SPORTS: Two Sams make most of their day at the Brickyard

June 5, 2006

We often hear the sad refrain that the Indianapolis 500 "isn't what it used to be."

I would concede the point, although, after last week's scintillating victory by Sam Hornish Jr., the pendulum unquestionably is swinging back in a positive direction.

And while there may be fewer people in the seats and, certainly, fewer drunks in the infield, it remains the largest single-day sporting event in the world, which is a fact and not a marketing slogan.

Sometimes you have to stop and remind yourself-and others-that when the green flag flew on Race Day, there still were more than a quarter-million paying customers inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ah, if we all could fail so successfully.

I'd also be willing to wager that after what the spectators witnessed-Hornish's breathtaking, main-straightaway, mad-dash triumph over 19-year-old rookie Marco Andretti-the vast majority will be back next year, and probably bringing additional friends and family with them.

Sure, to some, seeing car owner Roger Penske capture another Indy 500 (his 14th) is like seeing George Steinbrenner being handed another World Series trophy. But few could deny that Hornish's victory was a well-deserved accomplishment for a hardcharging Midwestern boy from Defiance, Ohio.

Hornish, as we saw in his emotional Victory Banquet speech and later as he began to make his national media appearances, is precisely the kind of champion gearheads-as well as the general public-can and should embrace. He says the right things. He races the right way.

There are those who insist open-wheel racing needs more villains, a la NASCAR. I say what it needs are more heroes, and Hornish fits that mold. But so do Helio Castroneves, Dan Wheldon, Buddy Rice, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Scott Sharp, Bryan Herta and, yes, Danica Patrick.

And certainly, in the future, young Marco Andretti.

Perhaps now we are seeing the beginning of the renaissance of American open-wheel racing, albeit with an international flair.

True, it won't flourish without unification of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car series. We hoped-as it was rumored-that the month of May would conclude both with the Indy 500 and an announcement that Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven had forged an agreement between their respective circuits.

There still is good reason to believe it will happen, though maybe not in time for the 2007 season. That would be a shame, but still better than the alternative, which would be no merger at all.

In any case, it was a successful month, emerging from the rain and frustration that marked the opening weekend into the sunshine and warmth-OK, heat-that accompanied qualifying and Race Day. What started out so badly couldn't have ended more brilliantly.

The only bad news is that arrests were up. Or, for those longing for the old days, maybe that's the good news.

Anyway, with the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 in the history book, I turn the page and look forward not just to the next one, but to the 100th. By the time the Centennial Celebration arrives in 2016, I am hopeful-optimistic, even-that the momentum of the last two years will have carried over into the next decade. And when 100 arrives, the swoon that marked the race around the turn of the century will indeed be a distant memory.

Finally, one last shout out to the folks at the Speedway, in particular Josh Laycock, its media relations manager. On May 25, Laycock helped make Indiana Special Olympian Sam McNew the day's honorary starter. Following is a note from his mother, Sue, on what the experience meant to her son.

"It was one of the most amazing days of Sam's life," Sue wrote. "He is sort of quiet and does not talk a lot to people he does not know because he is aware that they will not understand what he says, but [May 25], it did not seem to matter. He really felt like a 'star' all day and you made this possible for him. I cannot express how much it means to me to get to see him experience an opportunity like this and to be able to share it with him. He stood on the front porch after we got home and waved his green flag for the cars going by until the storm drove him indoors. He has had some pretty unique opportunities, but I think this one will stand out as one of the most memorable for him."

Just shows you how, among the grand spectacle that is Indy, one person's day can be made better.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column,go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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