500 Laps to Glory

Three hundred million TV sets around the globe are tuned in to watch the largest sporting event in the world, the 101st running of the Indy 500. But will it happen? On this once-a-year-day, the forecast calls for 80 percent chance of rain. At dawn, Indianapolis casts a collective eye to the heavens and holds its breath as the sun breaks through the clouds and hangs in there. The good lord loves ya’, Indy.

At the JW Marriott, the Indy Breakfast is in full swing. Old-timers and first-timers swap Indy lore over bacon, sausages, steak and eggs and the heartiest of American foods. Hoosier hospitality. The drink du jour is an extravagant Bloody Mary garnished with shrimp and bacon. The mood of camaraderie, sportsmanship and excitement is contagious.

Who will win the $2.46 million purse today? I’m rooting for our man, Canadian James Hinchcliff, as he’s a hero in these parts and they’ve named a local beer after him: Hinchtown Hammerdown. They say the “bad boy” is Marco Andretti, handsome and privileged, whose father is renowned Mario Andretti. And there’s a lot of interest in Britain’s Pippa Mann, the only female driver—and in a pink car—whose sponsor is the Susan J. Koman Foundation. It could be Helio Castraneves who, with a fourth win, could claim an elite place in the Indy Legends history. Last year, rookie Alexander Rossi won, so we do not discount the rookies. A favourite is hometown boy Ed Carpenter, who is a driver and team owner. Ed’s father is IMS Chairman, TonyGeorge. Carpenter began racing at eight years of age and this is his 14th Indy.

Indy 500_Patriotism
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The pre-race physical and emotional training is rigorous, he tells us. There is no power steering so the wheel can only turn 20 degrees, and no air conditioning. The drivers wear a heavy fire-retardant suit, a sock on their heads, a helmet, heavy gloves, a six-point harness, padding around the neck, and then they drive sitting motionless for three and one half hours. “It get’s very hot,” he says, “and I usually lose six to eight lbs. of weight during a race.” He explains how the weather affects the race. “Sun, cloud cover, winds and temperature all have a bearing on the asphalt and how the car sticks to the track.” He adds, “of course it is stressful, and I try to get as much sleep as possible, but that’s difficult. I try to down a shake, maybe force down a sandwich, eat some pretzels for the salt, and drink lots of water.”

“Why do you do this, Ed? What are the redeeming features of putting yourself through such stress, discomfort and personal risk?” Without hesitation, he answers, “It’s the competitive thrill.”

We’ve walked the track, appreciated the smell of the asphalt and the crowds and, now, it’s time to get to our vantage point in a Tower terrace suite. Vice President Pence arrives by helicopter and proceeds to be part of a procession around the track. Our plan is to sit outside, earplugs intact, until after the cars have done three laps. But first, we witness a beautiful and emotional display of love of country. The songs: America the Beautiful, Back Home Again in Indiana, and The Star Spangled Banner. An impassioned speech from General Robert B. Adams praising the military and fallen soldiers. There is a three-gun salute and Taps is played. You could hear a pin drop in this giant stadium. The orchestra plays Hail to the Chief. Father Mike Welch delivers the invocation. Even as a Canadian, to be among 300,000 people standing with hands on heart and singing the national anthem, brings emotional tears to my eyes. Patriotism is above politics in Indiana.

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Indy 500_Takuma Sato
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The man in the crow’s nest whips the green flag out and 33 cars roar out of the starting gate. Ed Carpenter from #1 position waves as he promised. “It takes a mere 40 seconds to go around the track at about 200 mph,” he says. With 200 laps to go, the car gets 4 miles to a gallon of ethanol. The heart rate can go to 140 and,” says Ed, “sometimes there is so much air moving, it feels as if the throttle has stopped.” Inside the glass-walled suite, we’re enjoying southern-fried chicken, and watching the monitor with fascination, as the cars vroom vroom around the track. And then, the inevitable: A crash. A car somersaults and hits a wall, breaking in half and bursting into flames. And the driver? Scott Dixon, a New Zealander, calmly gets up and walks out. Minutes later, there’s a five-car pile-up and, amazingly, all drivers walk away uninjured.

We step outside to the terrace for the last three laps. Japan’s Takuma Sato roars across the finish line as the checkered flag comes down. What a thrilling ending. Sato drinks the traditional victory bottle of milk from Kelsey Farms Dairy, and hoists the Borg Warner 5’ 4.75”-tall silver trophy over his head. Victorious – his team is literally jumping for joy. We’ve seen Indy history and begin the ride home. And only now, with impeccable timing, soft rain begins to fall.

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