The 500 Is Back, And This Time It Counts

Three generations of Schultzes at the 103rd running in 2019.

Courtesy of Derek Schultz

Crawling into, through, and soon out of the pandemic, I’ve struggled to comprehend plenty of things about our new normal – most of all, time. Sure, you can point to early March of last year and say it’s been this many months, or weeks, or whatever, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s been hard for me to actually understand time.

It’s not hard to understand like that math class at IU that my ex-girlfriend helped me salvage a C-minus in, or why people voluntarily eat St. Louis style pizza.  It’s hard to understand in the sense that I have forgotten what it’s like to go out to dinner with friends or experience live sports in a stadium full of people. When you can’t wait fifteen seconds for an ad to play on YouTube, fifteen months is an eternity.

When I walked into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week, something I’ve done hundreds of times before in my life, I completely froze hearing an IndyCar engine roaring down the main straight.. I had forgotten what it felt like. I needed a few seconds for my brain to process what I was hearing; it was like hearing “Illmatic” for the first time. It was enough for my wife to turn around and say, “Uh, are you OK?”

I am OK. In fact, on Race Day I’m better than OK. The Indianapolis 500 is back, and even with a reduced capacity I’m thrilled to see the event return.

 And yes, I mean that last year didn’t really count. Yes, it counts in the record books, and Takuma Sato is a deserving champion who handled his second Indy triumph with his usual humility and grace and won a legitimate contest. But last August was not the Indianapolis 500. There was no parade, no Carb Day, and no fans. It was August, for fuck’s sake. I actually left to run errands during last year’s race. If you’re at the 500, you don’t leave. You go sneak a cigarette in the infield or use those godforsaken urinal troughs during the race. You don’t go shopping for milk, eggs, and a decorative pillow at the Glendale Target.

The last real 500 feels more like ten years ago as opposed to two, and the one thing I’m beginning to fully understand is how much I missed it.

It wasn’t always this way for me. I once thought the Indy 500 was just a bunch of cars going around in a circle. The race wasn’t a thing in Connecticut where I grew up, and the city of Indianapolis might as well have been Istanbul. I didn’t get why my dad pleaded with me to stay indoors on gorgeous Memorial Day weekends, sitting in front of the TV for four hours to watch some car race in a town where Reggie Miller, the guy who routinely ripped out my little Knicks-fan heart, lived.

It wasn’t until I came to Indiana for college that I began to finally appreciate the Indianapolis 500, especially all of the non-race things about it. That was thanks mostly to my four roommates from Lebanon, who had a college tradition of Coke Lot campouts. Shot-gunning Natty Light by camp light hooked me, but eventually, attending the race itself became the highlight of my calendar. We have stories that we still re-tell from those college years, like when we sent (redacted) for more firewood and he came back with bottle rockets and cigarettes, or when (redacted) was defeated — routed, really — for the first time in a chugging contest by a random Speedway townie.

As an adult, what I remember and cherish from these Race Days is watching my son’s face light up when the cars dart by, or my dad’s smile when he met Mario Andretti. Those memories are as deeply intertwined with the 500 as “Back Home Again in Indiana” or the Victory Lane bottle of milk.

For many of us, the actual sporting element of the Indianapolis 500 is secondary. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy racing and the action and entertainment are top notch. But while we all have our own personal memories associated with the race, I would guess very few of them have anything to do with Arie Luyendyk’s lap time or the so-called Andretti Curse. That’s what makes this month and this event so special and as deeply-woven into the cultural fabric of Indianapolis as a pork tenderloin or tucking your Peyton Manning Colts jersey into your jeans.

The 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 will be special because of the long, arduous, stressful, two-year anticipation period. It won’t be completely normal, but given all of the abnormalities of the past year-plus, it’s a more than welcome step on our collective path forward. They’ll be at decreased capacity, sure, but countless Race Day traditions will be renewed for Hoosiers (and plenty beyond the state lines) this weekend. Cheap beer will be drank, cold fried chicken will be eaten, archaic troughs will be pissed on, and fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, families, and friends will be there to experience it in-person again, in the nation’s largest gathering of humans since COVID brought sports (not to mention the rest of the world) to a screeching halt.

There are plenty of things I’ll continue to struggle with in our soon-to-be post-pandemic world. Understanding what this event means to me is no longer one of them.