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Ben Smith

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Indy 500 reclaiming place as special event

– Look, I know how this goes now. I say it, and you roll your eyes. I say it again, and you just sneer.

Oh, please. We’ve heard this a million times before. Time to take off your Mauri Rose-colored glasses and face reality.

Yeah, well. That’s not gonna happen.

It’s not gonna happen, because I mean it this time: The Indianapolis 500 is every bit the event it ever was.

Or at least every bit the event relative to its era.

I know this because I was out there on 25th Street last race day at Too Flippin’ Early a.m., and nothing was moving. Caught in traffic, amazingly enough. Just a line of stopped cars and the usual Meet The Joad Family tableau in the Coke lot – guys sitting bleary-eyed in front of puny campfires, nursing their breakfast beer.

And it occurred to me, right then and there, that this was the first time this had happened in, oh, probably 20 years or so.

Finally I got inside, and there it was, the familiar mass of humanity. TV numbers not seen in five years. That big-time feel.

And, yes, I know I’ve said that before. But there was something different about it this time, something touchable and substantial.

And maybe it takes someone other than me to put words to it. Or at least the right words.

Maybe you have to hear Ryan Briscoe, who almost didn’t have a ride here this year after winning the pole last year, talk about how the hair stands up on the back of his neck every time he drives through the tunnel into the Speedway for the first time in May.

Maybe you have to hear Charlie Kimball, who lives in Indianapolis, describe the unremitting power of the place, which after 104 years is as much museum and repository of ghosts as racing venue.

“Even when I just drive past it on 16th Street – even in the dead of winter with snow on the ground – it still makes you feel special knowing that you get to come here and compete in the Indy 500 and everything that means for a driver, for a team,” Kimball said this month.

And, sure, there have been times in the last 20 years when I’ve heard something like that come out of a driver’s mouth, and I wanted to roll my eyes. Because I knew it wasn’t true. I knew the event had been diminished, even if it was still playing on the most hallowed ground in motorsports.

A lot of times since, I’ve convinced myself those days were finally done. Now I know they’re done.

I know because of the traffic and the crowds and the racing, the best you’ll find on this side of the Atlantic. I know because, when I made my hotel reservations way back in January, the place I usually stay was already booked for race weekend.

One more thing that hasn’t happened in awhile.

Listen, there’s no arguing IndyCar still struggles away from Indianapolis. But it doesn’t struggle here. And if the month of May is now the two weeks of May, and not the occasion it once was … well, that owes more than anything to the economics of IndyCar racing in 2013, and to a society distracted by too many other entertainments.

But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of a guy who started off in open-wheel, went off to the 800-pound gorilla of NASCAR, and now has come back again.

“Growing up through open-wheel racing, this was the pinnacle,” AJ Allmendinger said this month. “I always wanted to be here. The last seven years being in NASCAR, just to watch it on TV was kind of always a thing Sunday morning before the Cup race. I’d sit there and watch the Indy 500 and just always wanted to be here. Always did.”

Don’t you dare roll your eyes.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.