SPEEDWAY, Ind. | Sunday was Katelynne Taborski’s 25th Indianapolis 500.
“My mom was here with me,” said the Gary resident of her in-the-womb visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Racing, it’s a family thing,” she said, noting visits to local racetracks as well.
Taborski is among those who have bought into the traditions of what was originally called the “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes.”
Joe Martin, 28, of Griffith, celebrated his 21st straight viewing of the 500 from his perch high in Turn 3’s Northeast Vista.
“I’m not very religious, but to me, Indy’s a religious experience,” Martin said. “I love the ambiance, being part of the largest single-day crowd in sports. I come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I get goosebumps.”
For Martin, Sunday’s only downer was the absence of his father, Richard, whose recent illness forced him to watch from a hospital bed rather than attend a 36th consecutive 500. But Joe Martin, dutiful son, called him during the pace lap so he could hear the 33-car field roar through Turn 3 en route to the green flag.
“My dad’s a Vietnam veteran so I tear up when I hear taps before the race," Martin, a firefighter, said. "And I tear up when Jim Nabors sings '(Back Home Again in) Indiana.' Just driving down Georgetown Road, I get emotional. This place, it draws you in like a magnet.”
Hobart’s Danny Spraggins also got a little emotional. This was the Indiana National Guard mechanic’s first 500 since returning from a tour in Afghanistan last September.
“We lost six guys on that deployment,” Spraggins said. “I went to the 500 when I was in high school because it was something to do. Coming to the 500 means a little bit more now. This race is dedicated to the men and women of the military and Memorial Day. My daughter Ashley said we had to be at the track in time for the military march.”
Spraggins, a 37-year-old father of two, received his tickets through the “Wish For a Hero” program. He has attended every 500 since 1991, except for when he was stationed overseas.
On Sunday, the Martin and Taborski families followed their traditional scripts. In Martin’s case, they were out of their campground in nearby Greenfield, where they stay beginning Thursday night, in advance of Friday’s Carb Day final practice, before 5 a.m. That was about when the Taborski group was checking out of their motel.
“We used to stay in the Coke lot (across Georgetown Road from the Speedway), but it got too wild,” Martin said. “But we’re at the track by 6 and in the stands at 8 to watch the bands.”
That was only the start of a day Martin called “Christmas in May.”
“Just like Al Unser Jr. said, 'You can’t put into just a few words what Indy means,'” Martin said. “They’ve been doing this here since 1911. And the Borg-Warner Trophy, that’s as beautiful as the Stanley Cup.”
Martin’s group is about 20-strong, all family that uses the 500 as an annual reunion. That’s fitting, for his aunt was the first in the clan to attend the 500, watching Mario Andretti win in 1969.
“My buddies have always thought that I’m nuts,” Martin said.
That would have been the minority opinion Sunday, when 200 breathless laps ended with Tony Kanaan winning on the 68th and final lead change.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d see a race like that in Indy,” Martin said. “I’m not happy it ended under yellow, but the driver in victory lane earned it. And everybody stayed to see him take the victory lap in the pace car. I’ve never seen that.”
The same was true in Spraggins’ grandstand.
“My section was packed until the very end,” Spraggins said. “I’m disappointed it ended under yellow, but I was cheering for Kanaan from the 10th or 11th lap.”
Taborski and her family are more than 500 regulars. They’re also at the track for the first day of practice, both qualifying days and Carb Day. They used to attend the Brickyard 400, but have skipped that in recent years.
Martin said the best race he’d attended before Sunday’s race was his first, in 1993. But Martin promises that he’ll come back to the 500 forever.
“They can spread my ashes here,” Martin said, “There is no better day than Memorial Day Sunday in Indianapolis.”