Archive for May, 2011

Fast Track!

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Several years ago I had the privilege to edit a book that chronicled all the activities that took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the inaugural — now legendary — 500 Mile Race.

Bruce Scott, a CPA from Batesville, approached me about helping him with the manuscript and I jumped at the chance.

A race fan for most of my life, the very thought of seeing the fruits of many years of Scott’s dogged research drew me in like a moth to a flame. Over many weeks, I immersed myself into a story of dreams, challenges, and back-breaking work as men cleared what once had been farmland outside the city of Indianapolis and transformed it into what would become the most famous racing venue in the world.

Indy Before the 500 didn’t disappoint me and it hasn’t disappointed the thousands of fans who have purchased the book. Congratulations, Bruce!

I number myself among the most enthusiastic fans of Indy. Those who have attended the race more times than they could count on both hands cherish personal reflections. For me, memories include the wild, frenetic specter of the infield before its current look. The “Snake Pit” was not for the faint of heart. To put it mildly, infield fans defied description. The landscape, too, has undergone major changes.

Yes, the infield trees inside the fourth turn are gone. Sadly, my memory of those trees is the aftermath of the crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald. The trees smoked. The race was stopped for hours. That was a sad day. I’ve heard it said that some attend races to witness accidents. After seeing a couple of horrendous crashes, I find that hard to believe; but, then again, many things are hard to fathom.

The pagoda is gone, too. Today, a sleek glass structure stocked with the latest technology replaces a nostalgic Oriental tower that dates to another age — a time when Eastern influences were more romantic than economic.

Initially, and for many years thereafter, the race was held ON Memorial Day. It didn’t matter what day of the week, the race was on — and broadcast on Armed Forces Radio around the world. Who know how many servicemen and women listened attentively to those seminal words, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” That quip was amended with Janet Guthrie’s entrance as a distaff driver. Followed by Lynn St. James and a bevy of others, the race is no longer a sport for men only.

Gone are the simple little garages with their green doors. Gone also is the ban from women in the pits. Yes, there was a time when women were not allowed in the pit area. Oh, you could glimpse comings and goings from outside the fence, but if you were a woman, you could not enter.

Today, classy, well-lit garages line the pit area. The only remnant of the old days is the GASOLINE ALLEY sign leading from the track area to the infield and the famous “yard of bricks” that survives from the original two-and-a-half mile’s racing surface. Traditionalists may complain a bit; but, as is true with so many long-standing venues, changes are inevitable.

Among the latest, and highest priced, additions are the sumptuous straightaway suites, undoubtedly spawned by older ones located just north of the second turn and just steps from the Speedway Motel.

If you don’t have the talent or money to drive an Indy car, then why not drive a golf ball at the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course. You may not break any speed records, but you can tread sod made famous by the oval that frames it as a truly unique venue.

After decades of packing up a picnic basket and cooler and heading to the track for both INDY and NASCAR, we gave up our tickets. It wasn’t that our enthusiasm had waned for the event, but other interests beckoned.

Travel and camping replaced our annual “trek to the track”, yet the memory of introducing out-of-state friends to “Indy” remains warm in our hearts. For us, it was pure magic to see a first-timer’s reaction to walking in to the stands and seeing the sheer size of the crowd, the impressive opening ceremonies and flyover, and that first lap under the green flag. In truth, nothing eclipses that feeling when the 33 fly by you and begin the quest for the Borg Warner Trophy.

Yet, there are several things about Indy of long ago that I WILL miss. One, I am confident, will not return — the noise. What noise, you ask? The cars are loud. Well, that may be, but nothing compared to the ones we heard years ago. I refer to the sound of those grand old Novi engines as they roared around the two-and-a-half-mile oval. Yes, they may be gone, but they are not forgotten.

I can remember when higher speeds ruled the day. Every time a driver broke what was thought to be an unbreakable speed barrier, the new record was eclipsed within a year or two. The voice of Tom Carnegie as he trilled, “…he’s ON it!” Like Fred Heckman of WIBC, he was part of my life that will never die. I can still hear both their voices. Such are childhood memories. They last.

I suppose the most disappointing change in Indy has been the abandoning of a two-weekend qualification period and the newer rules. The old saying: “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” certainly applies. The system worked beautifully for decades. I can’t fathom why they shortened the qualification process to two days. What’s even more frustrating? The highly valued “Pole Position” — once won — is no longer secure. Where the top speed guaranteed the driver the inside of Row One, now it must be defended at the close of the first qualification day against the other eight drivers among the top nine.

Listening to Saturday’s qualifications, I found that someone else feels the same way. His name is A.J. Foyt. Pretty good company, eh?

What’s with earning the pole position twice to sit on it once? True, Tagliani won it and then held on to it this year, but it is very possible that the Pole Sitter could not only lose the position but could also wreck and lose competing in the race at all. I wonder if this is just an extension of the attitude held by many in generation X who don’t want to see anyone lose and refuse to keep score at children’s games.

In the end, I don’t have to worry about the nuances among the rules and regulations of the racetrack anymore; but as a long-time fan, I lament that the newcomers to the track don’t get the real taste of Indy that we had 50 years ago.

Yes, time marches (or in this case, races) on, but not all changes are for the best. Remember what happened to Indiana high school basketball. I hope that the inception of these changes and this year’s low advance ticket sales for The Brickyard don’t bode ill. Time will tell. It would be a shame to see an event reach its Centennial one year only to begin to fade in the next.

