Indy 500 is better on the radio |

Indy 500 is better on the radio

Chad Sellmer, Tribune staff writer

Let me begin by admitting that I am one of the few natives of Indianapolis who has never actually been to the Indy 500. And I’m not nearly as ashamed of that as the fact that I’m a Hoosier who can’t play basketball worth a damn.

Anyway, you have to understand what the Indianapolis 500 really means to some of us from that city: About a million half-lost, beer-swilling tourists suddenly invade the normal midwestern tranquility with incredible traffic congestion, roaring monster trucks, screaming, naked children (and some screaming, naked adults) and lots of public urination and vomiting.

However, the actual Memorial Day-weekend running of the Indy 500 is only a small part of the whole mysterious “month of May” in the Crossroads of America. Thousands of spectators turn out for time trials all month long, a museum covers everything you ever wanted to know about the IRL’s history and then some, and the month-long hum of high-powered motors drifts across the city from the 2 1/2-mile track at Speedway like a swarm of Africanized killer bees.

Let’s not forget the big celebrity sightings, as well. As a child, I could brag that I lived right next door to the great 1983 Indy 500 champion Tom Sneva … for a month each year, anyway. You might ask “Who?” but such is the life of an Indianapolis resident in the month of May.

I must be really old, because I can’t believe we’re up to the 87th running of the thing.

Most people around the country are accustomed to just switching on the television and watching the “biggest spectacle in racing.” Until the invention of satellite television, the residents of Indianapolis had no way to watch the race at home due to a local blackout. (You know, because with only about a million spectators, the race never sells out — they can always pack a few more drunks into the Snake Pit!)

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That is where I developed my life-long love of sports radio, which is truly a dying medium. My opinion is that people who watch the race on television are missing out on the most colorful part of it all — not knowing exactly what’s going on.

As a kid, I couldn’t help but be surrounded by the influence vibrating from the track. The newspaper prints the names of the drivers and friends in the neighborhood would cut those names out and put them in a hat for a lottery drawing and a chance at the “big pot” of maybe $20.

My family and friends would gather with our lottery selections on the back porch around the radio in anticipation of those famous words: “Gentlemen, start your engines!” The whine of revving motors lent excitement to the moment and then the drivers were off to begin their 500-mile journey, which would last the better part of the afternoon.

The announcers, carefully positioned at each of the track’s four corners, would give spot commentary on what they could see through the haze and smoke of the track as the cars screamed by at what is now 220-plus miles per hour. (Back then the top speed was only around 170.)

Slowly but surely, the drivers would whittle away at the distance until there were only a few laps to go and a leader was firmly established. And then the announcer’s voice would leap from the radio.

“There’s smoke in turn number two!”

“Paul, can you see whose car that is?”

Then there is some more shouting and a desperate attempt to switch to the track-side announcer.

“Smoke is billowing from a crash at turn 2!”

“There is a major pileup, but we don’t know who yet!”

And so on.

I especially remember a college field study in New Mexico, as my fellow students gathered expectantly around a TV set to watch the race. Those Hoosiers were all so happy to finally be able to catch the big event on the tube. I have to admit, it was a good opportunity to see what I had been “missing” all those years, perched next to the static-filled radio out on the porch.

I watched the screen as the cars went round and round the track. It was all very colorful. There was a crash or two and lots of smoke. Sure, there was a little bit of excitement, but something was missing. I picked up the keys to our van and went outside to listen to the end of the race on the radio. Michael Andretti was leading the race by about half a lap and seemed to be the sure winner.

Suddenly, the announcer’s voice cut the thunderous roar of motors in the background.

“Something is happening — smoke is coming from Andretti’s car! If that’s a blown motor, it’s all over for him. Paul, can you tell us what’s happening down there? Paul, are you still with us?”

Yes, there’s nothing like listening to the Indy 500 the old-fashioned way. Sometimes the things you can’t see are the most colorful of all.