A lot has changed in 40 years

Indianapolis 500

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.

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