As I write this, my heart thunders with anticipation for my 44th Indy 500 on Sunday, but the haunting soliloquy of “Taps” keeps creeping in.
Lonely, beautiful “Taps,” always played by a bugler before the race begins, fuels my excitement like the roar of the engines and the screams of 250,000 spectators.
On Sunday, 19 of my relatives and I will carry on a 95-year family tradition. We will climb up to our seats in Grandstand B, across from the pit exit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for the 103rd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
But as I packed my suitcase this week, that solitary bugler’s tribute tugged at my heart, circled around it and settled in like a warm afghan. No wonder. It’s what Memorial Day is all about.
The Indianapolis 500 oozes with patriotism. It’s far more than 33 drivers shoveled into sleek race cars zipping around the 2.5-mile oval at 200-plus miles an hour. (Top qualifying speed was 229.992 mph.)
Starting at 8 a.m., nearly five hours before the green flag will fall at 12:45 p.m., bands will parade around the oval. Indiana State Police will stand on their motorcycles as they circle the track, which brings the crowd to its feet.
On the main straightaway, crews will roll cars out onto the track, and NBC-TV cameras will weave in and out among the mayhem as drivers emerge from Gasoline Alley.
The Purdue University Marching Band will play “On the Banks of the Wabash.” A soloist will sing “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Red, white and blue balloons will rise into the sky.
All of that is pasted into my memory like dried roses from life’s sweetest events, but this day’s most moving moments will come next.
First will come the invocation, delivered by the Most Rev. Charles C. Thompson, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. He’ll give a memorable extemporaneous prayer and finish by saying “Godspeed” in the language of every driver in this year’s race. Godspeed. Vaya con dios. Bonne vitesse. This year’s 13 American drivers will be joined by 20 more from England, France, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, along with a native of Dubai.
Then a bugler will begin to play “Taps.”
That 2.5-mile oval will fall silent. The crowd hushes, as if a soft blanket of silence has been placed gently over them.
That enormous, muscled Indianapolis Motor Speedway goes quiet, like pressing the mute button.
Day is done. Gone the sun. From the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well ... Safely rest. God is nigh.
The sound of the bugle will be heard all around the track. All quarter million spectators will stand as still as mourners, remembering.
Keep in mind that the place is so enormous that from my seat on the main straightaway, I can’t see the backstretch or the third turn or the “short chute,” that quarter-mile of pavement between the third and fourth turns. The crowd in the fourth turn is far, in the distance, a half a mile away.
Yet, there is no sound.
... Safely rest. God is nigh.
When he finishes, we don’t let go of that full silence. We let it hang there briefly.
Then, slowly, murmurs return.
Men put their hats back on. Now comes expectation.
We wait to hear the most sacred words in racing: “Drivers, start your engines.” Only then do we explode.
Three parade laps. The green flag waves. Off go 33 frenzied cars in a wild roar. We remain standing for the first 10 laps.
It’s like a wedding. Solemnity and blessings come first. Then comes the joy of the reception.
The Indy 500 lifts us to the heavens, but it also brings us to our knees.