Marty Smith’s Sunday Money: Indy 500, America the Beautiful

by Marty Smith

Several times this week I’ve been asked if the Indianapolis 500 experience is genuinely as amazing as it looks on television. Try as I may, I cannot properly articulate it verbally. So if you’ll humor me, let’s push play on some inner-Skynyrd. All I can do is write about it.

The Indy 500 is beautifully American, a sensory sunrise cocktail of sound, speed and suds mixed with passion, pageantry, and patriotism. From sunrise cannon blast to sundrenched milk bath, it embodies the best version of America.

It is an unbridled celebration of our most precious asset — freedom. And within the celebration of cold beer and Old Glory is the unwavering demand to pause and remember and acknowledge the reason we have that freedom — the heroic men and women of the United States Armed Forces who died in the effort to preserve and defend it. We don’t appreciate that sacrifice nearly enough. We don’t pause to consider that because those individuals paid the ultimate sacrifice, we as Americans can go and do be whatever we so choose, given we have the gumption to try. 

What an incredible blessing. 

The Indy 500 is a world-class party. You meet all kinds of kinds – from mud-caked EDM club kids wallerin’ around in the Snake Pit with no concept that an auto race is in town, to the United States Air Force Thunderbirds performing the most precise and breathtaking flyover formations on earth. I even randomly saw my buddy Ken Griffey, Jr. in Victory Lane – not in attendance as a dignitary, but as a credentialed photographer.

In every corner of the property, you’ll find families engaged in cherished fellowship with loved ones, annual family reunions staged on a foundation of full-throttle fury and fermented beverages. One family we met, “Larry’s Gang”, included four generations of family members, gathered together in a roped-off camping spot just across Georgetown Road from the IMS pagoda to live and to love. When we met them Friday evening, they served up kindness and cold beer.

The patriarch, Larry himself, has attended the race since 1948. Saturday during the Marty & McGee program, he shared with intricate detail his indelible Indy 500 memories – wobbly wooden bleachers and cases of beer under the hood. As he chatted with us, his granddaughter bounced his great-grandchild, the youngest member of this four-generation gathering, in a Baby Bjorn on her chest. The whole scene was beautiful to witness, decades of dedication, filtering by osmosis from one coffee bean to the next, filling their collective pot.

Larry’s Gang is not alone. There are countless families with cherished traditions all over Indiana. Nearly everyone you meet has a story. The race is distinctly theirs; a vital thread woven through the Hoosier state from Evansville to South Bend. It is an ongoing education at a college from which you never graduate and always celebrate. Hoosiers, please correct me if I’m wrong: but from my vantage point, the Indy 500 is Hoosier Christmas. 

I once told some racing industry friends of mine who were reared in open-wheel and migrated to stock cars during the mid-aughts boom that the Daytona 500 was the most important race in America. I believed the statement strongly. They didn’t get mad at me. They didn’t laugh at me. They pitied me. 

Like The Masters, you simply cannot understand the Indy 500 experience until you live the Indy 500 experience. Television does a phenomenal job transmitting the vibrancy and the urgency of both events. But television cannot capture what it feels like and looks like and sounds like and smells like in person. (And I’m a guy who pays his mortgage with television).

I stood on the front stretch Sunday afternoon during the iconic prerace ceremony, as US Army Sgt. Trevor Eeiglebem played Taps. The fifth row of the race’s starting grid — David Malukas, Josef Newgarden and Santino Ferrucci – were 40 feet to my left. The fourth row — Takuma Sato, Will Power and Jimmie Johnson – were 20 feet to my right. All of them, and all surrounding them stood at attention. The lone movement around us were the NBC camera operators scurrying around the grid, working diligently to bring this beautiful moment into living rooms all over the globe.

Each note from each breath of Taps is a commanding address engulfed in a distinct sense of loneliness and sorrow, the enduring cadence of finality, and the honor and appreciation that accompanies it. I remember how it made me feel at my grandfather’s funeral. Very alone, but immeasurable proud of him. And when it filled the crystal blue Indianapolis sky, I felt a sense of solitude, even as the notes blanketed the largest gathering of human beings in a single place in three years. 

That was an integral part of the 106th Indy 500 – gathering again. Roger Penske, one of the greatest leadership minds and greatest business minds in auto racing history, bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019. In 2020, the 500 was moved to August due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, there was a reduced crowd for the same reason. 

