Let me start by saying this, and for once, I don’t think it’s a controversial statement, I don’t think there’s even a 0.000000001% I am wrong, and every person who reads this, that has been, will nod in agreement at what I am about to type.
And it is this.
If you have never been to the Indianapolis 500? You have no idea, what you have missed.
If you ever have been to the Indianapolis 500? Even once? You wish to God you could get back, just one more time.
I haven’t been “Back Home Again in Indiana” since 2008, and sadly, I doubt I’m going this year too. (Although, in my defense, it wouldn’t be the most ridiculous, last minute (fidelity ad guy voice) “why not?” road trip of my lifetime.)
The 98th running of the greatest spectacle in motorsports, is the end of quite a few eras, a few careers at least in part, shaped by this event. In March, the great Jim Nabors, known to my generation as the dude who shows up once a year to move you to tears with his incredible rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana”, and known to my parent’s generation as Gomer Pyle, announced this would be his final time performing his standard*. In the words of the late, great Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA): “you can bet your ass”, I’ll be bawling like a newborn baby, the whole time his final performance goes down, come about 10:45am CT Sunday, give or take two minutes.
Earlier this week, ESPN.com columnist Ed Hinton (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is not only my favorite motorsports journalist, he’s one of my four or five favorite journalists period) announced via his opening piece from Indy, that this is his final 500 as well.
This year also saw the end of my favorite qualifying procedure in motorsports. I used to love the multi-weekend format. Qualify 1-11 on Day One**. Qualify 12-22 on Day Two. Qualify 23-33 on Day Three. And then Billy Boat*** Memorial Bump Day, to close the festivities down. I always felt it not only lent Indy a certain credence (you spent the entire freaking month just qualifying the field!), but I felt it actually made the entire field better. You had better races, start to finish, with that qualifying procedure … because someone who qualified on Day One in the 11th position?
Could be the first one booted from the field****, on Billy Boat Memorial Bump Day, if the conditions were right.
Sadly, Indy’s now gone to a one weekend format, and this ridiculous Super Nine idea, which at least retains the notion that anyone can get the pole at any given time … but it also relegates every slot 10-33 as an afterthought*****. Sad, really.
(*: on second thought? This one gets its own legitimate paragraph. Other footnotes from the above stanza, appear below this.)
The Indy 500 Prerace, quite honestly folks, is what makes the race. And there are five moments in the Prerace Ceremonies, guaranteed to make me either (a) boo mercilessly, (b) literally shake with chills at how cool and awesome, the moment is, (c) turn to whoever’s sitting next to me, and note “it’s a lil’ bit dusty here in the Southeast Vista today”, or (d) laugh hysterically until I’m crying again, from laughing so hard. And those moments, in reverse order from my least to most favorite, are as follow.
(Should probably also note, if you’ve never been to the 500? You’ve never witnessed two of these, because stupid dumb (bleep) ABC doesn’t air the audio for numero cuatro, and they always, for some idiotic, indefensible reason, cut to commercial for moment numero uno.)
5. 403 year old Mari Hulman George, taking the microphone, and somehow, someway, managing to say six words. “Ladies ... (long pause) … and … (long pause) … gentlemen? (long pause). Start … (long pause) your ENGINES!” Then everyone bursts out into applause, Ms. Hulman George gives a fist pump, and she’s immediately moved back to the county-run elderly facility she’s stashed in for 364 days a year. (Again, I jest, IMS officials, I jest.) This is the moment that make me laugh hysterically, until I’m crying again, from laughing so hard. The way she says ENGINES!? Is to die for.
4. 300,000 plus fans mercilessly – and I mean mercilessly – booing former “Survivor” contest Rupert. Every year, dude shows up in his tie-dye tank top, looking even more homeless than he usually does. Every year, he hops in the back of the pick-up truck carrying various “celebrities in attendance” around the track for the fans to warmly greet. Every year, he waves his hand to acknowledge the crowd … and every year, he is booed, by damned near every fan in attendance. Dude? Your fifteen minutes of fame, expired fifteen seasons of “Survivor” ago. (This is the moment guaranteed, to make me boo mercilessly.)
3. Every bit of “Back Home Again in Indiana”, but most especially, the moment when Mr. Nabors hits the next to last line (“when I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash”), and millions upon millions of red, white, and blue balloons, are launched, and float harmlessly upward, and northward, over the Northwest Vista, over the Paddock Box, over Turn Four, towards the Coke Lots and onward. (This is the moment guaranteed, to make me turn to whoever’s sitting next to me, and note “you know, it got a lil’ bit dusty here in the Southeast Vista all of a sudden, didn’t it?”)
