You never can underestimate the value of the little things. Understand this: we knew heading into the 91st Running of the Indy 500 that we were in for rain. That was made clear on the way across Illinois the day before when we were slowed to 40 mph on I-74 by a blinding cloudburst.
We were disappointed to find Saturday that the downtown, off-track official souvenir store was no more. In past years, we’d hit this venue to avoid carrying our loot with us on race day, never mind avoiding the insanely long lines at the track-side store.
Race Day started with rain and the complimentary breakfast at our not-so-secret base. We headed into the free North Parking Lot around 8 a.m., wipers slapping front and rear. This is the second year that we’ve been thankful that we keep a set of 97¢ “emergency” rain ponchos in our race gear, as we each donned the transparent blue plastic cover that would become the uniform of the day. A quick shuttle ride carried us to the foot of the Pagoda and very short lines at the souvenir shop. We took up residence in an alcove on the front of the store, helping keep us just a little bit drier during the ensuing wait.
On one excursion during a break in the rain, several of us were rewarded with the site of Castroneves’ car being pulled out of the garage. The next row over brought forth the sounds of a Vision Racing car firing up its engine for a little breather. It was then that we knew for sure that these folks were ready to race.
The rain had cleared, and the track-drying routine had begun in earnest. To dry the track, the towing and service vehicles drive in a slant formation repeatedly around the circuit. The choreography is impressive as they move along the race line, down into the warning track or swerve away from the pit wall. The trailer-mounted jet dryers speed up the process by visibly removing wide strips of moisture on each pass. The track was dry and ready for the 1 p.m. start time.
The musical prelude to the green flag was as shaky as the weather. Daughtery struggled through a couple songs (he had a cold), Florence Henderson worked her way through “God Bless America” (she’s getting old), and the crowd was left to sing “Back Home in Indiana” sans Jim Nabors (illness put him on hold).
The field put together a great start of the race, with the front-of-the-pack drivers each gunning for the lead. They all knew from the beginning that this was a race that would be shortened by the weather. What that meant in terms of team strategy was only evidenced by the high speeds and hard driving. They weren’t shooting to be the leader at the end of 200 laps. After the requisite 100 laps to make the race official, it was any one’s guess as to when the race would end.
At 3:02 after 113 laps, the field was called in by a red flag. The only announcement that was made was that officials would “try to get the race back underway” but no “official statement” was made. We donned out ponchos again, and enjoy what we had left of lunch in our coolers. Die hard fans dotted the stands to ride out this phase of the storm. The less hardy headed for the exits.
Around 4 p.m., it was announced that they were shooting for a 6:30 restart, if the rain abated and track could be dried. We faced a difficult decision: stick it out or packing it in. We kind of sensed that by sticking it out, we could see some really great racing. By packing it in, we could console ourselves with the fact that we’d already seen some pretty good racing.
We stuck it out. All five of us (remember, that means Mom, Dad and three teen girls)! We talked, we watched the inebriated bozos across in the infield, followed the action on the Jumbotrons (including last year’s homestretch victory by Hornish), and debated our decision.
At 6 p.m., they were back to racing. And, you could tell they were each gunning for the lead. It looked like they might get all 200 laps in before the next wave of storms rolled in. Then a couple accidents (Kanaan pushing Lazier into the wall, and Marco Andretti’s harrowing inverted slide) sealed the deal. The skies opened again. The white flag came out to join the yellow. The race ended with cars throwing huge rooster tails behind them, despite their low speed. By the luck of positioning and timing, Dario Franchitti was the victor.
It was truly a weekend of the little things. It was a weekend saved by a 97¢ rain poncho.
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© Steve Simpson