day, the single greatest sporting event I've ever attended).
A win tomorrow, buries the Andretti curse, and more importantly, propels the sport to the front of every sports site known to man. "Andretti Wins Indy". Even former fans turned off by the split would at least say "whoa!" and click on the link, seeing that as a headline.
For me? For you? For us racing fans? We need Marco to win tomorrow (or Graham Rahal, another "whoa, I gotta click on this!" headline link that would fuel this awesome sport to the front of the conversation).
Doesn't mean I won't be rooting for Sebastien Bourdais (I will be). Doesn't mean I won't be rooting for Tony Kanaan (I will be). Doesn't mean I wouldn't love seeing Helio match Big Al, Rick Mears, and AJ in the "four timers" club (I would). But for the sport? It needs to be Marco.
There's four things the Indy 500 does better than you'd ever imagine, even given your heightened expectations: "Taps", "Back Home Again in Indiana", "God Bless America", and an Andretti crapping out on the final lap. They do these four things so well, especially the first three, that every time I am in Indy to see the race, I cry like a baby as they unfold.
Last night, I spent a fun night celebrating my good buddy Dusty's 31st birthday by taking in a night of jazz and blues at BB's Lawnside BBQ in south KC. Inevitably, racing came up, as a few of us there were racing fans. In the interest of full disclosure, my buddy Dusty is NOT a racing fan -- far from it, actually. He was with me in Indy in 2006 because he heard it was the craziest party imaginable*, and he wanted to experience it once. (It lived up to his expectations).
(*: it was arguably the funnest three days of my life. What I wouldn't give for one last "Stevo and Dusty take in the 500" weekend getaway ...)
Inevitably, some folks we wound up talking to started mocking me for having tears in my eyes during "Taps", or for being speechless after "God Bless America", or for just shaking my head as more tears flow during "Back Home Again in Indiana". Normally, this is where Dusty would pounce and get in a good cheap shot or two.
Instead, this was his response:
(dj) so have you ever been (to Indy)?
(dj) then you don't get it.
My way of saying: I have this feeling that tomorrow is going to be one of the great regrets of my life, a "God bless it, why was I not there again?!?!" tinge of regret that haunts me until eternity. The safest, most surest way of that happening? Is Marco Andretti winning this thing. Tonight, I pray for greatness, for Marco to win this thing in blowout fashion.
Tomorrow? I root for it to happen, sadly from a back deck in Raytown instead of the Southeast Vista in Speedway, Indiana ...