INDIANAPOLIS — Thursday, Thanksgiving afternoon, and the only sounds in the home are the ticking of a clock and the soft clacking of a computer keyboard. The two do not peacefully co-exist.
When the keyboard falls silent, perhaps during a debate over punctuation, the clock does not. It ticks away, hovering like the grade-school teacher you couldn’t stand.
Everyone in my life is visiting in-laws and outlaws, but I am spending the day at this desk. There is a column due. There is book writing and book editing to be done. Neil Young declared in song that rust never sleeps. Well, editors and publishers don’t, either.
No turkey, no dressing, deadlines are pressing.
And yet, I am thankful. How could I look back and feel otherwise?
I’m thankful that …
I saw Sammy Swindell lap the New York State Fairgrounds mile flat out. Better yet, I heard it. The nonstop wailing of his engine was the impressive part.
I watched Tim Richmond and Dale Earnhardt drive NASCAR Cup Series cars sideways, their bias-play tires smoking, then watched Bill Elliott and Mark Martin cut laps so smooth that you wouldn’t have been scared to ride on the hood.
I live in a place that serves up surprises. Years ago, at a stoplight here in Indianapolis, I glanced at the driver to my right and saw George Bignotti glancing back at me.
I saw some really good sprint car races at Arizona’s Manzanita Speedway, which used to be the best reason to fly to Phoenix.
I saw Junior Johnson being Junior Johnson. At Dover (Del.) Int’l Speedway in 1977, Junior’s Monte Carlo, with Cale Yarborough in the seat, had a two-lap lead when a squirrelly backmarker dislodged Cale’s rear bumper. It now pointed straight back, like a dog’s tail made of Detroit steel.
Cale pitted and Johnson sent two crewmen over the wall to tear the bumper off. When that didn’t work, Junior took matters into his own meaty hands. He brushed both men out of the way with a sweep of his arm, grabbed that bumper and yanked it free. Yarborough’s big lead had disappeared, but he still outran David Pearson to win the race.
I’ve had breakfast with Davey Hamilton, lunch with A.J. Watson, dinner with Bobby Unser and late-night drive-thru burgers with Ken Schrader. I’m choosy about dining partners.
I knew Bubby Jones.
And Armond Holley.
And Maynard Troyer.
I’ve shared media centers with Chris Economaki, Tom Higgins, Ed Hinton, Jim Murray, Dick Berggren and Nigel Roebuck. Go ahead, try to beat that.
In the pre-dawn hours of my first race day at Indianapolis, a downpour sent me running for cover. I ended up beneath the awning of a concession stand, joined there by an old man. The two of us stood in the darkness, chatting until the rain stopped. That old man was Duke Nalon.
I’ve ridden shotgun to Bobby Allison in his airplane and to Parnelli Jones in L.A. traffic.
I’ve seen champions at work in all kinds of disciplines: Foyt and Andretti in Indy cars, Bentley Warren and Jim Shampine in supermodifieds, Steve Kinser and Doug Wolfgang in winged sprint cars, Ron Shuman and Jack Hewitt in traditional sprinters, Richie Evans and Mike Stefanik in NASCAR modifieds, Will Cagle and Billy Pauch in dirt modifieds, Dick Trickle and Gary Balough in pavement late models, Scott Bloomquist and Billy Moyer in dirt late models, Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson in Cup Series cars, Rich Vogler and Billy Boat in midgets. And Tony Stewart in all those categories.
I laughed like hell with Dave Steele and Jason Leffler, and memories of them still make me grin.
I saw Jim Hurtubise climb into a race car. This was at the tail end of his career, and the great man had been reduced to driving uncompetitive stock cars.
It was like spending your whole life reading about Picasso, and then watching him paint a backyard tool shed. But better that than never seeing him pick up a brush.
I met Brad Sweet long before he was a three-time World of Outlaws champion and long before he was a winner in USAC. When this little redhead from California started towing to sprint car bullrings around Indiana, often alone, short on dollars but long on ambition, you couldn’t help but pull for the kid.
I saw Gil Hearne race at New Jersey’s Wall Stadium. Gil got the job done anywhere he went, dirt or pavement, but he was poetry in motion on the asphalt high banks at Wall.
We are looking at a promising 2022. Because of his track record for making things happen, I’m bullish on both IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway under Roger Penske. And I have this theory that Kyle Larson’s monstrous talent — which, finally, no one seems to doubt — will bestow credibility upon any young NASCAR rival who can beat him.
I am thankful for the basic things: the wife, the life, this job. The best job. Sure, every now and again you’ll miss a holiday meal. But look at all you get.