It was quite the weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with large crowds, incredible heat and fantastic racing making this 500 one of the most memorable in some time. Plenty of others have dissected the racing, ruminating on Dario’s third win and how it elevates him higher among the greats. We want to talk about broader themes – the atmosphere and emotions around the weekend.
The overarching theme, throughout the weekend and including the Victory Celebration, was the painful absence of the late Dan Wheldon. The Speedway announced a tribute to Dan to take place during the race: on the parade lap and laps 26 and 98 (his winning car numbers), everyone was asked to wear a pair of kitschy white cardboard sunglasses that were handed out all over the track. It was quite a sight. And there were plenty of real white sunglasses to be seen all weekend – many drivers, fans and even new race director Beaux Barfield sported bright white shades as a nod to Dan during the Public Drivers’ Meeting the day before the race.
The levity of this tribute to Dan was welcome, because the hurt of his loss is still very raw. Nearly every conversation we were involved in turned to Dan, and most of the time it was one of the first topics that came up. Seems like everyone wanted to smile and laugh about Dan and remember the dazzling, fun character he was, but were still too crushed by his death to do so. Sadness and tears were a big part of the weekend, and so was the support we saw at Las Vegas. The IndyCar family is taking care of each other, and especially of Susie Wheldon, and we’re very glad for that.
The emotion that surrounded the 1-2-3 finish of Dan’s closest friends – Dario, Scott and Tony – was palpable. Dario, ever conscious about not smelling offensive after a race (he has mint sewn into his fire suits), poured the milk over his head and pointed skyward in a salute to Dan. (Milk-soaked fire suits start to sour quickly, especially in such heat!) Dario barely held back tears during the Victory Lane interview. Ashley Judd was in tears when she greeted her three-time-winner hubby, and more tears flowed as Susie Wheldon and Dan’s little sis, Holly, came in to congratulate Dario. Ashley and Dario talked Susie into taking the victory lap with them – she resisted at first – and it warmed a lot of hearts to see her do so. Dario also dedicated his win to little Iron Man Michael Wanser, son of Ganassi Team Manager Barry Wanser, who lost his battle with leukemia the day of the public memorial for Dan last October. It’s been a tough year for the IndyCar family.
A final note on Dan – if you didn’t see the ABC prerace feature on him, we highly recommend trying to find it online. It’s heartbreaking, incredible television, worth the time to find and watch. Just have a box of tissues handy…
That was the sadness. The madness? OMG, it was hot. All weekend. Sticky, muggy, blowtorch-meets-steam-room hot. We don’t do well in this weather, so our mobility was somewhat curtailed in an attempt to remain conscious and semi-useful. We saw lots of people heeding the advice to hydrate early and often and slather on the sunblock. We didn’t hear or see statistics, but we witnessed fewer instances of people being carted off for treatment than we saw in 2010, when over 1500 people suffered some form of heat-related issues.
The social scene was madness as usual. Every day featured meetups, tweetups and gatherings at the track, and that multiplied at night. We attended The Yellow Party (known last year as the Beat Cancer Bash), which just exploded in growth its second year. Fantastic organization and loads of fun! We also attended the Carb Night Burger Bash, which just keeps growing, and the li’l Pizza King Tweetup Bash put together was low-key fun. Just what the doctor ordered after a few days in the draining heat.
More madness? Yeah – on the track, during the race. Those single-file restarts were four- and five-wide down the front stretch, and there was plenty of passing and excitement throughout the race. There were fewer accidents than people anticipated, and the yellows that did happen played into the drama on occasion. Highly entertaining action! We like the DW12 more every time we see it race, and although it still has some issues to iron out, we’re awfully glad it’s finally here. The racing this season has been very high quality.
And the madness on Twitter during and after the race was a mixed bag. Lots of humor from the usual suspects, so much traffic that we had a hard time keeping up, and more vitriol than we can stand directed at Ashley Judd. We just don’t get the intensity of the hate. Is Ashley different? Definitely. Outspoken? Without a doubt! Does she seem like she’s grabbing for the spotlight? Sometimes it looks that way. We can understand why that would annoy people, but we don’t understand the visceral response. She’s not clueless. You aren’t married to a driver for a decade without learning a little about racing. She’s not harming anyone, she’s not committing acts of genocide, kicking anyone’s puppy or engaging in any crimes. She’s being herself, with abandon at times, which can be uncomfotable to see, but really – does it warrant such hatred? It really says a lot more about the haters than it does about Ashley.
So there was sadness and madness…and there *is* hope. The buzz keeps building. We were extremely concerned that the momentum gained as last season rolled along was lost in the mangled field at Las Vegas, but it’s still buzzing. Everything is up a little (for the most part) – attendance, ratings, the quality of competition and amount of attention IndyCar is generating. New chassis, engine competition (and resulting drama, on-track and off), and the presence of Formula 1 stars Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi have injected a little more crackle into the atmosphere around the sport. Rumors that more engine manufacturers are interested in joining the series in 2014 and the arrival of aero kits and different looks for the cars next season bodes well for the continued growth of the sport. And this Indy 500 is just what IndyCar needed – bulding on the interest of last year’s finish and anniversary, pointing toward an exciting future.
— Update: After we finished this post, we caught wind of a story about disgruntled owners (gasp!) moving to oust Randy Bernard from his post. Randy’s crime? Doing exactly what the series needs, even if it goes against some teams. (*cough* Chevy *cough*) So add this bit of political power-wielding to the “Madness” category – just when things look up, some part of the series has to shoot itself in the foot. What the series needs is for everyone to get out and push (in the same direction, please) to keep the momentum rolling. There’s success to be had – we need our sport to focus on grabbing that and moving on from a tough year.