And for the record, Dusty laughed out loud at seeing me cry during this song, when we went to the 500 eight years ago. In his defense? If it was ANY other moment, at ANY other race, that DIDN’T involve Kasey Kahne or Sebastian Bourdais winning? I’d be mocking myself too.
2. “Taps”. That “Taps” ranks second, is just how jaw-dropping incredible, the moment ABC never airs is, because let me tell you folks who’ve never been to Indy, a little secret: when that sole trumpeter from the Purdue Marching Band hits the first three notes of “Taps”?
You know what 300,000 plus, not saying a word, simply focusing on the annual tribute to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country, as the names of those with ties to Indiana are shown on the various video monitors around the track, do you know what that feels like?
Chill. It’s just … chill.
1. Florence Henderson performing “God Bless America”. This always comes between “Taps” and “Back Home Again in Indiana”, hence ABC saying “no thanks” to a patriotic tribute, in favor of some craptacular commercial for McDonalds and Discount Tire and Wheels.
I refuse to link a Youtube! link to any of the above moments? Because every person, should experience all of them at least once, in person.
(And your honorable mention? 6am sharp, when the single loudest pee-your-pants explosion you'll ever hear, if you're within a mile of IMS, occurs, as the cannon to signify the opening of the day's events, explodes. Trust me -- the first time you hear it? You will struggle to not pee your pants.)
(**: with bumping every day, once eleven qualifying times, were established. This might be the most genius qualifying system ever developed, and Indy just chucked it to the curb. Kind of like Tony George. Sad times.)
(***: so-named because it seemed every damned year, Billy Boat – number 98 in your programs, of the CURB something team – was on the bump line. And every year, just like the great Wayne “Rasputin” Fontes, Mr. Boat somehow managed to hold onto his job … and the last spot in the field.)
(****: case in point, 2005, when my favorite driver of all time, Kenny Brack, ran the fastest qualifying time in the field … and started 23rd.)
(*****: also from 2005, and it’s a classic, one of those great “f*ck you!” moments in life that I’d like to give to a few people at this point. Arie Luyendyk has fielded a ride for his kid, and Junior is sitting in the 33rd and final spot in the field. Enter the great Anthony Joseph Foyt Junior, whose despise for Arie Luyendyk was so legendary, they literally brawled in victory lane, after the 1997 night race at Texas. (True story, kids – a brawl in victory lane by two Indy 500 champions. God above, I miss the “glory days” of the IRL.) Anyway, AJ decides he can bump Arie Junior from the field, and screw the Luyendyk’s out of any payday at Indy. But … he needs a driver to do it.
It just so happened, that a former driver of his was shopping at a Babies R Us come about 4pm (with the final gun sounding at 6pm) in the greater Indianapolis area, so AJ arranged to get the (never) great Felipe Giaffoni driven to the Speedway, somehow got him through a physical, got a car through inspection, and easily bumped the Luyendyk’s into the scrap heap of history.
I suppose it goes without saying, the 2005 Indianapolis 500? Is my favorite Indy ever. Not the best – but my favorite.)
This year’s race, on paper, is shaping up to be the best one since the best Indy 500 of my lifetime, 2006. When not one, not two, but three lead changes in the final five laps, including the first time the winner was not leading the race exiting the short chute in Turn Four. Michael Andretti led with four to go, Marco Andretti – in his first 500 to boot – entered Lap 200 poised to do something in his first try, his legendary father failed to do, in twenty.
And Sam Hornish Jr., the best driver not named Tony Stewart the IRL ever produced, outdueling both Andretti’s, to take the checkered flag.
In the field this year, you have six former winners – the usual suspects of Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan (your defending champ), and Buddy Lazier – but also two throwback champs: 1995 champion Jacques Villanueve (the 1995 race was the last 500, before the split), and your 2000 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who dominated Indy that day in a way no driver ever has before or since.
Along with those six former champs (at least four of which have a credible shot at the Borg-Warner), my God is this field loaded with potential first-time winners. My favorite open wheel driver still racing, Sebastian Bourdais. Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti following in their legendary fathers’ footsteps. Justin Wilson, Oriol Servio, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay (another Stevo favorite), Will Power, and Ryan Briscoe.
You have Kurt Busch attempting The Double*, the first driver to do so in ages.
And you have, for the second straight year, your pole sitter, Ed Carpenter – perhaps best known, as the only relative affiliated with Tony George, that IMS officials don’t immediately seek, to have forcibly removed from the grounds.
