Mary Jane Skala

Mary Jane Skala

I’m wandering, lost, untethered.

On Sunday, instead of sitting in Stand B, Box 8, Row S at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’ll be watching a TV rerun of last year’s race. Because of COVID-19, my 44th Indy 500 has been moved tentatively to Aug. 23. Memorial Day without the Indy 500 is like Thanksgiving without turkey.

I’ve written about my family’s Indy 500 experiences before. About how my grandfather, then 24, drove a load of furniture from Middletown, Ohio, to St. Louis in 1923. Stopping at a motel in Indianapolis the night before Memorial Day — the holiday was always on Monday back then — he kept hearing a distant Zing! Zing! Zing!

The next morning, curious, he followed that sound to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and wandered in. Top speed was 75 mph. The race lasted seven hours, not counting the times the car sputtered and quit or a tire went flat, and the mechanic who rode with the driver climbed out to make repairs.

Factoid: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was designed as a test course by Carl G. Fisher, the man who conceived the Lincoln Highway, or Highway 30. Anyway, my grandfather was hooked, fueling a 97-year family tradition.

As May rolls around, old family legends start rolling like cars on the track. My niece emails: It’s May! Race month!

Zing! Zing! Zing! We all say.

Have a drink, have a lunch, my cousin Jeff says, mimicking the speedway vendors of my grandfather’s era. Jeff, now 72, fought in Vietnam. He told his parents that if he died there, to bury him on the speedway’s third turn.

We laugh about the race day when it rained and we sat inside trash bags for eight hours in our grandstand seats, hoping against hope that it would quit raining (they can’t race in the rain) and the track would dry and the race could start. It never did. It was postponed a day, but even that trash-bag vigil was fun as are our other memories.

Getting up at 4:30 a.m. on race day to get to the track early. The woman who sat a few rows in front of us who always read a book during the race.

The year a tornado was spinning toward the track with just 30 laps (out of 200) to go. They halted the race and ordered all 300,000 of us to flee, sending us out into rain and lightning. The tornado punched neighborhoods a few miles south but missed the track.

My interview with winning rookie Rick Mears 40 years ago. He was young and handsome and won three more Indy 500s. My feet didn’t touch the ground for weeks.

Watching time trials 11 years ago with my grandson, then 4, and twin granddaughters, 2. They lived in Indianapolis then, and as they clung to the fence, they launched our family’s fifth generation of race fans.

The year my son and his cousin Clay bought black-and-white checkered suits online and wore them to the track. They ended up in the media in the U.S., Europe and Hong Kong. They’ve worn those suits to the race ever since.

Then there was my late cousin Jenny Nickell. She was a pit producer for NBCSN's race broadcasts who helped direct race coverage until she died of a sudden heart attack after a race in Toronto in 2016. Oh, her stories.

One year, the celebrity who was to sing the national anthem threatened to pull out just 12 hours before the green flag dropped if the Purdue University band accompanied her. Another year, the celebrity ended the national anthem not with “the home of the brave” but “the home of the Indianapolis 500!” He wasn’t invited back.

Then there was the late Jim Nabors who, for years, sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” as 500 balloons rose from the infield.

The best moment each year is when “Gentlemen, start your engines” thunders across the 300,000 fans at that mile-long speedway. At that moment, the crowd explodes, and all is right with the world.

I’ll be watching Sunday when NBC rebroadcasts last year’s race.

In my heart, I’ll be back home again in Indiana.