There’s nothing chic about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s a two-and-a-half-mile blacktop oval in Speedway, Indiana, a modest suburb of tidy homes, strip malls, trailer parks and pizza joints. It took an accident—a twist of history, not the fender-bending kind—to make Speedway the world capital of auto racing.
It’s not quite that anymore. NASCAR’s more popular and Formula 1’s cooler, but that won’t keep more than 300,000 fans from thronging the track next Sunday for the 102nd running of the Indy 500. They’ll have plenty of storylines to follow, and so will you if you watch the race. Can Japan’s Takuma Soto win twice in a row? Can Danica Patrick contend in the final race of her career? Can anyone top the lap speed record of 236 miles an hour?
Even if the answers are no, no and no, the thousands who’ll be there will have a day to remember. That’s one of the best things about bigtime sporting events—like concerts, revival meetings, or religious pilgrimages, they can’t fully be captured on film, the printed page or even an e-newsletter. You gotta be there. Because the big events are more than spectacle—more than any game, match, or race could be without the crowd. They’re experiences we share with others who care who comes out on top. If we didn’t care, sports would go out of business.
That’s right—fans are the ones who make sports matter.
One way we express our devotion is by traveling to shrines like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Over time their names become iconic: Old Trafford, Wrigley, Fenway, Lambeau, Augusta, Wimbledon, Churchill Downs, Indy. Like religious shrines, they owe their status to mythic events that happened long ago. In Indy’s case, a gravel-and-tar track that held motorcycle races got elevated to sports’ top rank by a first prize of $25,000 (about $650,000 today) in 1911. Ray Harroun, whose racing team had set a record by driving from Chicago to New York in 58 hours, no mean feat on the roads of the day, won the first Indy 500 with an average speed of 75.
Some of us drive that fast to get groceries. (Sorry officer, the road was downhill.) But that’s not the point. The point is, there’s nothing intrinsically great about sports shrines. We make them great by caring what happens there. We make them special by showing up and yelling our heads off.
LeBron v. MJ
The Cavs’ playoff run starring LeBron James renewed talk about his place in history. Everyone seems to agree that the question of who was/is the game’s greatest player has come down to Jordan and James. Many of us might also agree that the LBJ-MJ issue drives page views and click-throughs, which may be one reason Magic, Wilt and Kareem get less love in this debate. They’re yesterday’s news.
Anybody want to call BS on this?
Do we really have to think less of Jordan if LeBron leads the Cavs to the Finals? Does a 2018 buzzer-beater by LeBron make MJ’s heroics against the Jazz in 1998 not so hot?
How about celebrating the idea that one sport can have two supreme talents?
There’s room in the sky for more than one star.
You might not think of darts as a sport. Michael van Gerwen, a darting pro from the Netherlands, does. Van Gerwen earns over £1 million a year dominating his game’s Premier League. The three-time defending champion of the Grand Slam of Darts, “Mighty Mike” first appeared on the pro darts circuit as a teenager with spiky red hair. Twelve years later he’s the sultan of his sport, a shave-headed 29-year-old punching the air to celebrate another victory.
Challengers like Peter “Snakebite” Wrightkeep aiming for him. Van Gerwen’s latest test came last week in London, where his walk-up music filled the O2 Arena. Mighty Mike cruised to another win—his third straight Premier League title, worth £250,000 and a salute from Dutch footballer Robin van Persie.
Kobe 1, ROS 0
If you’re like absolutely nobody but us, you were transfixed by the 39th annual Sports Emmy Awards earlier in May. Staged at Lincoln Center in New York before a crowd of quite a few, the Emmys went to NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Showtime’s grim and brilliant Disgraced, and HBOs Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which beat out Why We Fight, a Religion of Sports production, for Outstanding Serialized Sports Documentary.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It was good to be nominated. Also good to see Kobe Bryant win for his animated film Dear Basketball, which had already won an Academy Award. Congrats to Kobe. From now on we’ll keep an eye on his projects at IMDb—you can’t win going one-on-one with him.