(It’s a joke, IMS officials. But come on, be honest – we all know if Anton shows up, he’s not leaving voluntarily.)
So, let me offer up my predictions, 33 to 1, of this year’s finish to your, Indy 500.
(*: The Double: a driver running both the Indianapolis 500, and the Coca Cola 600, in the same day. Only one driver has ever done it, and finished in the top five in both races. That driver? The man who, in my (rarely) humble opinion, is the single best racing talent of the last thirty years, Tony Stewart (in 2000).
(Key: Finish. (Starting Position.) Driver, Car No, Team/Sponsor. Comments.)
33. (31). Sage Karam, 22, Dreyer and Reinbold Kingdom Racing. This, friends, has the making of an epic, horrific disaster written all over it. A rookie driver, in Dreyer and Reinbold racing equipment, starting in the last row (meaning either (a) he’s going to foolishly try to charge forward, and cause a serious wreck, or (b) he’s going to get lapped inside of the first five minutes, and cause a serious wreck in the second half of the race).
32. (29). Martin Plowman, 41, AJ Foyt Enterprises. Not only – not only! – is this untested rookie driving for AJ Foyt Enterprises? And not only – not only! – is this untested rookie driving for AJ Foyt Enterprises in Larry Foyt’s old ride? His last name is Plowman! Has ANY driver EVER been more properly named, to drive for a team run by Larry Foyt?
(“The Voice of Reason” would have to confirm which year this was – I’m thinking 2005, but it may have been 2004 – when Larry Foyt (predictably) wrecked the 41 mobile in the first few laps in a horrific crash caused by (go figure) driver stupidity. Let’s just say, AJ Foyt, on the team communications channel? Was NOT in a good mood. And Larry Foyt, wisely I would add? Simply refused to even confirm to AJ, he was still alive. AJ Foyt Enterprises – more dysfunctional than Eddie Cheever Red Bull Racing back in the day!!!!!!!)
31. (26). Charlie Kimball, 83, Chip Ganassi Racing. Ganassi’s been off all month – none of their guys qualified in the in the Fast Nine, for crying out loud. Even Sarah Fisher managed to land a driver in the Fast Nine. Kimball’s the “worst” of the Ganassi drivers (which really is an insult to Chuck; he’s not half bad). Smells like a blown engine part on Lap 22 from here.
30. (32). Sebastian Saavedra, 17, KV Racing Technology. I have never heard of this dude, which means he's your probable (aka "predictable") "competition yellow" wreck on lap 32 or 33.
29. (23). Takuma Sato, 14, AJ Foyt Enterprises. Further disgracing the legacy of the 14, that AJ and Tony Stewart worked so damned hard, to establish. Having noted that, if you watched last weekend's coverage of qualifying, how cool was it to see Allen Bestwick (a damned good announcer who keeps getting shafted by every network) nearly cry on-air, in describing to Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear, how excited he was, to finally not just attend a 500, but call the play-by-play? The room got a lil' dusty watching that. I love announcers who are just fans and kids at heart. This is gonna be a fun race, to hear the call for.
28. (8). Josef Newgarden, 67, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Two words: Sarah, and Fisher.
27. (28). James Davison, 33, KV Racing Technology. Your leading candidate for the second "competition yellow" wreck, about lap 60.
26. (27). Jacques Villanueve, 5, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. It's a great story, but the engine isn't there, the on-track time this year isn't there ... and there's only one former champion charging from the last three rows, to reach the top ten this year ... and it ain't Mr. Villanueve.
25. (21). Carlos Huertas, 18, Dale Coyne Racing. Rookies rarely do well at Indy.
24. (24). Alex Tagliani, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. I like Alex. This smells like the grizzled ol' wily veteran who finishes three laps down ... but finishes still on the track.
23. (13). Jack Hawksworth, 98, Brian Hurta Autosport. Holy crap, it's the old Billy Boat CURB Mobile!!!!! How the hell did I pick him to finish this high?!?!?! Am I high? Am I drunk? Wait -- don't ask those questions, please. There's at least a coin flip probability, one of the two, is true.
22. (15). Mikhail Aleshin, 7, Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. Who?
21. (2). James Hinchliffe, 27, Andretti Autosport. The first Joey Lawrence Memorial "Whoa!" prediction. Just a gut feeling. Someone from Andretti's five entries is bound to struggle.
20. (25). Townsend Bell, 6, KV Racing Technology. We're almost -- not quite, but almost -- to the point where every driver left, I can envision winning this race. That's how deep the field is this year. No Robbie MacGhee or George Mack or (paul page voice) FELIPE GIAFFONE!'s in this field.
