In 431 BC the Athenian general and statesman Pericles praised the fallen of the Peloponnesian War for their sacrifice and valor. It marked the beginning of a tradition among the ancient Greeks and Romans to hold annual remembrances by decorating graves and holding public festivals in honor of those who gave all. Twenty-two centuries later in 1868, US Union General John A. Logan issued a decree that May 30 shall be Decoration Day to commemorate the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War. Americans were to lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The date was not associated with any major battles but ensured that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.
Fifty years later, Decoration Day was expanded to include those killed in the First World War. The tradition blossomed further when Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote his iconic poem In Flanders Fields about poppies growing among soldiers’ graves. You will probably be touched by that tradition this weekend when you see a Veteran selling paper poppies at a popular gathering place to commemorate veterans of all wars who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.
Tradition at The Brickyard
For more than a century, race tracks have provided a forum for Americans to gather on this unofficial start of summer. That tradition began in 1909 when Carl G. Fisher decided to use his 2.5 mile rectangular auto testing track on the outskirts of Indianapolis to hold races among the engine makers. He saw it as a way to help people decide which car to buy. The races were popular even though the tar and gravel track spewed debris killing drivers, crew and spectators in the first couple of years. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway became known as The Brickyard after Fisher repaved the track with 3.2 million bricks and mortar.
The Decoration Day race was more popular than those held later in the hot summer, and it provided local farmers an entertaining break after bailing the spring hay. Fisher decided on a 500 mile race because it could be completed before nightfall. Anyone who goes to the Indy 500 comes back, so attendance grew and the huge $25,000 purse was enough to entice competition from all around the globe, cementing the event as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. By the time Memorial Day was officially made a national holiday in 1971, several hundred thousand people were making their annual trek to the Cathedral of Speed.
The race was cancelled four times during the World Wars and was held without fans in August last year, but has otherwise been run every Memorial Day Weekend since 1911. Other races have built on the tradition with Nascar’s Charlotte 600 and the Formula1 Monaco Grand Prix also held on the last weekend in May (although the latter is running next week this year.)
Start Your Engines
The 135,000 tickets sold for the 105th running will be 40% of capacity but that will still make it the world’s largest gathering since the pandemic locked us all away. Race fans will come to celebrate the unique American tradition with dignitaries and celebrities watching thirty-three drivers lined up in eleven rows of three, and their crews standing ready with fresh tires and fuel. Archbishop Charles Thompson will begin the festivities reminding us of those who sacrificed everything for our freedom and asking God to protect the drivers, crews, and fans. Everyone will then gaze upwards for the military flyover, before those hotly anticipated words – “Drivers start your engines!”
Helio Castroneves is back from Brazil, but a longshot to climb the fence for a fourth time and join the elite ranks of only three other drivers. