Sunday, May 29, 2011


“You must treat this track with respect or it will bite you.” 

So said 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and million-times “almost winner” Mario Andretti to Formula 1 driving ace Arie Luyendyk when he came to Indianapolis as a rookie in 1985. Luyendyk went on to win the race in 1990 and 1997.

Gripped by the aura of the Indianapolis 500 a few years ago, the following piece 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 story lines prove it true, however:

The average speed for qualifying--over 224 mph--makes it, as always, the fast race in any auto racing series.  Four women qualified among the 33 drivers.  The pole winner--Alex Tagliani--is not from one the power teams, but from Indianapolis-based Sam Schmidt Racing, owned and operated by a former Indy racer who was mangled and permanently paralyzed in an IndyCar crash several years ago. There is local hopeful Ed Carpenter, driving for Sarah Fisher Racing.  There is John Andretti, back for another shot at a race that has eluded his family for decades.  There are older and younger drivers who have mortgaged everything to get into the Indy 500. They 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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