INDIANAPOLIS — It had to be midgets. That made the most sense. With racing in Indiana awakening after a lousy few months, what I craved was a rebirth, a rediscovery of the “wow” that this game can bring.
USAC’s Indiana Midget Week came right on time.
Before rebirth, of course, there must be birth, and the voice ringing in my ears had that part handled. Somewhere along U.S. Route 40, I heard the late SPEED SPORT Editor Chris Economaki insist the 1934 arrival of the midget was “the most significant happening in American auto racing.”
Before that, Chris pointed out, attending a race “was a major undertaking. You had to go way outside of town. All the tracks were half-miles and larger, at fairgrounds and so forth, away from populated areas.
Then the midget came along. Overnight, every baseball park, athletic field and sports arena had the potential to be an auto racing track, and hundreds did.
“The midget brought racing to the American public. That was the beginning of this country’s love affair with auto racing.”
Falling in love again was easy.
Of the five Midget Week speedways, four — Paragon, Gas City, Lincoln Park and Kokomo — are less than an hour and a quarter from my home in Indianapolis. Lawrenceburg, the exception, is still under two hours.
All of them have the cozy ballpark feel Economaki knew. And for action, nothing can match USAC midgets on a racy dirt track. The fields are stacked, in both human and mechanical terms, and the racing is unpredictable from one corner to the next.
All of which made the mid-June exploits of a kid named Kyle Larson more than remarkable.
Anyone with even a passing interest in motorsports is aware that using a racial term during an online “sim race” got Larson fired by his NASCAR Cup Series team. That was in April.
He has since been an open-wheel barnstormer, winning five straight winged sprint car races before turning up in Indiana to drive one of Chad Boat’s midgets.
Any debate over Larson these days devolves into two heated camps. One view insists he really didn’t do anything wrong, which is bizarre because Larson admits that he said “an awful thing” for which he had “no excuse.”
The opposition holds that in losing his Cup Series gig, Larson got what he deserved, but that’s also hard to square; his dumb slip of the tongue could cost Larson millions of dollars, maybe even tens of millions, a steep price for a transgression that draws a 15-yard penalty in an NFL game.
You’ll get no moral here. This is not a sermon. But I came away from Indiana Midget Week thankful that Larson’s bullring penance brought him around. He won at Paragon, Gas City, Lawrenceburg, and one of the two features at Lincoln Park. He finished second in the remaining two main events.
At Gas City, Larson started 14th. In his winning Lincoln Park run, he lined up 15th. Charging forward, he reached into the open mouths of fans and stole their breath away.
Years back, writing of A.J. Foyt’s magnificent 1964 season, Joe Scalzo declared, “The opportunity of getting to see the very best when he is the very best is rare.”
In years to come, that’s how I’ll remember Larson’s Indiana Midget Week.
I’ve seen some virtuoso racers hit the high notes: Dick Trickle, Scott Bloomquist, Dale Earnhardt, Sammy Swindell, Rick Mears, Richie Evans, Bentley Warren, Steve Kinser, Scott Dixon, Jack Hewitt, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart. The electricity I saw in them is the same charge Kyle Larson throws off.
Larson makes you reconsider every adjective. An out-of-town friend sat beside me at Gas City, and occasionally asked my thoughts on various USAC stars. I’d say, “He’s terrific,” or, “God, he’s fast.” Then, Larson would whistle past that guy’s car as if its engine had lost a cylinder.
This is what he does, over and over: He makes great drivers look merely good. All others are just traffic. He’ll go around them, below them or between them; Larson puts himself in the middle of three-wide situations as casually as most drivers zip their fire suits.
The groove is wherever he says it is.
I am reminded of an old baseball story about Ted Williams, who was said to possess a batting eye so sharp that he never swung at a bad pitch. So here was Teddy Ballgame, in a home game for his Boston Red Sox, facing a Detroit pitcher. The home-plate umpire was Bill Summers, whose son, George Summers, became one of New England’s top short-track drivers.
The first pitch came and Williams did not flinch. Nor did he on the next three. He jogged to first base, having walked on four pitches. The Detroit catcher, Joe Ginsberg, turned to umpire Summers and said, “Gosh, Bill, that last one looked like a strike.”
Summers lifted his facemask. “Son,” he said, “Mr. Williams will let you know when it’s a strike.”
Mr. Larson will let you know where the line is. The trouble for everyone else is that by the next lap, he’ll show you another.
Think of him what you will, but watch him while you can.