Passing the torch

IndyCar commentary — By on May 26, 2012 2:47 pm

This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on May 18, 2012. To read More Front Wing’s INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, visit


Perhaps no other word describes the Indianapolis 500 better than “tradition.”  On so many levels, the traditions of Memorial Day weekend resonate with race fans far and wide as they make their annual pilgrimage to the gates at 16th and Georgetown.  Whether eating annually at the same restaurant, staying at the same hotel, or enjoying the same activities throughout the weekend, most people who have been coming to the Indianapolis 500 for any substantial length of time have their own traditions that go toward making it a very special weekend.  And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the traditions of the race itself — the balloons, the songs, the command to start engines, the milk, and so much more. For many, what happens during the 200 laps between the green and the checkered is only a very small portion of a larger experience.  Few other events in the sporting world are so intricately linked to their pasts as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Few traditions are more valuable than those involving multiple generations of families bonding over this special weekend.  My own family’s traditions date back to 1949 when my grandfather and great uncle attended their first Indianapolis 500.  It would be another five years until my grandfather returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1954 with my father in tow — enter generation number two.

For the next 20 years, Dad and Grandpa made the journey to Indianapolis to enjoy the big race together.  In 1956 and then from 1961 through 1973, they were also joined by my great aunt on their trips.  Year after year, they left their home at the same time on the day before the race.  They traveled the same roads between Springfield, IL, and Indianapolis.  They stopped at the same restaurants.  They camped at the same house on the northwest corner of Crawfordsville Road and Fisher Avenue.  They had the same routine the night before the race and followed the same course of action on race morning.  It was just what they did.  It was what many fans did.  It was tradition.

After 1973, in part because of the dismal Month of May that year and in part because of my grandfather’s failing health, the trio was reduced to only my dad beginning in 1974.  Though he made the journey year after year without any companions, Dad kept many of the traditions alive.  He continued to travel “the old road” between Springfield and Indianapolis as a nostalgic nod to the many years he traveled with his father and aunt.  He continued to eat at the same restaurants and do many of the same activities that they had all enjoyed for so many years.  (To his credit, he did finally stop camping out and decided it was time to starting booking hotels.)

It was to be another nine years before the next generation of Dalbeys made the voyage to the World’s Greatest Race Course.  My oldest brother first attended time trials in 1983 and continued to do so until 1987.  My other brother, the second of three sons, attended trials from 1986 until 1989.  Neither of them was interested in or afforded the opportunity to attend the race.

Finally, in 1988, my dad decided I was old enough to attend Pole Day with him and my brother.  I honestly don’t remember much about that weekend, but even at only seven years old I knew that IMS was a special place and that the Indianapolis 500 was a special event.  I loved it right from the beginning.

As luck would have it, one of the fans who had attended the race with Dad since 1977 was unable to attend in 1988 because of a wedding over race weekend.  Though Dad wasn’t sure I was old enough to last through the entire race without driving him nuts, he (somewhat begrudgingly) allowed me to attend with him.  Tower Terrace Section 47, Row J, Seat 6 has been mine ever since.

Over the past 25 years (has it really been that long?), many things have changed but many have stayed the same.  For all the years I was still living at home with my parents, and even well into my college years, Dad and I would always travel between Springfield and our hotel in Danville, IL, via US 36 and reminisce about the many years gone by.  Though we continued many of the traditions that grew from the years Dad and Grandpa went to the race together, we forged many of our own that continued for many years.  From routes to hotels and restaurants to gas stations, many routines that were repeated year after year became second nature.

Once I graduated from college, got a full time job, and started a family of my own, it became increasingly difficult to continue many of the traditions Dad and I had established.  In many years, race weekend became a one-day affair that involved driving to the track on race morning and coming home that evening.  I often look back on those years and those traditions and wish we could carry them on, but life has a way of changing us and making new traditions as we grow older.

This past week, I was fortunate to finally live out the day I have been waiting years to experience.  On Tuesday, I introduced the fourth generation of Dalbeys to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when I brought my son to his first day of practice with cars on track.  At four years old, he has grown up watching race cars on TV and knows that Indy cars are “Daddy’s race cars.”  He has more INDYCAR Hot Wheels than he can keep track of, and he was able to offer more information on Will Power at the Verizon Wireless display at last year’s Illinois State Fair than the Verizon representative standing guard at the #12 Dallara show car.

To say Jackson was excited to be at the track would be a massive understatement.  Unable to sit still for the two-hour drive to the track, just hearing the cars before we even entered the facility was enough to make him gleeful with excitement.  When we finally made it into the stands, it was all Will Power, all the time.  Few times in Jackson’s four years have I seen the smile he put on when getting his picture taken with Will.  It was a moment he as a sports fan won’t soon forget and a moment I as a father will always remember!

Within the next several years, I hope that Jackson will be interested enough in the sport to want to attend the race with me.  If he does, I look forward to forging our own traditions that he will cherish as part of his Indianapolis 500 experience and that he will look forward to year after year.  I’m sure I will try to continue many of the traditions of my father and my grandfather.  Of course, there is a good chance that Jackson won’t really understand them until many years later, but some time down the road he just might understand what an important part of this event the traditions really are.

And maybe, just maybe, he will stick around long enough to pass on some of those traditions to a fifth generation.

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