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What’s to Love about the Indy 500?

Townsend in the pits in 2011 - it takes a team

 

Racers are a special breed, a subset of athletes.  There is no doubt that racing requires a unique mentality.  It only took a few years of being involved in bike racing to realize that the same guys (and girls, for that matter) that like to go fast on their bikes, also like to go fast in cars, on motorcycles, on foot….whatever.  There is something innate in racers that just compels them to go faster than the guy next to them…and this couldn’t be truer for two of the drivers in this year’s Indy 500 that I’ve gotten the opportunity to know over the past couple of years.

Why Indy?

I live in Santa Monica – damn near the polar opposite of Indianapolis – or any place in the country that really cares about motorsports.  In the summer months, if it’s not happening west of the 405 (Lincoln blvd?), and doesn’t involve heirloom tomatoes, Santa Monica residents probably don’t care.  So why am I so passionate about the Indy 500, an event that epitomizes drunken slovenliness, burns through excessive amounts of high-octane fuel and wastefully trashes tires, and takes place in a town with a Steak ‘n Shake on nearly every corner?  On the surface it’s about as un-ROOTED as an event can get.  Well, because there is more to it than that.  It embodies tradition, competition at the highest level, risk, glory, and the making and crushing of dreams.

Despite the fact that while growing up, most Memorial Day weekends I would watch the Indy 500 on the couch with my Dad (then go outside and ride my bike around our culdesac, pretending I was a driver like Al Unser Jr., coming down the final straight of the Brickyard, running on fumes, and holding off the field), it took getting to know Townsend and EJ to reignite my love for Indy.  Townsend lives locally, and is a frequent training partner on the mountain bike (see: “likes going fast”).   These guys embody a certain kind of toughness that you don’t see every day.  Their calm demeanor and utter confidence is inspiring.  Learning more about what they go through to train for an event like Indy gave me a new appreciation for a sport I already grew up thinking was cool – these guys are straight core, and no doubt Rooted.  Below are some of thoughts on why I, an endurance athlete-surfer, love Indy.

Competing is Competing

A true competitor appreciates any form of competition.  The longer I am around sport in general, the greater appreciation I have for athletes that reach the pinnacle of their activity.  In American motorsports, this is the Indy 500.  The drivers that line up on the last Sunday in May are athletes at the peak of their fitness – yep, athletes.  Understanding how hard these guys train, and in how many different disciplines, I have a huge appreciation for what they go through to be able to drive a car 200+ mph for over three hours.  Their training covers aerobic fitness, strength, flexibility, mental fitness – the whole shebang.  Drivers are some of the fittest, most astute, and toughest athletes I know, hands down.

Indy Grand Stands - No shortage of People

 

Indy is “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”

The Indy 500 is billed as “the greatest spectacle in racing,” and rightfully so.  The event draws over five hundred thousand people in attendance, and reaches many times this number via broadcast.  If you ever have the opportunity to go to Indy, you will be utterly blown away by the sheer amount of humanity in one place (and the traffic).  The grandstands seem to go on forever – and there is not a seat left unfilled.  Not even relentless midwestern heat and humidity can keep the crowds down.  Remember the scene in Gladiator when Maximus first enters the Coliseum in Rome?  He looks up and the camera kind of does a dizzying pan across the roaring crowd?  Imagine that, but replace the Romans with rambunctious race fans (probably not all that different, really).  Now multiply it by about a thousand.  That’s what Indy feels like.

There are the grandstands, but then there is the infield of the track, filled with more bodies and roller coolers than you can imagine (the ratio of bodies : coolers is probably close to about 1 : 1.5).  People are out en mass.  Then there are the cars, the distinct smell of burning fuel, howling engines, the teams, the pagoda…Spectacle hardly does “The Brickyard” justice on race day.

Because we have No Freaking Clue what it’s Like

220 miles per hour is fast.  How fast?  You and I think we know what it’s like to drive fast because we swerve around on the freeway at 80 or 90 (100 +….?) miles per hour in our passenger cars?  NOT EVEN CLOSE.   We can not even begin to fathom the amount of effort it takes to successfully navigate a fully tuned Indy car around the track.  The subtle adjustments in wing angle that keep the slicks from breaking loose and you from ending up on the wall.  Now add to that traffic and the impossibility of lifting (taking your foot off the gas) through the corners….it’s nuts.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to go up to Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca and participate in a single-day racing school, spending a good couple of hours driving open-wheel formula 4 cars around the track.  It was probably one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, but made me realize how little I really knew about car racing.  Going 90 miles per hour in one of those things blew my mind…225 mph is something else all together.

John, TBell, Casey at Laguna Seca

 

Imagine the pressure felt, and the amount of concentration displayed, when a guy like Jeter comes up to bat in a big situation in a World Series game.  Now imagine that pressure lasting for over three hours, and if you mess up, you may end up dead.  Car racing is like few other sports in the amount of risk these guys undertake when they roll out on the first lap of any race.  Earlier in the year, in the crash that killed Dan Wheldon, Townsend was driving the car seen flying through the air that ultimately ended up upside down and burning on the track.  I can’t even begin to say how sad it is that a guy like Wheldon died on a day he figured he was just “showing up to work.”  But the amount of poise that guys like Townsend and EJ, and all the drivers, exhibit in these situations is just unbelievable.  I remember asking Townsend what the talk amongst drivers and their families was like in the days following the crash.  All he could say was something to the extent of, “we know the risk we take every time we get in the car.”  As do his wife and kids.  Stay safe – everyone.

TBell going fast without an Indy car

 

Indy is America at it’s finest…

The above statement has got to be taken with a grain of salt.  In many ways Indy is America at its worst (need I go into redneck Talladega-esque jokes?).  But when you get beyond the drunken excess of fans, and focus on the event and it’s drivers, you see a handful of special athletes getting to live out their dreams in a way that few of us will ever get to (these guys are race car drivers!  The closest most of us will ever get to pulling on a fire suit is pulling on a Speed Racer onesie at bed time.).

If you can look beyond the massive corporate sponsorships pushing unhealthy products like cigarettes and beer, and set aside your general disdain for the automobile that American companies have played such a big role in pushing, you see a rare intersection of elite athletics, selfless team work (it indeed takes a massive TEAM working synergistically to get one man over the line faster than anyone else), guts, mental strength, focus, physical ability, technology, strategy, and usually just a little plain luck.

In my day to day, it seems like I am ever exposed to negativity in everything from the current financial situation, presidential political attack ads, foreign policy etc. etc.  This Sunday I will be looking forward to watching 33 athletes line up for an event rooted in rich history, doing what they love to do, in a good old fashioned, high-speed dog fight.

If you don’t have a driver in the race, I’m sure both Townsend and EJ would love for you to be pulling for them.

 

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