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How Indy 500 Fans Like Me Keep Our Joy Alive While Watching Farther Away

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“Who’s Bobby Rahal?”

Sometimes, random occurrences can have unintended consequences. When my friend Tom and I spotted Rahal in Gasoline Alley the day before attending our first Indianapolis 500, the chance encounter began a quest that’s continued for more than six years.

Moments earlier, Tom had purchased an Indianapolis Motor Speedway jacket to commemorate our visit. After giving him some friendly harassment for not recognizing the winner of the 1986 Indy 500 on sight, I told Tom he should ask Bobby Rahal to sign the jacket.

Attending the world’s largest single-day sporting event had been on both of our “bucket lists” for years. But in that instant, our “bucket list” suddenly expanded: We sought to have every living Indy 500 winner sign our jacket.

Memorabilia as Memory

At that race, as at so many other sporting events, souvenir stands speckle the premises. Like the proverbial travel postcard in days of yore, countless fans want to commemorate their visit to a race or other special event, a team championship, or their favorite player.

In many cases, Americans pay a pretty penny for those commemorations. By one estimate, the memorabilia marketplace alone represents a $5.4 billion annual industry. That figure only considers unique memorabilia, excluding mass-produced apparel like T-shirts, baseball caps, and the like.

Sure, some people view memorabilia as an investment and business. They care more about the value of an autographed ball or the pristine nature of a player’s rookie card. But while I recognize the monetary value of the Indy 500 jacket, you couldn’t offer me enough cash to part with it.

Stories Behind the Signatures

Each autograph on the jacket has a story behind it, a brief encounter in time with a unique group of individuals — the 31 living winners of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Some of the stories venture into the humorous. I almost spilled a bottle of water on Tom Sneva, the 1983 Indy 500 winner, while getting his autograph. Incredibly gracious, Sneva seemed more concerned about ensuring the jacket did not get soaked — it didn’t.

Obtaining the signature of Takuma Sato, the 2017 victor, entailed an escapade into that year’s Indy 500 victory banquet, for which we did not have tickets. We ended up with an autograph, a fun story, and (thankfully) no arrest records.

Four years ago, two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi asked to model the jacket after signing it. The resulting slightly comical photo shows Tom standing next to the diminutive Brazilian, his frame practically overwhelmed by the XXL-sized jacket.

Persistence and Patience

Other signatures on the jacket demonstrate the value of both patience and persistence and of waiting for opportunities and overcoming obstacles to achieve one’s goals. In 2016, Tom and I spent days trying to obtain the signature of a four-time 500 winner, and Indy legend, A.J. Foyt. We broiled away in the hot Indiana sun, loitering with intent outside the team’s garages, asking team mechanics when Foyt might appear, and the best way to snag the occasionally prickly legend’s autograph.

Everything came to naught — but only for a time. Three months later, early on a Pennsylvania Saturday morning, I found the 80-something champion in a quiet moment before practice. With nary another soul in sight, and no crowds or other onlookers asking for signatures, he beckoned me over with a nod and gave the signature we had spent so much time and effort seeking.

Past, Present, and Future

That story of persistent patience has particular applicability this year, as sports remain hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic. After being postponed from its traditional Memorial Day weekend date, the Indy 500 will run this Sunday, although without fans in the stands. At first, track owner Roger Penske said he would rather cancel the race than run it without fans, but ultimately recognized he could not cancel open-wheel racing’s biggest event without putting the sport’s teams in financial jeopardy.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the world’s largest spectator sporting venue, will look far different without 300,000 fans in the stands on race day. But those fans will watch at home, and take comfort in the shared memories of years past, and races past.

In waiting patiently to collect autographs on our jacket, Tom and I met many other fans seeking autographs for similar collectibles, and with similar stories. These tangible “labors of love,” and the memories behind them, will sustain fans who will not hear the roar of engines or watch their favorite team take the field, during this season of disease and despair.

I also know from my encounters with Foyt and other Indy 500 winners that a dream deferred does not represent a dream denied. Tom and I still have four living Indy 500 winners to add to our jacket (five, if Sunday’s race sees a first-time winner). Pre-coronavirus, I had planned to build my travel schedule around trying to obtain the remaining autographs.

I likely won’t make any such trips in the remaining months of 2020. But history teaches that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1955 World Series, and “Wait ‘til next year!” finally became “this year.” I know I’ll get those remaining signatures soon enough — and that, after all the waiting, they will have an even greater meaning.