Seeing history is good. Sharing in it is better.
As the sun started to set over the now-empty grandstands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’d had a grand total of 48 hours at the Brickyard, and for most of them hardly anybody was here.
But for just over two and a half hours on Sunday afternoon, roughly 135,000 others joined me, and it did more than just improve the spectacle of a motor race.
I was in Monaco a week ago, and it felt good to see more fans in grandstands, some VIPs on the grid and to be able to interact with team members again. But Indy? Indy was a whole other world.
There are things you slip back into as we emerge from this pandemic. Personally, I don’t mind being around large numbers of people. It all felt pretty normal (only with mask wearing) as I wandered around pre-race and stood in the pits to soak up the carefully choreographed ceremonies, but it stopped feeling normal when the green flag waved.
If I’m truly honest – and don’t hate me at this point – the roar of the crowd had been slightly underwhelming at times before the start. Conor Daly got a good cheer when he was presented in the line-up, but aside from that, it was the sort of noise you’d expect rather than something that takes your breath away. It was similar when we got racing, too.
Perhaps I was jet lagged, or holding something back in the knowledge that this was still only the PG version of the Indy 500, but I certainly hadn’t been able to have the chance to build up the anticipation for race day like a kid gets excited for Christmas. I’d only arrived Friday night and was suddenly find myself amongst it all.
With everything I’d been told about the race, it started off a bit like wanting a Rolex but buying the replica. It serves the same function, it looks very similar, but in your heart of hearts you know it’s not quite the full thing.
But then Daly overtook Rinus Veekay for the lead, the crowd was on its feet and the energy was infectious.
A little like the pre-race ceremonies, the race was building to a crescendo, and so too were the crowd. They had taken a little while to warm up – perhaps because of the fact they hadn’t been allowed in for two years – so when Scott Dixon’s disastrous pit stop blew the race wide open, it didn’t quite kick off.
Similarly when Helio Castroneves first led, it didn’t really register. It wasn’t important at that stage; there was still so far to go. A bit like me holding something back pre-race, nobody was going to let themselves really believe Helio was going to do it.
But as the lead switched hands between the Brazilian and Alex Palou in the final six laps, you could barely hear the cars. And as Helio led the final lap to win the record-equaling fourth, I’ll admit I couldn’t help but have a massive smile underneath my mask (with apologies to Pato O’Ward’s pit crew, whom I was standing with).
The smile wasn’t for who won, it was for how it made so many of the people in the grandstands feel. When Helio jumped out and climbed the fence I was amazed that they could produce even more noise. It was outrageous.
And to make another admission, at that point I was a little emotional. And I probably can’t blame that one on the jet lag.
History was being made. Helio was matching A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr and Rick Mears, and he was getting to soak it up with over 100,000 people. The whole frontstretch started chanting Helio’s name, and you just had a true reminder of what sport means with fans.
My previous visits for Indy qualifying have been more than enough to teach me that the allure of this place is the history. It’s the enduring connection to the past, the traditions of people coming back year after year, and the stories of being there when something happened. Last year, hardly anybody could say that they were there; this year it was special that a large number could.
It’s not that it wouldn’t be as impressive a feat for Helio to have won behind closed doors, but he wouldn’t have been able to truly understand the magnitude without the reaction from thousands of people right in front of him. The biggest post-pandemic crowd at a sporting event meant it wasn’t just the driver and his team who were part of an historic moment: 135,000 others could claim that, too.
And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand the magnitude either. Someone can tell you how great something is as many times as they want, but you only get to really appreciate it when you experience it for yourself.
I went for a walk down from the yard of bricks to Turn 1 late in the evening and the place was empty, back to the eerily quiet feeling of Saturday. Except for the Borg Warner Trophy waiting for Helio to return for a photoshoot.
And that moment reminded me of all the hard work that so many people had put in over the past month. It was gone 9pm and the obligations were still going, the traditions being ticked off. For so many, Sunday was the culmination of weeks and weeks of work. If I got emotional at the checkered flag amid 135,000 people after being there for a matter of hours, I can’t imagine what they all feel when there’s 350,000.
I only got a taste of what it’s usually like, but a taste is all I needed. I’ll most certainly be back.