INDIANAPOLIS — Everyone that’s a fan of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has a number. In fact, this is the only event in the world to where that number even gets brought up. It’s not a number of your seat location. It’s not even an assigned number. It’s an earned number.
What I’m talking about is the how many years that you’ve been going to the Indy 500 number. It’s a badge of honor. A right of passage. First timers are welcomed just as much as someone attending their 50th ‘500. In fact, first timers and kids are celebrated like the lost sheep that has gone astray and come back. The looks on new IndyCar fans’ faces to see one of those Honda or Chevrolet powered Dallara’s scream past you at speeds in excess of 220 mph is a sight to behold.
I’ve always said, all you need to do is get someone to the track. Once they’re there, the Speedway will take care of the rest.
That’s why the look on the faces of those attending the first time, is the same look at someone attending the 60th time. The feeling is the same as a kid when you wake up on Christmas morning with the anticipation of what Santa brought. I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you know the real story on Santa, but at 5 or 35 or 65, you get the same Christmas morning feeling, no matter how old you may become.
That’s the same at Indy. First time, fifth time, 50th time, it’s the same feeling. That’s why the “number” is so important here. Once you go, you’re hooked and that number grows each year.
Unfortunately, that “number” well there’s a lot of people with sadness this week that it’s going to come to an end. See, the “number” is one thing. 42 Indy 500’s. 61 Indy 500’s. 14 Indy 500’s. That’s an honor. But, for some, that “number” is a consecutive number too and missing Sunday’s race, well there’s anxiety about it.
There’s people out there that eat, sleep and breathe the Indy 500. Again, it’s Christmas Day in May, or for this case, August. I for one know because I was born into it. I can speak from a personal experience here in that my grandpa has been to every Indy 500 since 1959. Straight. Not missed a single one. To save you from counting, last year’s race was 61 straight years.
My dad went to his first Indy 500 in 1977. AJ Foyt won his fourth, the first driver at the time to join that elite club. Only two others since have joined him. Helio Castroneves will try and become the fourth on Sunday. He and my grandpa were Foyt fans. His favorite memory though is the 1982 race where Gordon Johncock was nearly chased down and passed by Rick Mears. Johncock, narrowly won for his second Indy 500 triumph. He’s been to 43 straight Indy 500’s. We watched the youtube video of this last week. The excitement and chills that it brought him, was contagious. I felt it and I wasn’t even born yet.
Six years later though, I’d join him as a 2 1/2 year old wide eyed little boy. I don’t remember that day, but the pictures and ticket stub tell the story. That was my first. I missed one. 1991. Chicken pox. Been every year since. Last year was my 31st Indy 500. My last eight was part of the media. I’m glad to be telling stories of this race now. I will miss though hearing your stories. That’s part of my favorite thing to do at ‘500 time is to keep my mouth shut and my ears open to hear everyone else’s story.
Also last year, my now six year old went to his first ‘500. Four generations all in one spot at such a historic race. Not many families have four generations that have seen this race all together. Coincidentally enough, it coincided that it all ended in a “1” for three of us. My grandpa’s 61, my 31st and my sons first. We got a picture on race morning. It was touching.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that we’re all James E. Smith’s too. I go by my middle name, but my grandpa, my dad and my son go by, “Jim” or “James.”
Heading into 2019, 777 drivers have raced in this big race. Throw in five rookies this year and that number grows to 782. None have had the last name of Smith.
That’s just our story. I’ll be lucky enough to be there covering the race in person, but the streaks end at 61, 43 and 1 for the rest of my immediate family. That’s why I’m writing this. I get your pain. I feel it. I see it. I see the passion that the fan base is still giving to this race still and have seen you lining 16th Street each morning on my drive in.
But, for those to wonder about that “streak” or that “number” I say, don’t worry. It’s the same for everyone. To me, it’s just a pause, not a break. Same for track president Doug Boles.
“I think the easiest way for me to explain it, hang in for 24 hours or so, we’re going to make it official I think, but when I call customers every night, oftentimes I run into a customer who talks about their streak, how many races they’ve been to, except I missed year one, a couple years,” Boles said on Wednesday. “When I say, Why did you miss? They say, I was in the military. You know what, if you’re serving our country, you should count it as being there.
“I think we’re going to try to make it more formal for those customers, our fans aren’t missing this race because they’ve chosen to or something has come up, our fans are missing this race because we’re not allowed to have fans here because we’re doing the right thing for our community.
“As far as I’m concerned, as far as everybody is concerned here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, those streaks should be allowed to continue. This is not a choice that they made. So we’re just encouraging people to hang in there, tune in on TV, enjoy it at home, see what it looks like from home so next year when you come back here in 2021 you know why you come here instead of watching it on TV.”
So, if you’ve been to 61 straight Indy 500’s like my grandpa, 2021 will be your 62nd straight with a break in 2020. It’s the same for everyone.