"Gentlemen and Ladies, start your engines."
And another Indianapolis 500 blasts off . . .
In a lightning bolt of inspiration, the late, great Jim Murray began his column with this withering parody:
"Gentlemen, start your coffins."
The noise is what strikes you first, a screaming, shattering assault on the senses. Stand in the infield and you can feel the sound waves, shuddering as they punch holes in the air, and the whine of the turbochargers is a piercing banshee wail, like an ice pick in your ear drum. It sounds something like this:
The cars are past you before the thudding sound waves can reach you, and it is all such a chaotic cacophony, a swirling jumble of sight and sound, and good grief how fast are they going, anyway?
Well, in 1960, 140 miles per hour.
To capture the pole position this year, a four-lap average of 226.484 was needed.
And yet so very, very remarkably close. A driver named Ryan Briscoe, who is a household name in the Briscoe household, was the surprise winner of this year's pole, and by the minuscule margin of 0.0023 seconds. It was also a record.
The previous such record was 0.01, set in 1970, by Al Unser, who edged Johnny Rutherford (a/k/a Johnny Wreck-A-Ford).
But forget for a moment the stopwatches and consider it from this perspective: Ryan Briscoe's margin of victory after 10 miles translated into 9.168 inches.
Ten miles and you win by the equivalent of, oh say, half an arm? A game of inches, indeed.
And now for the age-old, unresolvable debate: Are race car drivers really "athletes"? Do they do much more than turn left? All the time?
Begin with this thought that you heard down in Gasoline Alley: to sit in the cockpit feels as if you're riding on a bouncing hand grenade.
The ultimate test of an athlete is his hand-eye coordination. So then, does making split-second decisions at 226 m.p.h., calibrating your way through 32 others who are also trying not to play bumper tag, while you're being buffeted by turbulence so crushing you're pulling 6 Gs . . . does that qualify as some world-class hand-eye?
Also: You can't call time-out. You can't switch to a zone defense. No one to lateral to. It's a lonely sport, one in which just one mistake . . . well, at Indy there is no helpful voice to whisper in your ear: "Recalculating."
At the 1990 Indy 500 the veteran Al Unser Jr. explained why he had backed off for the sake of survival and settled for fourth: "If I had run as hard as I had been I would have put the car into the wall. Have you ever been sideways between turns three and four at 200 m.p.h.?"
The silence was deafening.
Each year the designers and mechanics work toward a common cause, which is to make the car disposable, so that it will shed parts when there is impact. Like, for example, against a wall. Impact is a word you only whisper. To even brush against a wall, to barely kiss one at 226 m.p.h., is to see what you're sitting on begin to disintegrate. But better than the alternative, which is to be trapped inside and set on fire.
Those of a psychological bent like to suggest that the drivers are one step above wire-walking daredevils, that they have a deep-seated death wish.
In profane and passionate rebuttal, the leathery old icon, A.J. Foyt, suggested, with a derisive snort, that such a theory belongs to the south end of a bull walking north.
For a lot of years I lived in Ilinois and Indiana and got a tutorial in racing from Don Branson, a most accommodating man and a veteran of eight Indys, and I broke the unwritten rule that you keep an emotional distance from someone you cover. I asked him once, how could he do this and not be scared.
"Who says we're not scared?" he asked. "Listen, the race you're not scared . . . that's the one you don't want to run."
In November 1966, 12 days before Thanksgiving, on a sprint car racetrack called Ascot Park, in Gardena, Calif., Don Branson . . . well, this is the day for remembering, so . . .