Indianapolis 500 and Benner/Sports and Opinion and Sports Venues and Sports/Recreation and Sports Business

BENNER: Indy 500 still a passion play for the paying customer

May 31, 2012

I was moved when I saw a Scotsman admit that he teared up as he heard Jim Nabors’ taped rendition of “Back Home Again In Indiana” just moments before the start of the 96th Indianapolis 500.

That makes two of us, Dario Franchitti. I suspect there are thousands more.

Few moments, if any, go more to our Hoosier essence than that song at that time just before the “start your engines” charge at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Franchitti is not a Hoosier, and his wife, actress Ashley Judd, is a University of Kentucky fanatic. But I was inspired by Franchitti’s grasp of the emotion that song bears for those of us who unabashedly and proudly call Indiana our home.

Yes, we have added a Super Bowl to our glittering resume of events. We have our home-grown Indiana Pacers, and our Indianapolis Colts are long past feeling like they’ve just rolled in from another city. We have our unsurpassed basketball tradition.

But for this Indy guy, there is nothing that says Indy—or Indiana—like the Indy 500.

That is why I feel a personal hurt that its stature has been diminished in the pantheon of ultimate sporting events.

It’s not a perception, as much as I want to believe otherwise. It’s a reality.

Certainly, from my perspective in the Northwest Vista on May 27, the race is alive and well. Even on a hot and humid day, there was not a seat nearby that was empty. Race geeks of every variety were into the action on the sizzling asphalt below.

Yet, across the way, rising above the new snake pit inside the third turn, there were thousands of empty seats from the third-turn bleachers bleeding into the stands outside the north short chute.

And, of course, the almighty television ratings—by which we seem to want to measure the popularity of, well, almost everything—remain just so-so, not that Sunday at noon on a holiday weekend is exactly a time when folks want to come inside and watch a sporting event for three-plus hours.

Now by no means is the Indy 500 in jeopardy, and the mere fact that a quarter of a million people still want to be there, even on an incredibly uncomfortable day, is testament to the enduring lure of the event.

And the paying customers did get treated to one hell of a show.

Franchitti not only collected his composure but kept it after a pit-stop spinout that dropped him to the back of the pack. As has been noted, the race featured a record number of lead changes and while the Target Ganassi cars of Franchitti and Scott Dixon became the ones to beat in the late going, no one could predict the finish until Japan’s Takuma Sato stuffed his machine into the wall in a daring last-lap bid to pass Franchitti.

Oh, and has there ever been a better move on a restart than the one by Brazilian Tony Kanaan? His fifth-to-first move brought out the loudest roar I’d heard at the race since Danica Patrick took the lead back in 2005.

By the way, what ever happened to Danica? And Sam Hornish Jr., too.

Allow 19-year Formula One veteran and 40-year-old “rookie” of the year, Rubens Barrichello, to sum up the Indy experience: “I have raced a lot,” he said. “But nothing like this.”

The new Dallara chassis—I can’t wait for the new “aero kits” that will bring some distinctiveness and innovation to their look—made for great racing, and the addition of Chevrolet engines made for competitive intrigue. Let’s only hope that Lotus will come up to speed, by next season if not this. Meanwhile, hats off to Honda for dialing in the right race-day set-up after Chevy had dominated practice and qualifying.

I had only one little complaint about race day, and I do mean little. The numbers on the wings of the new chassis are so small they are difficult to discern as they fly by at 215 miles an hour-plus. Sorry, but there are only so many paint jobs/sponsors/drivers I can commit to memory.

In any case, it was a phenomenal day and an incredible spectacle. Was it the greatest 500 of all time as some have suggested? Well, it certainly was one of the best I’ve witnessed.

Let’s be honest. It’s unlikely Indy will ever recapture its halcyon days. But it remains a singular, captivating experience, enough to make an old Hoosier—or a racer—cry.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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