Sunday, the 500 was a full-song, more than 300,000 fans crammed into the world’s most iconic racing oval, thrilled to sweat and swill together once again. And akin to the Masters, there is a unique understanding of decorum.

The Indianapolis 500 embodies another of my favorite American attributes, authenticity. Like clockwork, its traditions are timeless. Breakout winners of The Voice, Girl Named Tom, sang America The Beautiful with harmonies so stunning, chills shot across my entire body. It was 85 degrees and I was standing on pavement. In a full suit. And I was covered in goosebumps.

The race was thrilling. It always is. No matter who is leading or by how much, constant anxious energy hangs in the air. That energy is partly due to the fundamental danger of screaming full-tilt into Turn 1 at 240 mph, with no guarantee you’ll come out the other side. At Indy, you never know what might happen. In the 106th Running, Scott Dixon was the class of the field. He led 95 of the 200 laps that comprise the event. As a result, he is now the Indy 500 career leader in laps-led. Dixon didn’t win, cited for speeding on pit road during the final pit stop of the race. He estimated he was one mph over the limit. 

One mile per hour. That’s the difference between the most dominant victory in the most coveted race in the world ever, and the crushing heartbreak of a 21st place finish from the greatest driver of his generation, driving the best car in the field.

Dixon is all class. After the race, he did not point fingers. There were no excuses. He simply stated, “I messed up.” That’s what the great ones do, no matter how bad it stings. Shortly after Dixon’s mistake, his teammate, seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, assumed the lead in the race during the green flag pit stop cycle. He had struggled throughout the day, and this was a landmark moment. 

Johnson’s childhood dream back in Southern California never included NASCAR. His childhood dream was leading the Indianapolis 500 like his hero, four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, had done so thrillingly so many times. Johnson’s participation in the event was the biggest story during the lead-up. Johnson will be a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer when he is eligible in a few years. He told me Friday, seated on the wall in his pit stall, that he believed he could win the 106th Indianapolis 500. I’ve known Johnson since 1999. He wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it.

Shortly after he took the lead, Johnson pitted for fuel. Shortly after that, he wrecked out of the event. After 490 miles, the car got away from him. Those last 10 miles will eat at him. That’s what the great ones do. They forget the wins quickly. They obsess over the failures forever. 

But as I think back about Johnson’s performance, it was absolutely tremendous. It reminds me of a quote from the great Montanan philosopher Rip Wheeler, by way of the insanely gifted pen of Yellowstone writer/director Taylor Sheridan – You either win or you learn. Losing ain’t an option.

Dixon and Johnson’s Ganassi teammate, Marcus Ericsson, benefitted from Dixon’s mistake to win the race. Some 90 minutes after he cruised under the checkered flag and into history after he’d chugged the milk and donned the wreath, with the realization that someday very soon he will see his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, he told me was simply not possible to try to describe his emotion just then.

I guess I’m not alone.

Of the countless emotions that involuntarily well inside me at the Indy 500, the overriding one is American pride. I am so proud to be American. And I was reminded how powerful that sentiment is by 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan. 

McGee and I were interviewing Kanaan Saturday morning in his garage stall, adorned with signage from his primary sponsor, the American Legion. The Legion’s mission in the race was to raise awareness for their Be The One campaign, which urges each of us to be a beacon for military veterans struggling with mental health. I was humbled to learn that, according to the American Legion, 17 United States Military Veterans commit suicide every single day. Their ‘Be The One’ campaign urges us to be the one to save one veteran. 

As we chatted with Kanaan about Be The One, he informed us that two years ago he became a United States citizen. 

“I moved here at the end of 1995, and I spoke zero English,” Kanaan, who is Brazilian, told us. “I have four kids. They are all American. My wife is American, and I actually became American two years ago. I am extremely grateful for this country. It’s unbelievable how well I’ve been accepted. And this is the place I chose to live for the rest of my life. I will do everything I can in my power to give back.”

Read that again: “I am extremely grateful for this country. It’s unbelievable how well I’ve been accepted. And this is the place I chose to live for the rest of my life. I will do everything in my power to give back.”

The entire Indianapolis 500 experience is inspiring. But nothing moved me like that moved me. Because that encapsulates the overriding emotion at the event: gratitude.

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