By Kirby Arnold, Staff Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – Six months ago, I wasn’t sure this day would happen. Or to be precise, could happen.
The COVID-19 pandemic was strangling the world last December, and nobody knew how to loosen that grip or when it would. Positive test numbers climbed at an alarming rate, and while some people got over it fairly easily, many got really sick. And people died, some I knew personally, and it scared the you-know-what out of me. A vaccination was on its way, but when?
Frankly, when I got my first vaccination on Valentine’s Day and the second on March 7, I cherished the opportunity to visit family I hadn’t seen in more than a year. But I also celebrated the fact that if this thing works, I’ll return to Indy for the 27th time.
As important as February 14 and March 7 were in my life, so was May 30, 2021. Race Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
So, when I took my seat in Turn 3 with thousands of others Sunday, it was like we really had turned a corner back to the old days. The really good old days.
We cheered all the weird things that Indy 500 fans celebrate – like the poor guy trying to carry a cooler full of beer up the aisle only to have it break apart, with most of his load tumbling back down the stairs like a Slinky (Google that, kids). Or the freshened-up restrooms, where the old pee troughs had been removed, along with scrawlings on the once-dingy block walls that had insults of Paul Tracy and phone numbers for a good time.
We cheered military heroes who paraded around the track before the race and the 33 drivers before they strapped into their cars. We fell absolutely silent when the lone bugler stood over the start-finish line and played “Taps.” And when soloist Jim Cornelison stood on the main straight and sang “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the crowd sang along with him, in unison and with emotion, whether they were from Indiana or not.
Everything seemed right again, not only because the race last year ran in August (not May) with nobody in the massive grandstands, but also with the fight against COVID. Yeah, we still need to be cautious, but Sunday hopefully proved that it can be done after I wasn’t sure it was possible six months ago.
Only a few weeks ago, speedway management didn’t know if they’d be able to host a full house or a fraction of that because COVID protocols were so uncertain. When it was determined they could fill 40 percent of the seats, it meant the race-day crowd would be 135,000. That’s nowhere near the 300,000-plus in a normal year that fills the seats and spreads across the infield, but it would be the world’s largest sports-event crowd since the pandemic shut everything down in 2020.
I sat in Turn 3 on Sunday and marveled at where we’ve all come. And it seemed like all those around me felt the same. Strangers treated each other like friends because, basically, we’d all had the 500 taken from us last year. And good friends became closer, as evidenced by the buddies two rows in front of me who shared the same bottle of bourbon (Please don’t try that at home, or anywhere, pandemic or not).
Bottom line, the Indianapolis 500 truly is a gift, and if we didn’t realize that before 2020 when we couldn’t go, we do now.
That’s why everyone’s reaction to the pre-race command “Drivers start your engines!” seemed so much more emotional. It’s why the crowd cheered so loudly when local driver Conor Daly, who grew up in nearby Noblesville, Indiana, took the lead on lap 50 and again on lap 84. It’s why the cheering even drowned out the sound of the engines when Helio Castroneves, who’d been trying for 11 years to win this race for the fourth time, passed Alex Palou on the last lap.
And it’s why nobody edged toward the exits as they continued to watch the giant video screen and cheer as Castroneves climbed the fence, ran up the main straight to acknowledge the crowd and, later, kissed the bricks as he’d done after victories in 2001, 2002 and 2009.
They savored a moment in sports history so rare, it’s been 30 years since a driver became a four-time winner (Rick Mears in 1991). It’s now a four-man club, with Castroneves joining Mears, Al Unser and A.J. Foyt.
But I also believe the crowd didn’t immediately leave because they savored just being here again at an event so special that many hadn’t missed a race for decades before 2020 happened.
I could feel it in Turn 3, and the drivers sensed it on the track.
“After the year we had in 2020, this put a smile on your face,” said former winner Simon Pagenaud, who finished third. “The more you love the place, the more the place loves you back. I felt so much (emotions) that I didn’t know I had, just because of the energy in the grandstand.”
After a year when everything seemed so unbelievably wrong, this was so right.