The Common Good

The Thrill of the Race

On the day after the Indianapolis 500-mile race, I wonder why the self-proclaimed “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” matters so much to me.

Indianapolis 500 in 2010, carroteater /
Indianapolis 500 in 2010, carroteater /

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It isn’t a nostalgia trip to my growing-up days in Indianapolis. Indiana high school basketball mattered far more to me at the time, but I can barely raise a flicker of interest in it now.

It isn’t deep association with the sport. I recognize only a few of the drivers’ names and know less and less about the technology on display — 33 open-wheeled race cars driving 500 miles at speeds exceeding 220 mph. I care nothing at all about attempts to turn one race into a national franchise.

Nor am I tracing a link to my hometown roots. For me, Indianapolis is about family, not racing.

No, I think it’s the race itself. The 500 is pure experience, unapologetic, radically open to anyone who can try, and yet limited to a small circle of men and women who can do it well.

The race is about driving fast. No showboating, no huffing and puffing on the foul line, no grandiose touchdown gyrations, no bickering with the umpire, no pouting on the next tee. Just speed. At 220 mph, all cars are a blur, all drivers are invisible inside their cockpits.

The race is impervious to whining. Some have tried — from legendary A.J. Foyt to Danica Patrick — but the unspoken rule remains: Don’t whine, just drive. Drive fast, drive smart, drive aggressive — and if you lose, it won’t be because you got treated unfairly. Some other teams were just better or luckier that day.

Money makes a difference, and yet money rarely seals the deal. Yes, three teams will show up with superior equipment that only they can afford to design, purchase, test and staff. But in the actual driving of 500 miles, as happened again this year in Tony Kanaan’s victory for a small team, the one or two clearly superior cars don’t always win.

The 500 has come a long way from its everyman roots, when the race belonged to small-town Indiana guys who found a local sponsor, built a car, and took a stab at the Brickyard (the Speedway’s nickname). But even now, when the field is mostly foreign drivers with impeccable skills and unfamiliar storylines, race day seems hospitable to dreams.

Celebrities count for surprisingly little in race weekend’s nonstop hype. The loudest cheer erupts, not when a celeb floats into view, but when a long line of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine troops march down the main straightaway, heading for their reserved seats and reminding everyone what a Memorial Day race commemorates.

Imagine 400,000 people going silent when a lone bugler plays taps and veterans stand tall. Imagine the roar of 33 unaspirated engines bursting to life. Imagine 33 cars accelerating to 225 and diving for the first turn in what has to be the most exciting moment in all of sports.

What I have found at the Speedway (never “Indy”) is similar to the best faith moments I have had: pure experience, no pretense, no whining, a clear focus on what matters, never for sale to high bidders, never a star turn for the would-be famous — just a group of eager souls seeking the ineffable thrill of seeing God or, in this case, driving fast and watching fast drivers.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

Image: Indianapolis 500 in 2010, carroteater /

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