Everyone’s May traditions in Indy started somewhere. For me, it started on Pole Day.
I attended my first Pole Day in 1979, which you can read about here, and today would’ve been my 21st Pole Day. Like all of you, I started out sitting in the stands, watching Time Trials and wondering what it would be like to be on the other side of the track, in the pits and Gasoline Alley, where all of the action is.
After 33 years, I finally made it! I covered the 2012 pole day as part of the Social Media Garage, spent 2017 as part of Buddy Lazier’s team, then was part of the media last year. Being part of a team in 2017 is one of the highlights of my life, and I’m in a qualifying photo that will be around forever.
I say that very humbly. One of the best things about reaching this point is that I feel like I represent my family, friends, people I’ve met at the track, and the people who have supported my blog over the years and now listen to my podcast. I hope all of you know that, because you are the audience that I have in mind when I write.
I was all set to cover Pole Day 2020. Right now, I should be in bed in a hotel or AirBnB in Indianapolis, trying to quell my excitement and muster up a few hours of sleep. Instead, I’m sitting at my kitchen table in South Elgin. My 15-year-old cat, Kitty, is sitting on the table in front of me, and my sweet boy Boomer is asleep on the living room floor.
It’s actually a beautiful night. The door to the deck is open and I can hear crickets in the woods out back. Looking at the forecast for Indianapolis for Saturday and it looks like rain. Kind of fitting, isn’t it?
One thing Indy has always represented to me is new beginnings. The 500 aside, I love the month of May. The leaves are coming back on the trees, it’s getting warmer by the day, and it’s awesome after several months of cold, snowy weather to finish the day out on the deck while getting ready for the start of summer. We’d be hitting the 50-game mark of the baseball season right now, and my birthday is on May 25, which means the celebration always gets stretched to Memorial Day weekend, and sometimes even beyond.
There’s certainly a large void in all of our lives, right now, and the best thing we can do is stay safe and be supportive of each other. I want to be at IMS in August, and I’ll do anything I have to in order for that to happen. Hopefully you feel the same way!
But for now, all we have are memories, which isn’t bad. It’s funny, but when I think my memories of Pole Day, I always go back to the 1980s when I was in junior high and high school.
The first two years we went to Time Trials we were living in Elwood, which is up State Route 37, past Noblesville and about an hour from the track. Late in the summer of 1980, we moved to Germantown Hills, Ill., which is just across the Illinois River from Peoria. So from 1981-88 we would get up early in the morning and commute over to the track for Pole Day.
Of course, while Pole Day was officially the second Saturday (or Sunday) in May, for me it started even earlier than that. Sometime in April I’d start going through my old programs and checking books out of the library to get ready. I’d fill my brain with as much information as possible so I’d be ready to go when we got to IMS.
We also subscribed to the Indy Star for the month, and I would race home from school to open up the paper and read the day’s reports from the track. It didn’t matter to me that the paper was at that time a couple of days old, it was new to me, and that’s all that mattered.
Weather reports were a lot different too. Peoria is a lot like Terre Haute, somehow the weather there always seemed to eventually make it over to Indy. I remember a couple of times waking up at 5:30 a.m. and hearing my dad on the phone with some poor soul with the Indy Star.
I love my dad and miss him (he passed in 2004), but in my teenage mind he became an old man about the time he hit 45 or so. Despite spending most of his day on the phone at work, his phone etiquette was a little rough.
“Hey,” he’d bellow into the phone. “What’s the weather like over there?”
Then I’d hear the footsteps as he walked to my room for the yay or nay. He was something with the weather, though, because every time it was a nay, we still never missed seeing cars on track for qualifying. It was always washed out.
If it was a yay, we’d jump in the car and make the 210-mile drive. About an hour outside of town — Crawfordsville, maybe (?) — we’d tune to WIBC and listen to their traffic and track reports the rest of the way in.
Again, I love my dad, but he was a cheap man. The drive over may have taken about 3 1/2 hours or so, but we always had to factor in the 30-minute walk from wherever free or cheap space we found into the track.
One of the cool things I love about entering a baseball stadium is walking through the tunnel to find a beautiful, green field spread out in front of me. IMS is the same way. We’d climb the what sometimes seemed like hundreds of steps to get up into the Paddock Penthouse near the start/finish line and get to the top of the grandstands, where you could see IMS in all of its glory.
