A lot has changed in 40 years

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The 98th Indianapolis 500 will be ABC's 50th. It would be my 40th, for five different media companies -- the most recent being the ESPN-ABC empire -- had not some years' circumstances in NASCAR and Formula One taken me to Charlotte or Monaco.

ABC and Indy will go on. But whatever the count, this likely will be my last Indy 500.

Some years ago, a sports writer friend from Chicago and I calculated that we had each spent something like 18 months of our lives in Indianapolis, cumulative, through the decades when the 500 was unquestionably the greatest automobile race in the world. We capitalized the first "M" in "the Month of May" back then, because every practice session and every lap of qualifying potentially was international news, so you came early and stayed all month.

In recent years, I've gone for only a few days each May, because no matter which side of the devastating Indy car civil war of 1996 to 2008 you were on -- or disgusted with both sides, as I was -- the hard truth is that the race just isn't what it used to be.

Still, every time I drive a rental car out of the Indianapolis airport lot and hit I-465 North, there is a sense of homecoming.

And so, in May of next year, I likely will -- just like in the song that has never failed to choke me up -- long for my Indiana home.

For 40 years, I've tried to tell good stories, one at a time. I have lived my life by a mantra taken from John Ruskin: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what he saw in a plain way."

But the public appetite for storytelling appears to be ebbing fast.

"Good riddance," some of you are saying already and will post in our comments section. Many have despised my coverage of Indy since the great schism of 1996.

Still, I reiterate that the Indy car civil war did what the Great Depression and the cancellation of the 500 in the war years of 1917-1918 and 1942-45 couldn't: permanently damage the race's prestige.

I've been assigned to tell some stories about Indy before I go, stories of when the American public cared to know about titans who were really common folk down deep, A.J. Foyt, the Andrettis, the Unsers.

So in ensuing columns this month, I shall write memories -- of characters and moments, ordeals and triumphs, and my most memorable race -- since I first covered Indy in 1975.

Whenever I reminisce about the place and the race, I am wont to intersperse lines from "Back Home Again in Indiana" with my written memories. This time, I'll get it all out of my system at once.

I always hear Jim Nabors' rendition in my mind, for he sang it when I got there and he will sing it as I go. This will be his last Indy 500 too.

Back home again in Indiana,
And it seems that I can see
The gleaming candlelight, still shining bright
Through the sycamores for me.
The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance
From the fields I used to roam.
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash
Then I long for my Indiana home.

When I remember how, upon those last two lines, the hundreds of thousands of voices would rise from merely roaring to thundering -- there never was anything quite like that.

Nabors was my neighbor, two doors down, at the old Speedway Motel on the grounds, before I got kicked out of there in 1999. That was part of then-Speedway czar Tony George's ban of me from covering the race, via certified letter to the editors of Sports Illustrated, my employer of the time. George later relented and let me into the media center but not back into his motel. It has since been torn down.

When I first arrived at Indy in 1975, ABC was already well-established there. Jim McKay, to my mind the nicest man who ever anchored a sports event, missed that race for some reason, but I'd already met him at Darlington, along with the delightful Jackie Stewart. Another unassuming giant, Keith Jackson, to my ear the greatest voice of college football ever, anchored the race that year.

Chris Economaki had already begun mentoring me, at the 12 Hours of Sebring that spring. Sam Posey had already amazed me with his easygoing intellect that February, as a driver for the BMW factory team in the 24 Hours of Daytona.

The Indy 500 was tape-delayed in those years, and other than being present at the Speedway, the only way you could see it live was on closed-circuit telecasts in movie theaters.

So the crowds were by far the largest for any one-day sporting event in the world. In the 1970s, the Indiana State Police sometimes estimated attendance at about 400,000. I knew people who had held the same seats for more than 25 years, watching adjacent families' children grow into men and women, May by May.

They're lucky to draw 250,000 now. That remains annually the biggest crowd for a motor race in the world. But the recovery toward even those numbers, since the split of 1996, has been painful to watch.

And always, these 19 troubled years have been haunted by the memories of the way it was.

Through the 1995 race, the impression never was anything short of overwhelming when you walked out onto the pit road half an hour before the start and saw all that humanity packed together, as far as the eye could see in any direction.

When I covered my first Kentucky Derby, in 1982, I was underwhelmed by the mere 150,000 present.

So you'll pardon me if my stories this month come mostly from before 1996.

I will be mindful, throughout, of a conversation sometime in the late 1990s, when I was lured into a tent in the paddock by Indy Racing League loyalists who, it turned out, just wanted to argue with me face-to-face. After all, I had written about the folly of the war.

Of Tony George, who founded the schismatic IRL by leveraging the 500's reputation, one loyalist said to me, "Surely you'll admit that it's his race."

"The Indianapolis 500," I said, "belongs to the American people."

I hadn't taken the side of the boycotting Championship Auto Racing Teams. Indeed, a headline on one of my stories in SI conveyed my feelings precisely: "A Pox on Both Their Pits."

The American people were robbed, I felt -- still do -- by both sides.

These past 19 years have been a struggle for me at Indy, grasping at straws of hope that the 500 might become again the Olympus of motor racing.

No one hopes that will come to pass more than I do. I doubt I'll see it in my lifetime, let alone by the end of a motorsports writing career of 40 years spanning five decades.

But the memories will abide, from the years when this, beyond doubt, was the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.