Happy 100th Birthday, Indy! You’ve given many of us priceless memories.

Just a minor distraction? Yeah…

Monday, May 9th, 2011

You hear a lot about “distracted driving” these days. When I had small children, that term poses a mental picture that remains clear even today. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination for a mother to recall the sight of three small boys scrapping over a toy or wailing that someone is taking more than their fair share of the seat.

That scenario is timeless, and, no doubt, it recurs daily in one car or another. However, the crux of the column in the wake of Mother’s Day, focuses on what the media considers be “distracted driving” today.

Ah, yes — the cell phone. Dangerous texting. Needless deaths. Young bodies sacrificed at the altar of “right now”. Nothing, it seems, is worth waiting for — least of all a message on one of these confounded wireless gadgets that rules lives today. I find it remarkable that we managed to exist for two hundred plus years without them.

But distractions are not limited to the cell phone. Imagine, if you will, an adult attempting to drive an automobile with (1) the radio on, (2) the GPS speaking directions, (3) a DVD player running a movie for the passengers, (4) the wail of a fast-approaching siren, and (5) On Star warning of a weather emergency and bad road conditions. Perhaps the only safe activity is watching the car park itself with “park assist”. At least the driver could safely answer the phone in that case.

Given the number of electronic accouterments in the new vehicles, it’s amazing that even more accidents do not occur. Every handy gadget in the new cars poses its own hazard. I don’t know about you, but this degree of multi-tasking is not for me!

All joking aside, isn’t it about time that good old personal responsibility returned to our lives. The thrill of freedom to a teenage with a new driver’s license is not new. We experienced it, but the danger we faced was taking a turn a bit too fast or getting in to a “drag race” with another teen. Those risks pale in the face of what novice drivers encounter today when they get behind the wheel.

There’s nothing more comforting in a dangerous situation that having a cell phone when you’re in trouble. The security in one’s ability to dial 911 for help cannot be underestimated. Thankfully, hoping to see a police car or being found Good Samaritan are not the only choices left to an injured or stranded driver. Let’s face it, when it comes to pay phones, Superman would be in a world of hurt today.

It wouldn’t be too comfy to return to the days of vent windows (loved them!) and radios and heaters as options, but I think for all we have gained, we have lost something, too. The old parent-child games of “Riddley Riddley Ree” and such are long gone. Now, I wonder if two-generational conservations are any more than “Where do we stop to eat?”

And if we could have a “governor” on the number of gadgets within a vehicle, what number would prove safe? One? Two? Three?

As with so many situations today, driving defies common sense. After all, when you are driving, driving should be your number one job. Next time you dodge an oncoming or adjacent car and the driver is in the midst of talking, eating, putting on makeup, or (God forbid) texting — and you will encounter them — drive defensively. You’re probably the only one who will be. Think about it.

Fiscal consequences…

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Sunday night, America learned that the mastermind and financier of 9/11 had met his fate. So ends one small chapter in the ongoing war with radical Islam. It isn’t the first battle and it won’t be the last.

This nation has paid dearly in both blood and treasure in our quest to rid the world of those who practice a wildly driven militarism and cloak it in religion.

That fight is far from over. Questions over the pictures will go on ad nauseum. Memories of Mussolini hanging and grisly photos of abused American reporters and soldiers are evidence of war and its aftermath, but it is unnecessary for those to be labeled “American”. Our SEALS did their job. Period.

Releasing details of any high profile military mission may give some among us a rush of some sort, but it can also have a downside — furnishing critical information to the enemy and inspiring other would-be zealots to more acts of terrorism.

Every hour of every day, our brave men and women in the military put their lives on the line to keep us safe and violence away from our shores. Here at home, intelligence officers regularly thwart attacks. Because they are so good at their jobs, we may have a false sense of security.

My only concern is that our borders pose a glaring danger to all of us. There is no way of telling what people could carry across the border. Items aren’t limited to drugs. It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to posit a biological or nuclear weapon in a briefcase. In this world of nanotechnology, it doesn’t take a large vehicle to ship a lethal armament.

As with power, wealth can be a bane or a boon. Money used wisely yields benefit. Money used poorly exacts pain and costs lives.

Osama Bin Laden inherited $80 million from his father. It is a pity that he had not been reared with a sense of responsibility to those in need. You don’t have to look very far in this country to find wealthy Americans who willingly share, funding private foundations to help their brothers and sisters to better lives.

Instead, his mindset was one of war and aggression. It just goes to show you what happens when you give money to a thirteen-year-old with no firm grasp on reality and no true world view.

My father had a saying and it’s as true now as when he uttered it to me when I was a child. “If you don’t care and you can’t share, you’re nowhere.”

If we learn nothing more about Bin Laden’s life that ended with a bullet in a walled compound in Pakistan, we learn how important it is to bring up our children to respect money and a sense of responsibility in using it.

Western civilization hasn’t seen all challenges of this ongoing war. We need to have a firm resolve to triumph and it won’t happen quickly. Undoubtedly, those who lost family members on 9/11 or on the battlefield feel about Bin Laden’s death, but I think they must have a small measure of solace in it.

It isn’t over. We need to repeat that to ourselves every day. To do less is to ignore reality. Think about it.