Doing the Double

It was possible until a few years ago for professional drivers to “do the double” on Memorial Day Sunday and drive in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Charlotte 600. A driver would finish the Indy 500, hop onto a chopper parked on the infield and transfer to a private jet and fly to Charlotte, changing firesuits along the way. Then NASCAR spoiled the fun; exercising its muscle over the cluster#@$* that was IRL and Champ Cars by moving up the green flag of the Charlotte 600 to make that impossible.

Although it’s no longer possible for the drivers to compete in both races, their loss is the viewers’ gain. By narrowing the gap, NASCAR made it easier for racing fans to catch both races and then sit down to dinner with their families. On Sunday, like millions of other race fans around the country, I plan to do the double! (For me it will be a triple, as I will be recording the Grand Prix of Monaco at 4:30 AM and watching it later.)

For a long time, ABC (which has owned the rights to the Indy 500 the same way CBS owned the Masters) broadcast the race on a delayed prime-time edited racecast. This meant either embargoing one’s self to avoid learning who won the race (which was difficult even in the pre-Internet, pre-ESPN days) or surrender and listen to the Indy Radio Network live and then watch the race later knowing the outcome.

Besides being the first four-color daily newspaper, the USA Today revolutionized the special section. From the time it started publishing the special Indy 500 pull-out on the Friday before the race, I started buying it. They printed a full page with full-color illustrations of each car and a head-shot of each driver. It was a lot easier to follow the race when you had not only a list of the cars, drivers, numbers, and teams, but also full color illustrations. I took that page and cut out each car and pasted each to a file card. When the race telecast was still delayed, I would listen to the radio call at my kitchen table with the cards lined up in starting order. Then as the race progressed, whenever they gave a full-field list of the running order, I’d move my cards around to match the positions. When a car went to the garage, I’d turn the card so the image was upside down.

(Some years later, the USA Today added the Charlotte 600 to that section, with the same, full-color illustrations of each car, head shots of the drivers, numbers, and teams.)

I’d listen to the voice of Paul Page and his classic station break cue to the engineers at the stations on the network: “You’re listening to the greatest spectacle in racing!” (That was their cue to insert their local commercials and do the station ID.) I remember how he’d hand off the play-by-play to his reporters stationed around the track who would describe the leaders as they approached and passed their vantage points and then handed off the play-by-play to the next track reporter. I could almost picture the full grandstands at the Start/Finish line with the cars lined up in rows of three. Then Jim Nabors would sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” and we’d hear, “Gentlemen, START YOUR ENGINES!” That night I'd watch the race again, for real this time.

I no longer buy the USA Today the Friday before Memorial Day, prepare the index cards and shuffle them for lead changes and every ten laps. Now that I have the Internet, I can sit here with a hot dog and a Coke (of course!) and watch a leaderboard updated in real time using official scoring while I watch the actual race, live. (Thanks to the Internet, I met someone who has known Paul Page and Chris Economaki, and I secured his promise that sometime this weekend he’d shake Mr. Page’s hand and say “Thank you” on my behalf.) Although I get to see the race live and have access to more information now, I feel less involved with the race than I did when I was shuffling my cards around. Now I understand my friends who are a generation older than me when they tell me they felt closer to the action in a baseball game when they only listened. It forced them to pay closer attention.

I wish I could go back.

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