Let's See a Boy Do That

Let's See a Boy Do That: Reflections on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 with nothing but gravel and uneven ground. Buckets of collision and death came on this site with fearless lads looking to move faster. The track was paved with more than 3 million bricks in 1932 to help the drivers from crashing into the walls and one another. Although now covered in asphalt gravy, this is how the Indy 500 got the nickname "Brickyard," a holy word in the heart of Hoosier country, a place where speed and guts mean more than the stars and the moon.

The Brickyard is a coliseum of velocity. It is the largest sporting venue on the planet, able to hold more people than the entire population of Omaha, Neb. Dukes and queens fly into the heartland from the likes of Spain and Brazil and hard-to-pronounce countries in Africa just to watch the fastest show on Earth. Kentucky may have their famed horses running in a circle, but the Brickyard is about chrome and rubber spinning to a vortex of ungodly speeds, with the slightest mistake leading to sudden death.

The event is loaded with Butternut pride (Butternut is slang for Hoosier). At 6am on race day is a fireworks show, followed by the Purdue University All-American Marching Band blasting out "On the Banks of the Wabash" and "Stars and Stripes Forever." "God Bless America" is sung by Florence Henderson (yes, that Florence Henderson), and Jim Nabors tops off the morning with "Back Home Again in Indiana" accompanied by Purdue's band.

When Nabors hits the legendary line "the new mown hay," thousands of multicolored balloons are released from the infield. The race features barbecue and kids' rides and even a church for the praying folk. To many, the Brickyard is heaven.

I went to my first 500 in 1997, the last for driving hero Lyn St. James. St. James was one of only four "girls" to every make the cut at the Brickyard and might be the best. She was hot, tough, aggressive, and knew how to turn left with authority. St. James was a pioneer. She's been invited to the White House by three different commander-in-chief boys, has been interviewed by David Letterman, and was named one of the "Top 100 Women Athletes of the Century" by Sports Illustrated. St. James had a pulp-fiction thing workin'. She looked like a doll, but you knew she could knock you on your ass if she so desired. And Butternut Nation loved her.

In the 1997 race, St. James started badly (as the 31st car out of 33) and clawed her way to the eighth spot during the course of the race, shooting distance of winning the whole gig. The audience screamed and shouted for her every time she breezed by at 200, 205, 210 miles per hour, just nearly missing the wall each and every time she took a corner. St. James was hot, gunning for gold, and we could all feel the tension in the air.

That is until she went ramming into Turn One, the most dangerous turn on the track. I was sitting at Turn One and saw the metal and rubber fly into the blue sky. The crowd of 250,000 people went silent. The wreck was bad. People don't survive crashes like that, not even Lyn St. James. The caution light flashed and an ambulance came roaring to the accident. Paramedics didn't walk to St. James. They ran. A crane drove out to haul away the wreckage. It was all stillness. It was all silent.

St. James' body was pulled from the car. She didn't flinch. Then her hands moved. Then her arms. Then her legs touched the ground. She shoved a paramedic to the side. St. James was confused, disoriented, and now had no shot of winning the Brickyard. But she was alive. She took off her helmet and jumped onto what was left of her dead race car, pumping her fists into the air like a punk rock princess, screaming "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" The joint went crazy! Lyn St. James ripped into a concrete wall at 210 mph and danced away on her last trip on the bricks. Baby, it's better to burn out then to fade away! I dare any "boy" to crash into a wall like that. St. James gave the crowd more than we paid for. And that is why we loved her.

That is the beauty of the 500, the beauty of the Brickyard, and what Hoosiers and Butternuts and racing fans love. Fearlessness and the guts to live, to dare to live like a speed demon. Faster. Better. Further. More. That's what the Brickyard is all about.

I've always wondered if Turn One ever knew what hit it.

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