For the past month I have been getting psyched for the 9 days that are upon us. My theme song for the month has been Magnificence by U2. A choice so obvious, that ESPN has been using the song for its World Cup promos. Too bad the IICS doesn’t have the budget to have used it in their work (though the Versus promo does a nice job on a budget) and ESPN didn’t have the commitment to the sport to have chosen it for the 500. There is one line in the song which I especially like “Only Love can leave such a scar”. I am captivated by that line because it separates love from the things that are gratuitous and hedonistic from all that is to be desired even if they are accompanied by a painful journey beset by hard and wrenching setbacks to overcome.
The Indy 500 is a contest, and like any other contest or race it can provide moments of happiness for its winner. Go down to the local little league park and you will see happy kids who have just won a game. The 500 is no different, the winner is excited as they drink the milk and wear the wreath, but what sets Indy apart are the emotions of those who don’t win. There again, even down at the little league park there are upset kids who have lost a game. But happiness and disappointment at Indy is on a different scale altogether from most other sporting events. The evidence of this played out today at the track.
Today was bump day, the final day for qualifications. Today we saw a man so tough that he makes Chuck Norris wet himself, Tony Kanaan, with the look of fear in his eyes. Not the fear of pain or injury but a different kind of fear. For all the work his team had done and for as much as he could, over the course of 10 miles, throw caution to the wind and risk his own safety, his was the fear of failure, that it all simply would not be enough.
Today we also saw the agony of failure. We saw it in the face of Sarah Fisher as her driver Jay Howard took to the track at a last second attempt to qualify for the Race. After Jay’s first lap that looked like it might be quick enough Sarah looked pensive but hopeful. Then the speeds started dropping. After lap 2 her face was in her hands, after laps 3, the sobbing and tears could not be held back anymore.
Likewise, strapped in his car with his helmet on and his visor down was Paul Tracy. The scene was altogether similar and at the same time antithetical to the scene that played out for a bitter rival the year before. Paul Tracy, hoping against hope for one last final run on the track, to turn back time, to get the band back together and to defy time and circumstance for one last moment of glory at the tail end of a career only a few can match. A few minutes after the gun sounded as his car still sat in tech line, he was walking down pit lane and into the press center to do a final interview for the press. He was emotional, but he was also honest and decent. He displayed an understanding for the nature of his sport. Knowing that he is only the front man for a team that largely toils in relative obscurity, he wasn’t going to throw his team under the bus and as he talked the tears dripped.
Meanwhile, 5 miles to the east, in an ER room, a nineteen year old waiting for an MRI on his back. It had been a bad day, in prepping contingencies for being bumped and facing the need of having to do better, when better had not been there all month, he spun his car and wrecked the only piece of machinery his team had for the month. The phone rang, and the news came. Not that he had won anything, but rather that he had finished 33rd in a contest of wills and nerves, and in that 33rd place finish, he found unadulterated Joy. Walter Mitty has a new name, and it is Sebastian Saverdra.
What we saw play out today with such a wide range of emotions was not the difference between winning and losing, first and second, Duke and Butler, it was the difference between 33rd and 34th place in qualifying. If the swing of emotions for 33rd and 34th are so great, it only goes to put perspective around what actually finishing first seven days from now must be like. When Helio cries, “I got my life back” and that “you guys kept me strong” it all comes back to the words of Al Unser Jr “You just don’t know what Indy means”. The emotions that were on display today point to the greatness of the 500. Where else are tears shed for 34th place?
Over the past 15 years, the emotion of simply “belonging” has been missing. It has been discussed recently if there were “Lost Years” for Indy and in my opinion yes there were. But not so much for the race on the Sunday before Memorial Day, because on that day someone always won, and the trophy was always handed out to someone who genuinely was moved by the experience. But what so many of those races lacked was the compelling drama the weekend before, when even the greats of the sport were humbled by 4 laps and 10 miles around the speedway. Over the past two years that drama has returned, and it only serves to show just how great this race is.