What’s so special about Indy?
Like most of the racing community, each season I get excited as the NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals approaches. But, at least for me, it wasn’t always like that. Let me start with a little background…
Growing up in a racing family, I was inundated with my father’s racing stories: from triumphant to despondent; from humorous to at times profane. But at least to my memory, his most passionate stories came from Indy and the U.S. Nationals. My Dad grew up in upstate New York, but just about every Labor Day, he and a group of buddies made the pilgrimage to Indy. Some years he was a spectator, some years a racer, but there was always a story to tell.
As a kid, I remember tales of sleeping under cars, swapping engines in the old drive-in parking lot across the street from the track, and rebuilding transmissions in the motel bathtub… All from Indy, and all seemingly with little or no actual on track success. I would sit and listen, and like any child I loved my father’s stories. But a big part of me always thought “Dude, this doesn’t really sound that cool.” And yet, I don’t remember my Dad telling any story with more passion, or with a bigger, broader smile than the one he had when he recounted those trips to the U.S. Nationals.
As I set out on my own racing career, I avoided Indy for the better part of 15 years. At times my focus was exclusively on bracket racing, so national events in general were not on my radar, much less the biggest and grandest national event of them all. And even when I did focus on the NHRA tour, I had no interest in attending the “Big Go.” My reasoning was common. When I was invested in a points chase, I had a hard time justifying Indy: it awards the same amount of points as any other event, and yet it is without question the most difficult to win in my opinion. The reasons for that are multiple, but the main one is that because of the event’s prestige, the sportsman fields are filled with the best racers from all across the country, all in one place for essentially the only time each season.
I’ve made my living, at least in part, behind the wheel of a race car for more than a decade. There were (and are) always big dollar, multi-day bracket races contested over the holiday weekend. Why spend a week at Indy to run one race for $10,000-to-win when I could spend half the time elsewhere and compete in 3-4 different events for a similar purse? You would think that circumstances or desire would have led me to Indy at least once, but I always resisted it, until 2012.
That season, mainly at the request of my longtime partner K&N filters, I attended my first U.S. Nationals. I pulled into the gate early Wednesday morning, and was ushered into the most remote parking area in the facility: to this day, I contend that I was parked in someone’s back yard. Driving back from technical inspection, I noticed an odd sound from my K&N Filters dragster. Turns out, it had blown a head gasket, so prior to actually making a run at the “Big Go,” I had the pleasure of removing a cylinder head to replace it (I laugh in retrospect, acknowledging that teardown at Indy is a big part of the event for the Stock & Super Stock contingent, and I just wanted to get the full experience). It rained so much I thought I was going to float away, and I was defeated in the second round of both Super Comp and Super Gas. Turns out, that was the year that the rains forced the completion of the event to be postponed until the following weekend (but I lost well before the postponement).
Long story short, you’d think that my first trip to Indy could easily have been my last. But my feelings were anything but. For the first time, I truly understood the passion in my father’s voice in regards to Indy. From the minute I pulled into the gate, there was an electricity in the air, an atmosphere about the facility, that you just can’t describe. It’s unique to Indy. And from that day on, winning the “Big Go” became a paramount goal of mine, and the thought of spending Labor Day weekend anywhere else wasn’t much of an option.
The following season, I advanced to the semi-final round of Super Gas, which was contested on Monday in front of the final day crowd. Monday at Indy is the most incredible atmosphere in drag racing. The only thing that I can compare it to is the big day at the million, and while those are both cool and unique, Indy is different. I realize that the thousands of people on hand aren’t necessarily there to see Super Comp and Super Gas, but that’s not the point. The feel, the history, the electricity simply runs through the entire facility. It’s something you just can’t appreciate until you’re in the moment.
In the years since, I’ve had the good fortune to advance to final eliminations on Monday on three different occasions, hoisting the wally once (Super Comp, 2015). When that final round win light came on, my father’s voice was the first thing in my mind. And for the only time I remember in a race car, I was overcome with emotion and started to cry. That race, that place, meant so much to him. Some of his ashes were scattered around the facility. And for so many years, that didn’t resonate with me. Now it does.
If you’ve never made the journey to Indianapolis, come spend Labor Day weekend with us at Lucas Oil Raceway. I have a feeling it will resonate with you too.