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If X-Box is an omen, go with Wheldon

5/28/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- The 88th Indianapolis 500 was still another four days off, but drivers Scott Dixon and Robby McGehee already felt the need, the need for speed.

They couldn't wait for Sunday to satisfy their racing jones and have instead taken matters into their own hands. Literally.

Along with eight other racers and six members of the media, Dixon and McGehee are participating in the Codemasters Indy Car Series 2005 X-Box driving game tournament. Ten laps. Single elimination. Win or go home. Or more likely, back to your trailer or team garage for a light snack before the mandatory autograph session. But if you think the men of Indy were gonna let Vitor Meira successfully defend his title without a fight, you simply don't know X-Box and its tractor beam-like pull on the senses and perspective commonly associated with mature adulthood.

It's difficult to describe in words the action on display in a manner which truly does it justice. Even more difficult was figuring out which car was which. The TV's split screen broadcast didn't identify which car is which, and so it took the entire race to find out that McGehee eliminated Dixon in the first race.

Rookie Ed Carpenter practiced a ton before last year's race, only to see Meira walk away, fist raised, like Ric Flair after wasting Dusty Rhodes back in the '80's. So he took a different approach this time around: No practice at all. Perhaps Carpenter was on to something, as he left ESPN Radio's Greg Rakestraw in the dust. The way, frankly, it should have been. Sure, Rakestraw's our colleague, part of the family, but how do you not root for the guys who put their asses on the line everyday, as opposed to a glory seeking Johnny-Come-Lately? Sorry journalists. You're on your own.

Or were we? In an effort to juice the crowd, Codemasters held a contest where the audience member wins an autographed hat by screaming loudest for his favorite driver or media member. Media member? Are you kidding us? Look, we're not trying to slam on our peers in competition. We weren't even invited to participate in this battle of wills, so however uncool these guys may be, we're ice cold. But who in the crowd is gonna root for a media guy? Dave Furst! WRTV! Whoo-hooo!!!! Nobody's that desperate for a hero.

Around the time these self loathing realizations reached an apex, a small child standing outside the ropes asked Andy for his autograph. The tyke's enthusiasm wasn't deterred an iota upon hearing that he was talking to a writer, not a racer. Andy obliged, more than flattered, using his writer's creativity to scrawl the witty "Dominic. Have fun at Indy! Andy Kamenetzky." We can only hope this wasn't the best signature Dominic collected on the day. And no offense to our man Dominic, a great kid, but his appreciation was a bit anti-climactic. This kind of thing happens so rarely in our field. Would it have killed Dominic to be a little older, female, with a room key to John Hancock? Is that sooooo much to ask?

As we lamented how few groupies writers get, the tourney heated up, along with the crowd's emotions. As Darren Manning drove his semifinal match against Meira (the 500's real-life No. 15 and No. 7 qualifying guys, respectively), a chant repeated loudly and clearly from the peanut gallery; "Dar-ren Man-ning" (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap).

Huh?

One-man cheering section Joe Foxworthy, in between urging Manning to "drop the hammer," declared himself the "Leader of Darren's fan club." Pressed further, Foxworthy admitted, while a Manning enthusiast, he really just wanted that autographed hat. Of the remaining drivers, Manning's name sounded the best when cheered. "Bud-dy Ri-ice," with its need to create an extra syllable, feels forced. We refrained from letting Manning know the truth, since he had his hands filled enough with Meira's driving, eventually succumbing in spite of his speeds of 220+ mph.

The other semi was a grueling showdown between Rice and Dan Wheldon (who qualified on pole and No. 2, respectively, in reality). No punches were pulled, inspiring the announcer to declare Rice a "dirty racer here on the X-Box." Clean living prevailed, however, as Wheldon emerged the winner and Rice joked that the outcome, a rematch of last year's finalists Wheldon and Meira, was fixed. Lighthearted folly? Perhaps. But in this age of BALCO, David Stern's supposed Lakers' favoritism, and Don King, is any sport immune to temptation and scandal? Does purity in sports even exist anymore? Not having the answers ourselves, we simply chose to live in bliss and watch the finals.

The final round marked the first usage of theme music, with Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" blaring as Wheldon made his way to the X-Box controller. Is there a more sinister and crowd pumping anthem in sports? The answer must be no, since "WTTJ" played upon Meira's arrival as well. Could Meira begin a dynasty? Could Meira gain a mental edge going into Sunday, proving twice in a row that he owns Wheldon?

As so many teams and athletes have shown in the past, the
"repeat" is sports' great white whale. Wheldon emerged as the newest lord of X-Box.

What does this mean going into the weekend? Who knows? Race car driving is too unpredictable a sport for speculation. But one thing remains certain: We guarantee this was the last autograph either of us will sign the rest of the weekend.

Andrew and Brian Kamenetzky are frequent contributors to ESPN The Magazine, Page 2 and 3. They will be filing periodic updates from Gasoline Alley and beyond throughout Indy weekend for ESPN.com.