Sunday, May 20, 2007


“You must treat this track with respect or it will bite you.” -- 1968 Indianapolis 500 winner and million-times “almost winner” Mario Andretti’s advice to Formula 1 driving ace Arie Luyendyk when he came to Indianapolis as a rookie in 1985. Luyendyk won the race in 1990 and 1997.

Gripped by the aura of the Indianapolis 500 a few years ago, the following thoughts came together for me. Perhaps the poem makes sense only to those who have lived within the gravitational pull of the Brickyard for a lifetime. This year’s events prove it true, however: Davey Hamilton, whose feet were mangled in a racing accident five years ago, is back in the qualified field of 33 drivers—25 surgeries and a thousand and one “impossibilities” later. John Andretti, Mario’s nephew and Indianapolis native who last raced an Indy car in 1994 (he’s driven for NASCAR ever since), came back home and qualified at over 221 mph on Saturday. By any reasonable measure, these guys should not be here. But here they are—choking back tears as they get one more chance to drive in and win the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

What is the mystique of this oval,
this ribbon of banked asphalt
that it winds its way into
the hearts and hopes of
many a would-be conqueror?

Is this not merely pavement?
One more course to be run?
One more track to be subdued?
And is not Indy “just a race?”

Why then are the greatest
not considered so until they have
proven their mettle here?
Why do the sport’s most promising
strive a lifetime to be in The 500?

Once run, Indy asserts a
greater grip on its pursuers.
It shadows their other victories.
It haunts their off-track pursuits.
It lures them back to its graceful sweep.

Other races simply mark the calendar
as tests and rehearsals for another
chance at The Brickyard.
Only the fastest elite qualify here
and only a select few win.

Indy in May turns men into boys,
turns boys into men of speed
and women into its grand dames.
It dares anyone to call it “just a race”
but honors all who bring due respect.

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