Last week – August 19th – marked the anniversary of the first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909. Now home to the ‘biggest sporting event in the world’ – The Indy 500.
Believe it or not I had the pleasure (and it was a pleasure…trust me) of going to the race this year. Once referred to as ‘the redneck mecca’ the 500 certainly doesn’t have the best reputation in many circles. I had the opportunity to go since my roommate is from Indiana and wanted to share this piece of her home, and history, with me (her family had been going to the race every year for as long as she could remember!)
She had warned me that I was in for a culture shock, and seemed to get much enjoyment from the fact that a Brit was coming to this most American of events. I was told to expect lots of beer, lots of American flags, lots of eagles, and few teeth!
The seats were hard, and the ninety-degree heat stifling on my pale British skin, but the atmosphere was electric. I felt every cheer when a favorite took the lead, every concerned gasp when an accident happened, and the tide of genuine support for each and every driver, including those who had no chance of winning.
So what did this most ‘American’ of events teach me about the country I now call my adopted home?
The Indy 500 was a culture shock, but a positive one. Being an immigrant I believe that I am especially attuned to seeing what makes America culturally unique – in particular, the nation’s unswerving attachment to individual sovereignty. This fact is both America’s magic and it’s curse. It creates a country that feels alive, bubbling with the ideas and dreams of daring individuals, but it can also lead to a selfishness and ignorance that is damaging to any society.
But what I saw at the 500 was 300,000 individuals coming together. I cheered the British riders on, people cheered with me. I smiled when the Colombian Montoya screeched to the finish line. I looked around and everyone else was smiling too. We all endured courteously through the squeeze to reach our seats, and we were all so quite that you could hear a pin drop during the 21 gun salute and military flyover.
For a country so young America is unashamedly proud of their traditions, history, and nation. I never felt this as strongly as I did at the race. Individuals may not all agree on what it exactly means to be an American, or how their nation should look, but there is consensus that everyone has a right to carve out their own piece of the American dream, and to have their voice heard. There is also a real sense that people will stand up for what they believe in, and that they will also stand up so that others can exercise this same right. This is an attribute important to remember in a time where the continued inequality and oppressions that plague the states have never been clearer.
My time at the race reminded me of America’s biggest achievement – that a nation of fifty very different states continues to strive first and foremost for unity. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and I thank my roommate for sharing it with me.
Yes there’s a lot of beer, there’s a lot of hollering, and I’ll admit, it is full of ‘rednecks,’ but the main thing the 500 has is heart. So does America. An event that I feared would expose all that worried me about this country actually left me with a new understanding of what makes it so great.
Indianapolis, I’ll be seeing you next year!