19. (30). Ryan Briscoe, 8, Chip Ganassi Racing. If Ganassi wasn't so down this year, I'd say this is the point, where every driver remaining, I can envision winning. But we're not quite there yet.
18. (7). Carlos Munoz, 34, Andretti Autosport. And we're there. Out of the seventeen remaining drivers, is going to come your champion.
17. (22). Pippa Mann, 63, Dale Coyne Racing. Do NOT sleep on this chica. Sleep with her? Sure, I would. Then again, I've shared a fun-filled night with a stripper, a cripple, and a chick with a mustache, so I clearly have no discernable standards. But sleep ON her chances of winning this thing? Don't dream of it. This chick has ridiculous talent.
16. (3). Will Power, 3, Team Penske. He rarely runs well at Indy.
15. (12). Kurt Busch, 26, Andretti Autosport. The one entry in the field, I have no idea, what to expect from. In the interest of full disclosure ... and pathetically, my close friends can confirm this is a true, factual statement ... I gave up Miller Lite (which was my beer of choice) after the 2005 NASCAR season, because Kurt Busch took over for Rusty Wallace in the Blue Deuce. I hate Kurt Busch with a passion. Having said that, I want anything and everything to happen, to make the Indy 500 a national event again, on par with the Coke 600 airing three hours later. If that means Kurt Busch finishes higher than middle of the pack? I'm rooting for it. But if he wrecks on lap 18? I'm not shedding any tears.
14. (5). Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. It would be such a much cooler name, if it was Crane, Poole, and Schmidt, instead of Schmidt, Peterson, and Hamilton.
13. (14). Justin Wilson, 19, Dale Coyne Racing. I love this kid. If this is a wreck-filled marathon? He can emerge as the last man standing. If this is a relatively green flag race? He's looking at finishing a lap down.
12. (16). Tony Kanaan, 10, Chip Ganassi Racing. Your defending champ (and congrats -- I loved finally seeing him break through last year). He's so talented, he'll overcome Ganassi's issues, and finish at the tail end of the lead lap, or as the first car a lap down.
11. (11). Scott Dixon, 9, Chip Ganassi Racing. See my comments about Tony Kanaan, and lather, rinse, repeat.
And so, we reach the Top Ten. I freely admit, two of the picks for the top ten, are pure bias ... and one of them, will have you laughing out loud, until I go "inside the numbers" a bit, for said pick.
Still standing for the chance to do what I wouldn't do in a million years, and chug a gallon of milk in the winners circle*? The drivers starting 1st, 4th, 6th, 9th, 10th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th ...
... and 33rd.
(bud light ad guy voice) Here we go ...
(*: this is an abject "fertilizer" lie. Yes, I am lactose intolerant. Yes, even the smell of milk, makes me need to puke. But if I ever won the Indy 500? I'd chug that carafe like it had the finest vodka tonic ever made, inside of it.)
10. (18). Oriol Servia, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. It's been ten years since a Rahal Letterman racer came out of nowhere, to win this event (Buddy Rice, 2004). It's been nine years, since a Rahal Letterman rookie racer came out of nowhere, to take the lead from Dan Wheldon on the restart on lap 189, sparking the single loudest noise I've ever heard in my life -- 300,000 plus fans realizing all at once, "holy sh*t, a chica might win this race!!!!" (That would be Danica Patrick in 2005). Since then? Not much relevance for the Rahal Letterman folks. (And yes, "Letterman" is David Letterman, an Indiana native, gigantic racing fan, and always in attendance, "observing" in one of his drivers' pit boxes.)
My favorite driver, in any circuit, of all time, is Kenny Brack. I had the opportunity to meet him after the 2004 Truck race at Kansas*, not even eight months after I was convinced I'd just watched him die, in the most horrific wreck I've ever seen, in the season finale at Texas. I'll always be grateful to Bobby Rahal and David Letterman, for giving him one final shot at repeating the glory of 1999, in that 2005 race.
(*: I really wish I still had that pic. It is me at my, uuh, finest. Which of the following was NOT true about that picture?
(a) a shirtless Stevo.
(b) a double-fisting Stevo.
(c) a very "holy crap, this guy is LOADED!" look on Kenny Brack's face.
(d) "The Voice of Reason".
The answer? (d). He took the picture. Trust me -- to this day, just thinking about that pic, I laugh out loud, I was so freaking hammered. Then again, considering I was the only person at that truck race, to recognize Mr. Brack from 500 feet away, somehow stumble in his direction, coherently explain how big a fan of his I was, and would he mind taking a picture with me? We're ALL winners here!)
