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If ever there was a time I wish I wasn’t a jaded teenager, it was when we went to the Indy 500 for practice one year. My grandma turned to me as we settled into the grandstands and said, with a huge grin on her face, “I know it’s not sophisticated, but I just love watching these cars go so fast.”
I knew she was right, I loved her, but being a teenage boy, I just nodded, maybe grunted in agreement. (I should also point out she raised three boys, so I figure she had to know that a grunt and a nod was the teenage boy’s equivalent of “YOU ARE SO RIGHT!” … which is what I wish I’d said.)
Anyway, we went there because my Mom and Dad took me out of school after we’d moved to Ohio. It was a rough move for me, but mostly my parents and grandparents thought that “not all learning takes place in school. You have to experience life outside the classroom.” So, off we went.
The first time I saw a car going through the short-chute between Turn 3 and 4, I physically startled. I’d never seen anything move that fast and I was convinced there was about to be a colossal BOOM as the car slammed into the wall. But it didn’t. And the rest of the day was awesome.
It’s a singular memory and one I hope I always keep.
Just like how, when I was a boy, we’d bet on the 500. Everyone would get three drivers except Mom (I’ll explain), we’d put in a nickel and whoever’s driver finished the highest would win the pot. I’d study the Indianapolis Star with the grid, look at the driver’s pictures and pick who I liked.
(Mom got more than three drivers because she loved Mario Andretti, and since the Andretti luck at the Speedway wasn’t great, we gave her all the Andrettis, plus two other drivers, to sort of make it even.)
Funnily enough, I won most of the time. I picked Rick Mears as one of my drivers the first year he won, mostly because this girl I thought was cute thought Rick Mears was cute and so … well, it made sense at the time (and I won four 500 betting pools with him.) Then one year, I picked this guy Emerson Fittipaldi, and won a few more times.
Then the year that Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear by a fraction to win? Well, I had Goodyear. My ex-brother-in-law picked Little Al. The ex-brother-in-law was an [REDACTED]. I’m glad my sister dumped him.
But, anyway, when I was really little and would win, I really didn’t comprehend money, so I’d get all the coins, take them to Dad and ask “Is this enough for a Matchbox car?”
And he’d make me give him the coins, count them carefully, kind of furrow his brow and say “I … I think so. It’ll buy one Matchbox car, I’m pretty sure. Let’s go to the toy store!”
At the store, I’d pick out my car and give it to him, and he’d go pay for it, making a big show of handing over my winnings. (And of course, he never told me that my winnings were never anywhere close to paying for what I wanted. How he managed to sneak the rest of the money to the clerk without me seeing, I’ll never know.) It was always great.
A final memory is one that I kinda feel sad that folks won’t experience anymore: The race used to never be broadcast live on TV. The only way you could know who won “as it happened” was by listening to the radio. So, most Memorial Day memories are of working in the yard, playing with Matchbox cars, or washing the family cars with Dad while the sound of the race boomed through our little house in Georgia. Then I’d stay up as late as I could to watch the race on TV.
I’m pretty sure our neighbors thought we were a little strange — just like folks at races today must think it’s a little strange that the big bald guy whispers “you are so right, Grandma” with a huge grin on his face when the cars hit the track. But I wouldn’t change a bit of it.Published in