How does a guy in the middle of roundy-round country become a fanatical open wheel racing fan? Well, in my case it was the exposure I got growing up with a Dad that always turned on the Indy 500 every May. We're talking about the late 70's through the 80's. When it was a BIG deal; you know the names: Unser, Foyt, Rutherford, Andretti and a slew of others. But I can also remember watching the Long Beach Grand Prix when it was televised; or Laguna Seca and the famous corkscrew. But it all pales in comparison to actually being at an event.
Ironically, my first event happened to be the(gasp) 1995 Indy 500. Yes, you're right, the first post split 500. As a staunch CART and Champcar supporter it was a tough pill to swallow. You see, my Dad was widowed for several years and re-married a woman who still had family in Indianapolis. So the invitation was extended to travel to her family's and go with her brother on his season tickets to the 500. Part of their tradition was to pick two drivers out of the starting line-up as 'your picks' for the race. My first thought was, 'Who in the heck are these guys?' and shortly followed up with, 'Can we be back in time to watch the US 500?'. I think I picked Eliseo Salazar and Davey Jones(shows you how much I can remember of the field). The seats could not be any better. Here I was at my first race an I'm sitting about 40 yards shy of the start finish line at IMS. And looking to my right and to my left, into Turn 1 and Turn 4 respectively was breathtaking. And the mass of people; I have never seen so many in one place at one time.
But what really got me was the first few seconds after the famous words of "Gentlemen, start your engines". The subtle and somewhat sweet smell of burning methanol as it poured from the exhaust of the turbo v-8s of every car on the grid(yes, the first year post-split was run with CART chassis and engines). It sent goosebumps down my spine. And that feeling hits me every time I hear an engine warming up at the track or get a whiff of the methanol.
As history goes, Buddy Lazier, a journeyman racer, ended up winning and Eliseo Salazar wrecked coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap. Most of the names in that field would soon be forgotten.
I've since been to the track in Gateway, IL only to see Michael Andretti blow an engine(much to the delight of a majority of the crowd) as he pulled away from the field. Jaun Pablo Montoya won that one with Patrick Carpentier coming from a lap down, only to run out of race laps to catch him.
I've been to all but one of the recent run of Denver Grand Prixs. I've seen Paul Tracy punt Dario Franchitti when they ran for Kim & Barry Green. I've seen Paul Tracy lose his concentration and put his car in the wall while running away with the race. I've seen Sebastien Bourdais dominate and come through the field, carving it up like a surgeon.
I was at Texas Motor Speedway as CART pulled the plug on the morning of the race due to vertigo from high G's on the high banks.
I saw Gil de Ferran win in Houston while we snuck in a pit straight corporate booth because all we had were garage passes.
I was at the 1999 500 in Fontana, CA when Greg Moore lost his life. I miss that guy.
One summer I even went to Hallett Raceway, here in Oklahoma, because Marco Andretti was running in the Skip Barber Dodge Pro Series(he finished second).
I've seen a few IRL races; and now I'll probably be seeing more IRL races.
But that is how I became an open wheel fanatic.