Friday, March 2, 2012

No. 825 – Once

Performer: Pearl Jam
Songwriters: Stone Gossard, Eddie Vedder
Original Release: Ten
Year: 1991
Definitive Version: Dissident/Live in Atlanta import, 1994. Eddie just flips the switch going from speaking calmly to the audience to blowing the roof off the place.

The first time I played Ten for Scott was driving from Indianapolis to Muncie. He liked it, commenting that this song—the lead track, of course—sounded like one of his favorite bands at the Chug at Ball State.

I can’t remember now why exactly we were making that route, but if I had to guess I’d say it was the Indy 500. Our mom was a huge Indy fan, and she got us into it when we were kids. I went for the first time in 1976, and I took Scott to his first race in 1983. He was hooked and has become a far bigger fan than I ever was—bigger than even Mom who used to write down the race on a big legal pad while listening to the radio broadcast. (It was shown on tape delay in the old days.)

And if I was turning on Scott to Pearl Jam after the 1992 500, then I was doing so after what we dubbed the Worst 500 Ever. This was back when the 500 was still the 500—the single biggest race in the world—before Tony George’s ego destroyed the race and pretty much open-wheel racing as a major sport.

After years of getting tickets through Dad’s connections, Scott got tickets on his own for the first time in 1992 and got backstretch seats in the infield, which are pretty limited in terms of what you can see. Anyway, we had a group going—a bunch of Scott’s friends from Columbus, and Jin was coming down from Chicago. Jin and I ended up in two seats farther down the backstretch from the rest of the crew.

It was cold that day—sweatshirt-and-jeans weather—and cloudy, and that played havoc with the tires, track and cars. My favorite driver, Roberto Guerrero, who was on the pole, crashed before the race even started, and that was an indication of things to come. There must have been a dozen crashes that day, each one coming after a gap of only about 10 laps, so just when you’re getting back into the race, it once again slowed to a crawl—an endless parade of slow-motion yellow-flag laps due to cold tires not heating up correctly due to the air temperature.

What was worse was that each wreck seemingly involved one of my favorite drivers. Everyone who I might have cheered for was going out, and that left the race to Michael Andretti, who was running away with it. Scott and I hated Andretti. He was Danica Patrick with a wang: pampered, spoiled, aloof to the fans with the big exception, of course, that Michael could actually drive a race car.

When Raul Boesel crashed at about lap 170, that was the final straw. He was the last guy I liked who had any chance of winning. I told Jin: Let’s go find Scott. I figured that the seats were starting to thin out a bit as everyone said to heck with it and went back to tailgating. As luck would have it, we met up behind the stands—he had come to look for us.

Scott said some seats had opened up around him, so we could watch the end of this debacle together. What happened next became Indy 500 legend for us. It was about Lap 190, and with Michael ahead by about half a lap, I no sooner had uttered the words, “This is the worst Indy 500 of all time” when Michael’s car went by with a telltale putt putt putt. Scott and I recognized the unmistakable sound of an Indycar engine that was dead.

Ecstacy. Scott and I instantly started jumping up and down on the grass in front of the entire grandstand shouting “YES YES YES!!!” and high-fiving as though we had just won the lottery. In a sense we had: None of our faves were going to win, but Michael wasn’t going to win either.

Turns out, as you might know, we ended up watching the closest finish in history, beating even the epic 1982 finale. (I believe that close finish has since been eclipsed, but since it was post-rift, who cares?) Al Unser Jr.’s victory was a great moment, but the best was Andretti going out earlier, which opened a seemingly shut and locked door.

It turned out the Worst 500 Ever had the Greatest 500 Moment Ever.

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