9. (20). Graham Rahal, 15, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. I'm not sure which memory of Mr. Rahal's father and team owner -- and your 1986 winner of this event -- is funnier. Bobby Rahal driving, and doing commercials, for the "Sleep Cheap!" mobile (aka Super 8) ... or the hysterical fan in 1991, when Rahal got bumped out of the race, who had a gigantic cardboard cutout of Bobby, with the caption "will race for food!" attached to it. I'm telling you, Indy fans are the best.
8. (1). Ed Carpenter, 20, Ed Carpenter Racing. The safest prediction I'll make all weekend: if Ed Carpenter is leading this race with ten to go (and there's at least a decent chance of that occurring)? Something will happen, to cause a caution, bunch the field together, and screw him over. (Again, I kid, I kid, IMS officials ... allegedly.) Because there isn't a chance in hell, the current controlling interest of the Speedway, is going to let Tony George's (step)son, win this race.
7. (17). Sebastien Bourdais, 11, KV Racing Technology. There is no bigger fan of Mr. Bourdais, than myself.
6. (4). Helio Castroneves, 3, Team Penske. A win here, ties Helio with AJ Foyt and Rick Mears all-time, as the most successful driver at Indy, with four race victories. You'd be foolish to bet against it.
And then there were five. The drivers starting 6th, 9th, 10th, 19th ...
... and 33rd.
5. (33). Buddy Lazier, 91, Lazier Partners Racing. OK, before you call Two Rivers or Charter on me, here's the deal. Buddy Lazier is an all or nothing prop bet.
This is his 18th start at Indy. In the previous 17 years, he has started in the front 11 four times, the middle 11 once, and the last 11 twelve times.
He has 6 top 11 finishes, 7 middle 11 finishes, and only 4 bottom 11 finishes.
Let that sink in.
12 times he's started in row four or worse ... and 13 times, he's finished in row four, or better, including including six -- six! -- top SEVEN finishes.
If you're looking for a long-shot, "throw a $20 on a potentially profitable wager" proposition for this race?
You can do a helluva lot worse, than Buddy Lazier.
4. (9). JR Hildebrand, 21, Ed Carpenter Racing. So close, yet so far away, in 2011. Don't sleep on this kid.
3. (19). Ryan Hunter-Reay, 19, Andretti Autosport. God, I want to pick this guy to win. But I just can't pull the trigger.
2. (6). Marco Andretti, 25, Andretti Autosport. Could this race end any more fittingly, than with Andretti finishing 2-3, to Penske? I say no.
1. (10). Juan Pablo Montoya, 2, Team Penske. I know it's been fourteen years ... but I cannot erase the visual of how dominant Montoya was, for Penske, in 2000. The great ones always -- always -- have two big wins in them. This will be Montoya's day.
Winner: Juan Pablo Montoya.
One final note:
Sunday marks the "official" opening of pool season, and any friend of mine, is always welcome to enjoy the pool, some Stevo-style vodka tonics, The Beer Machine, or The Deck ... where I plan to watch the racing action from (at least) Indy and Charlotte Sunday, and (if I am upright and ambulatory early enough) Monaco as well.
But Sunday is gonna be a bittersweet one for me, as I'll be spending the Holiest Day of Racing watching it with the biggest racing fan I know, my buddy Gus ... and this is likely to be, his last Trifecta Sunday.
Cancer is kicking his ass eight ways from Sunday right now. As he put it in an email to me earlier this week, when I asked how the radiation was going, "if you couldn't understand (what I'm saying) after a few beers? You really can't understand (what I'm saying) now!" Then his typical "ha ha ha!", to let you know it was a joke.
I really and truly hope, this isn't the last time, I'll spend the final Sunday in May, watching a day of racing with my friend. But if it is?
Please, dear God -- every God there ever was, there ever is, there ever will be, and the universe entire -- please, let there be three epic finishes, from the south of France, to the heart of America, to the heart of North Carolina, on this Sunday.
Because I'm kicking his ass right now in our Annual (Racing) Bet.
And I want my friend there, to pay off the hefty tab, at the annual event the Double holds to benefit REAP (Raytown Emergency Assistance Program -- it's a non-profit that pays bills for those in Raytown who can't, for whatever the tragic reasons, as best the charity can pay them, for those far less blessed in this amazing gift called life, than you and I), come mid December ...
... to say nothing of wanting him there, for the Duels in mid February, when the Annual (Racing) Bet, gets modified as need be ...