That’s the thing about IMS, to me it’s a living, breathing place. When I see it, I see something that is alive and kicking, albeit with ghosts in every corner. Every time I go inside the track it takes my breath away for a second. In the last 41 years of my life, not a single day has gone by where I haven’t thought of her.
Eventually we made it to our seats, munching on sandwiches my mom made the night before, and it was time to qualify. There would always be a big rush in the first hour, and then, as Steve McQueen said, there was a lot of waiting. Pole Day was much more strategic back then, because with tires and equipment, the track was so incredibly fickle. If the track got too hot, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be a break of 2-3 hours in the afternoon.
When cars were on track, though, amazing things would happen. Between 1982 and 1992 I saw the one-lap track record fall 17 times, and the four-lap record fall 15 times. In 1979, Rick Mears won the pole at just over 193 mph, and 13 years later, Roberto Guerrero was the first man to officially break the 230 mph barrier.
Between drivers with huge huevos and the voice of Tom Carnegie, it was a cool time.
Once they had run through the qualifying line and the track had gone quiet for the day, I stop at a gift shop for a t-shirt and we’d head home. One thing I remember from those days was how often I’d look back at the Speedway as we walked back to the car, because I knew that I wasn’t going to see the track again for another year.
That was our tradition for about 15 years. We were joined by other people here and there, including my little brother Tim, who is nine years younger than I am, who officially became part of the tradition in 1986 or 1987, not quite sure which one. My brother annoyed me back then, so I didn’t think what year he became part of the group important enough to file away.
It all ended after 1995. My dad and brother lived outside of Atlanta, and I moved to Ohio in May, 1994, then to the Chicago area in 1998. I later had two kids, so Indy took a bit of a back burner to me for a while. And then there was the split…but we don’t have to talk about that.
Anyone who is a fan of the Indy 500 knows when their fandom and subsequent traditions began. My passion for the 500 was fueled during those special, once-a-year opportunities with my dad. One day a year, that’s all I had, and my life revolving around that one day is what fueled my passion. That got it started, and when I lived in Indianapolis from 1989-94, going to the track became a regular occurrence and took my love to the next level.
Did I mention that I’ve also mention I ran the track eight times as a participant in the Indy Mini Marathon? I’m running the Mini next year, you heard it here first.
But the years I was making that trip from Peoria, man that was an amazing time, and one that I will cherish forever. Some of the people that I spent time with then are gone, others are no longer a part of my life, and others have just gone on with other things. I’m the only one left of that group of people who lives and dies for this crazy sport where human beings strap into fighter jets with wheels in the quest to prove who is the fastest. Now that I know a lot of them, they are bigger heroes to me now than they were back then.
It only takes a photo, or a song, or a mention on social media to take me back to those days. It was certainly an amazing time.
So when today comes and goes, I’m not going to think about how sad I am that it isn’t happening. I’m going to think about those days where my dad and I would spend seven hours in the car to spend 6-7 hours at the track. My dad worked a lot, and as the years went by, he traveled a lot too, sometimes three weeks out of every month.
Still, Pole Day was non-negotiable, as race day is to me today. Sure, we played a lot of golf and spent a lot of time together when he was home, but I’ll forever remember the fact that Pole Day was our special day together. I’m sure after traveling all week that the last thing my dad wanted to do was spend another day on the road, but when it came to Indy he got me. He knew what that day meant to me, and my mom did too, as rain on Saturday meant we weren’t home on Mother’s Day.
I’m thankful, and fortunate. And lucky. I’m here because people get me. I’m here because people believed in me. I believed in myself.
I’m not going to lie. The next two weeks are going to suck. But you know what? I’m going to savor Pole Day. I’m going to remember the special times I spent with my dad. I’m going to watch some clips of those years we spent together, and I’m going to remember what made all of this so special.
Will it be the best Pole Day ever? Nope. What it will do is it will remind me of how I got here, and how I should look towards the future. It’s also a reminder to live in the moment and never take anything for granted.
Here’s my challenge for you today: think about how you got here. Think about what made you a fan of this series and the greatest race in the world. Think about the people that got you here, and the people you’ve met who have made the Month of May even better.
We can’t control what happens — or didn’t happen — today, but instead of being sad, think about how great it will be when the time comes that we are back at 16th and Georgetown enjoying the time of our lives.
Remember, this is all only temporary. Indy is forever.