Monday, May 30, 2016

A few thoughts, the day after

I can see what this was now, after the sun has finally set on a day that began in the predawn darkness. This was Throwback Indy.

This was 350,000 souls jamming the roads and parking lots and every inch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 1970s style -- you kept expecting to look out on the track and see A.J. Foyt's orange Coyote hunkered on the pole -- and there was an odd thrill to it, a certain electricity. Like when you heard, in some Speedway gift shop sometime on Sunday morning, that "there is now a 30-minute wait at the checkout line." Instead of groaning, you thought "Awesome."

This was '70s masses and a '60s feel, with a huge roar going up from those masses when Brazilians Tony Kanaan or Helio Castroneves went to the lead. Indy is the transcendent motorsports event in the world because everyone in the world races in it, making it a worldwide event and not just a backyard American brawl like NASCAR. And its audience loves that about it, roots as hard for its favorite foreign drivers as for its favorite Americans. And so when the roar went up for TK or Helio, it called to mind those moments in the '60s when flying Scots Jackie Stewart or Jim Clark went to the lead, or Graham Hill from England.

This was a '70s crowd with a '60s feel and a winner who felt familiar, too, in an odd sort of way. No one had heard of Alexander Rossi before he gambled and won yesterday, coasting across the yard of brick on dry tanks. It wasn't the most esthetically pleasing finish to the 100th 500, and Rossi wasn't the identifiable face a lot of people might have wanted. He wasn't even demonstrative enough for some in Victory Lane, looking more stunned than elated as he was coaxed through the ritual swigging-and-dumping-on-your-head of the milk.

All of which kind of took me back to a certain year in the '70s.

It was 1979 and another undemonstrative Californian won that day, and hardly anyone knew much about him, either. They would, of course, after Rick Mears went on to win four 500s and etch his name deeply into the thick history of the event and place. But in '79, he was barely two years removed from Roger Penske plucking him from the obscurity of off-road racing. And his demeanor ... well, flamboyance was not his thing, shall we say. Even at 26, he seemed more the cool calculator than a drop-the-hammer wild child, older somehow than he looked.

Rossi, same deal. At 24, toughened by seven years in Europe negotiating the political jungle of Formula One and its feeder system, he, too, seems older and wiser than his years. A young man of clearly immense self-assurance, he handled all the winner's hoopla with poise even though it clearly wasn't him -- and who, even in the moment, kept his eye on a prize far larger than just him or the fortunes of his race team.

"It won't sink in for awhile," he said in the postrace. "I don't want it to. I want to enjoy this moment, enjoy it with people around me. It's obviously a huge honor and privilege, something I'm going to carry with a great sense of responsibility.

"We need to really push this forward. It was an incredible event for the hundredth running of the 500. We need to do everything in our power to continue the momentum forward, make it even bigger next year."

Pretty remarkable perspective for a 24-year-old who'd just won the biggest race at Indy in a century. And oddly appropriate, in its way, for a day given over to history and its celebration.

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