The Indianapolis 500 is huge. Enormous. Epic. We'd call its physical size and larger-than-life pageantry Roman in scale, but the Circus Maximus—the Empire's premier, 150,000-seat venue for that era's take on open-wheel racing—is positively dwarfed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's sprawling grounds.
It doesn't feel any smaller from the starting grid just before the checkered flag drops, with something like 300,000 fans packing the grandstands. It's emotional; you're sweating with anticipation, nervous for the drivers strapping themselves into 1,500-pound carbon fiber rockets that average something like 186 mph, all for your entertainment. Look up and down the front straight; the crowd, vibrating with energy, stretches on endlessly in both directions.
It's more than the weight of the crowd you feel as you stand just steps from the track's single preserved yard of bricks. It's the weight of history, the weight of tradition. Any race that's been held 98 times since the inaugural event in 1911 is going to spawn a fair number of traditions, but Indy seems to have an exceptional amount of respect for its heritage.
And, of course, Jim Nabors' rendition of "Back Home Again in Indiana," performed in-person for the final time this year. Why the heck should we care about Gomer Pyle's warbling, we asked ourselves before the race. Like so much of the race weekend, though, you have to be there to understand.
You absolutely don't have to care about the Indy Racing League, or even racing, to enjoy the Indy 500. Lord knows the attendees sucking down tallboys from the crack of dawn on weren't all hardcore motorsport geeks. You just have to go. The action pulls you in, drags you along.
You really do need to pay attention through it all, though, because you never know how things are going to shake out. More or less at random, we decided to watch pole sitter Ed Carpenter; we also kept a close eye on the 19-year old Sage Karam. Mechanical troubles kept last year's victor, Tony Kanaan, out of contention.
Things went smoothly for a remarkable 150 laps, and then quickly fell apart after a series of wipeouts. Two yellow flags and one red flag later and Carpenter was out of the running, the rookie Karam was still alive (better than we'd have done at 18) and the entire crowd was on its feet as Ryan Hunter-Reay crossed the finish line, 0.060 second ahead of Helio Castroneves—the second-closest margin of victory in Indy history.
Again, you never know exactly what's going to happen.
After the checkered flag falls, the energy dissipates quickly; by 6 p.m. IMS is a ghost town. But the crowds will be back next year for the 99th running of the race—they have to be back, re-create the incredible spectacle. And they'll be back for the 100th running after that, and the 101st…
Indy promises big when it calls itself the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but we'll be damned if it didn't deliver. Frankly, we can't think of any reason not to go to see the Indianapolis 500 if you're able, at least once.
"This is the Mecca," Mario Andretti told us at a Firestone event on the day before the race. "It never gets old. I always look forward [to it] because there's so much energy going on here. It's not just a race—it's an event, an event that you have to see, you have to taste […] you gotta experience this."
Are you really in a position to argue with Mario Andretti?