INDIANAPOLIS — We had ourselves a silent spring, a weird season when you rarely knew how to feel, what to say, when to grin and when to grimace.
It was as if a giant hand had given the Earth a good shake, like you would a Christmas snow globe, and nothing settled back into its proper spot.
It used to be that April showers brought May flowers and with the May flowers came a hundred acquaintances and a quarter of a million strangers, all in town for the Indianapolis 500 and everything that goes with it. This spring belonged not to the Indy 500, but rather to COVID-19.
Where I live, four miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there was always this moment in March when along came a beautiful noise, carried on the breeze: the faint howl of a racing engine hitting its high note. You’d smile and try to guess who was over at the track, testing tires or testing engines and, at the same time, testing himself.
We didn’t get that moment this year. Instead we got peace and quiet, minus the peace. Tranquility was difficult to come by as this coronavirus began touching lives close to our own, morphing from sci-fi plot into something very real. Life was different.
I’ve often wondered how it feels for a driver to run those first few laps of a new year around the speedway. Is there joy? Fear? I suppose it could be both; maybe the anxiety of knowing that this day will take you from zero to 225 mph gives way to delight upon learning that with the new car, 225 is a comfortable gallop.
Every time I’ve heard that first engine in March, I’ve made a mental note to ask some veteran about that. But come IndyCar’s open test in April, or May’s first day of official practice, something else would be more pressing. Next year, I’d chase that answer. Always next year.
Through no fault of my own, I missed my chance for 2020. Neither the question nor the answer will have the same weight on Aug. 12, when — fingers crossed — practice opens for this year’s rescheduled 500. It’s a question for a cool spring morning, not a hot summer afternoon.
It’s a bit disheartening to realize that August in Indianapolis won’t give us the sense of renewed camaraderie that May provides. With May falling where it does on the calendar, the odds are generally good that the next hand you’ll shake in Gasoline Alley belongs to someone you haven’t seen since the autumn leaves fell.
This time — if “this time” comes off as planned — we’ll be saying hello to many of the same people we saw during Indiana Sprint Week in July.
Oh, you’ll still have plenty of “only at Indy” sightings. There will be those media folks who surface at the speedway and nowhere else, and the usual assortment of retired drivers, chief mechanics, crewmen and stooges who show up every year; they helped make the place into the cathedral it is, just as it helped define them. But it won’t seem the same. It can’t seem the same.
Someone scolded me in March when I said news of the Indy 500’s postponement landed like a punch to the stomach. But I meant it; even though we all saw it coming, the press release — particularly the phrase “due to the COVID-19 pandemic” — was blunt confirmation that our little world, like the wider world around us, had spun out of control.
“It could have been worse,” someone pointed out. “At least we didn’t lose the race.”
That’s fair. But across its 103 previous editions, the Indy 500 has come to represent more than a 500-mile automobile race. It is anticipation and ceremony, a Memorial Day parade and a family picnic, a solemn moment of silence and thunderous applause. When John Andretti told me years ago that for him every 500 felt like Christmas, I accused him of stealing that line right out of my own head.
Yes, it’s the greatest race in the world. But once you’ve been to the 500 enough times — this year will mark my 25th straight, so I’m still a pup around here — you understand that the race is just one piece of the Indy experience. It’s like a planned dinner with friends at a restaurant you love: You look forward to that entrée, absolutely, but the company and the atmosphere are equally important.
People talk of traveling to Indianapolis “for the 500.” Fact is, they make the trip to be part of something that has become part of them.
God and Roger Penske willing, the 104th Indianapolis 500 will run on Aug. 23. Someone will win it and the rest will lose it, and lives will be changed.
My big hope is that at least for the hours between dawn and the checkered flag, emotions follow the standard Indy pattern: jangled nerves, then a calm examination of how strategies are unfolding, and a tidal wave of adrenaline as the laps wind down.
And then, please, let’s have a return to normalcy in 2021. Give me the muted howl of an engine in March, a driver who can talk about the speedway in springtime and one cool May morning after another.