Commentary

Indiana in May is a special place

Updated: May 21, 2009, 5:51 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Back home again in Indiana

The 93rd Indianapolis 500 is imminent, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway turns 100 this summer. But the renown and reverence for the race and the place have been built on memorable moments.

The towering ones are well documented, but there are some behind-the-scenes vignettes that I treasure, some associated with the milestones, some simply wonderful or sad.

And it seems that I can see

A.J. Foyt stomping into the interview room on the occasion of becoming the first four-time Indy winner, snatching up a microphone and bellowing, "Gaahhddamn! We did it!"

A few more reporters were straggling in from the pits, and Foyt wanted to make sure his words, upon ending 10 years of frustration between the third and fourth ones, went into history accurately.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Foyt
AP PhotoA.J. Foyt -- not always given to humility -- was proud of winning his fourth Indy 500, and soon after thankful.

"Some of you boys might not have caught what I said. I said, 'Gaahhddamn! We did it!' "

Then, childlike, the raging bull of Indy bowed his head and said: "I ought not take the Lord's name in vain. He's been awful good to me today."

That was in 1977.

The gleaming candlelight, still shining bright

The ever stone-faced Big Al Unser -- called "Dry Ice" within the family, "so cool he burns" -- breaking down and sobbing with joy, not over any of his four 500 wins, but his son's first one.

After Little Al Unser won by half a car length, Big Al choked out the words, his voice breaking almost rhythmically: "To love something as much as I love racing, and to win at this place and then to have your son come along and win here [tremendous break in his voice here] is the greatest feeling there is."

That was 1992.

As the Unsers rejoiced, two Andrettis, Mario and his younger son, Jeff, lay hospitalized with serious injuries.

At their bedsides was Michael, who'd been dominating the race, hurtling toward an enormous paradox of triumph and disaster for the family … until a little pump belt broke.

That was Indy in those days: if it wasn't one monumental story, it was another -- in this case, two.

Through the sycamores for me

The amazing calm of team owner Barry Green on the radio to his driver, the fearless Quebecois Jacques Villeneuve, after they'd been put down two laps with an unjust penalty.

Green, in his Australian accent, pronounced Jacques as "Jack."

In the cockpit, Villeneuve was seething.

"Soldier on, Jack. Soldier on, mate," Green would say as Villeneuve flew back toward the front, unlapping once …

"Soldier on, Jack. Soldier on, mate."

Unlapping twice …

Villeneuve won from two laps down. He went off to Formula One and never returned.

That was in 1995, the 79th 500, which some call the last really great one, before the CART-IRL split of '96.

The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance

The glare I got from a rookie over at John Menard's racing shop the Saturday morning before the 80th 500, when I asked how he was holding up under the circumstances.

The rookie had qualified second, but would now start on the pole, moving over to replace his teammate, Scott Brayton, who'd been killed during practice after the field was set.

The kid was the poster boy for the Indy Racing League in the just-exploding civil war between the IRL and CART. The IRL promised to bring heartland American youths to Indy, rather than importing drivers with big money backing from Europe and Latin America.

So all the pressure of all of American open-wheel racing was on the shoulders of this sprint car driver who grew up only 50 miles away, in Columbus, Ind.

All this, and his veteran teammate was suddenly dead.

The kid turned and glared and said: "I'm a racer. I can't worry about things like that."

His name? Tony Stewart.

That was in 1996.

From the fields I used to roam

Mario Andretti, sitting in the paddock, looking me dead in the eye after I'd asked if his grandson, Marco Andretti, 19, a rookie, could actually win this race.

"You're damn right," he said. And it became a refrain as he repeated it. "You're damn right. … You're damn right. … You're damn right. …"

And then he added, "But you gotta beat Penske." Above all else, to win this race, "You've. Got. To. Beat. Penske."

[+] EnlargeSam Hornish Jr. and Marco Andretti
AP Photo/John RaouxWinner Sam Hornish Jr. and Marco Andretti gave fans one of the most memorable Indy 500s ever in 2006.

Roger Penske's drivers had won this race 13 times.

On race day, Marco flew into the final lap leading, dueling with Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr., and the crowd's roar and the moment were more electrifying than any since the terrible split of '96 … more thunderous even than when Danica Patrick had become the first woman to lead the 500, late in the race of 2005.

This was the moment the grand old race could heal completely from the wounds of the Indy car civil war.

A rookie, 19, and most of all an Andretti hurtling out of the family's notoriously bad luck at the Brickyard, could restore the 500 to headlines around the world.

When, on the last lap, Marco blocked Hornish off Turn 2 and forced him to lose momentum, Mario's words flashed through my mind: "You're damn right."

Then Hornish, calling on an astounding reserve of horsepower nobody -- except the team -- knew he had, closed again.

"But you gotta beat Penske."

In a red-and-white blur at the checkered flag, Hornish -- a nice guy but without the global charisma of the Andrettis -- beat Marco by a nose and snuffed the worldwide story.

This was in 2006.

When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash

The courtly figure of Jean-Marie Belestre, then head of the FIA, then the most anti-Indy car mogul in the world, standing on the pit road, half an hour before the start, invited as a peace-making gesture.

Belestre earlier that year had told me there would be "war," his word, on Indy car racing due to CART's designs on running in Australia, South America and even Europe. This was flagrant intrusion onto Formula One turf by what Belestre dismissed as "a domestic series."

This was in 1991, the 75th 500, and Belestre stood clearly mesmerized, gazing out at nearly 300,000 seats, every one of them occupied. Some domestic series.

"What do you think?" I asked him.

"What can I say?" he replied. "This is the greatest race in the world."

Then I long for my Indiana home

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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