Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen...START YOUR REALITY CHECKS

I have friends who live and breathe Fantasy sports. Every spring they congregate at somebody’s house for something called the “fantasy baseball draft.” This is followed in late summer by the “fantasy football draft.” And during the “season,” they follow their respective “players” with the gusto of George Steinbrenner.

I’ve never understood the concept of fantasy anything when it comes to sports. I know I’ll get an argument from fantasy groupies around the country but my feeling is clear: why indulge in a fantasy sport when you can spend your time watching, or even participating in, the real thing?

That was until last Memorial Day weekend when witnessed a sports event that is clearly turning into a giant fantasy.

It’s called the Indianapolis 500.

I’ve never been a big fan of racing, be it NASCAR, Indy cars, dragsters or even the Cub Scout-sponsored Pinebox Derby. I know NASCAR fans gravitate to tracks on Saturdays like a baby takes to a breast but I still don’t get the appeal. My comedian friend Dobie Maxwell has the best line about NASCAR: “a bunch of hillbillies turning left for four hours.”

However, my father-in-law LOVES racing and, sometime around last Christmas approached me with the idea of attending this year’s Indy 500. Considering Indianapolis is only three hours from my house, this didn’t seem like a major inconvenience. Get up early, shoot down I-65, watch the race, get back in the car and be home in time to catch the highlights on SportsCenter.

A month later, we secured tickets in that most popular of ticket forums – eBay- and awaited race day with varying degrees of enthusiasm. My father-in-law was like a kid awaiting Christmas morning.

“You bringing a stopwatch?” he said to me about a week before the race?

”What for?” I thought. “So I can time how long it takes me to get a beer once we
get inside?”

Or maybe gauge how long it would take to reach the Port-a-Potty?”

I had already read enough on the Indy 500 to know that, at 300,000 plus spectators, it is the LARGEST single-day sporting event in the world.

No, I wasn’t planning to bring a stopwatch. Just a smile, a positive attitude and the knowledge that I would be spending some quality time with an in-law.

But, as race day grew closer, my excitement grew. I read about Danica Patrick’s quest to become the first female winner in history; I wondered aloud if Helio Castroneuves could win the 500 and Dancing with the Stars in the same year; and I wondered if I would see David Letterman at the race, since he actually OWNS an Indy race team. Heck, maybe I’d even go invest in a stopwatch!

A glorious race day dawned and we made our way to Indianapolis armed with sunscreen, binoculars, earplugs and Egg McMuffins. About five miles out of Indianapolis, we joined a traffic jam, the likes of which I had never seen on ANY interstate. If two semis had flipped over and OJ Simpson was being chased in the remaining open lane, it still would not have created the traffic tie-ups that race day generates. Cars, trucks, SUVs, Winnebagos and AirStreams clogged the exit ramp off I-465, all headed to the same destination. Somewhere amidst the throng, I imagined a car containing an elderly couple who were just trying to get to their son or daughter’s house for a quiet holiday weekend. They’ll probably arrive by the Fourth of July.

Eventually we found the track, used our eBay-purchased parking passes to park in somebody’s backyard and approached the gate. Here was my first indication that the Indy 500 is a fantasy event. Track officials check your ticket, and that’s all. Bring anything you want inside the track. Nobody cares. Guys were wheeling coolers of beer, sandwiches, pies and, for all I know, homemade grenade launchers into the grounds. Nobody peeked inside anything.

I nearly got strip searched one time connecting between Dallas and St. Louis.

We made our way to our seats in the Paddock. Mind you, the Paddock contains some of the best seats at Indy, directly across from Pit Row and bordering the straightaway that also contains the starting and finish line. Even though the track is two and a half miles around, I truly thought I could see everything. I even saw David Letterman, standing on Pit Row in the midst of his team, wearing a white shirt and trying hard to remain inconspicuous.

This was America, this was sports, this was reality.
Then the race started – and fantasy reared its head.

The last time I checked, gas hovered at about $4.25 a gallon. Yet here was driver after driver, cruising down Pit Row and filling the tank without worry. No credit card, no driving to other pits to see if gas was a few pennies cheaper and nobody’s tank got capped at $75.

Furthermore, I don’t know how many miles per gallon the average race car gets but, judging by how often the drivers were pitting for more gas, I have to believe they are on par with Hummers in terms of fuel economy.

Once the car loaded up on free unleaded premium, or whatever it is that makes a racecar go, it was back to the track for a leisurely drive at 200 plus miles per hour. No police lurking in a hidden section of the infield with radar guns, no senior citizens in the left hand lane of Turn Two and no drivers making obscene gestures when another car cut them off. Furthermore, one car even hit a wall and was back in the race 15 minutes later.

I once backed into a mailbox and my Dad took away the keys for a month.

The race continued. Numerous caution flags slowed the drivers down to a paltry 100 miles per hour. Suddenly, the moment that would be replayed endlessly on ESPN occurred: Danica Patrick pulled away from Pit Row and was promptly clipped by Ryan Briscoe – a MALE driver. The crowd groaned. But what was this? Something even the most seasoned Indy spectators had never seen before. A WOMAN driver, stalking toward Briscoe’s car. The entire crowd knew it wasn’t to exchange licenses and insurance information. Track security intervened before she got to Briscoe but I would have paid at least an extra hundred bucks to watch Patrick vs. Briscoe in Ultimate Fighting.

Everyone was so consumed with the confrontation (that never amounted to anything, by the way) that nobody noticed Scott Dixon racing toward the checkered flag, which he won with ease. No sooner had he crossed the line than my brother in law grabbed my arm and said, “let’s go.”

We raced to the car and beat about 200,000 people to the interstate. Home in plenty of time to watch the replay on TV, just as I had imagined.

Yes, it was a great day but I think it’s time to make auto racing a little more realistic. Next year, to show that Indy is an “eco friendly” event, make the drivers cruise the track in Hybrids. Halfway through the race, all must pull over for an emissions test and wait while a state-employed “technician” with the brain power of a gnat hooks numerous hoses to their vehicles and fills out a myriad of paperwork. The winner, instead of chugging milk upon completion of the race, has to drink an entire Venti Starbucks, since that’s what most drivers drink in their cars these days.

Finally, all cars must contain a four-year-old child in the backseat, who screams to watch a DVD during the race.

Now we’re talking reality.

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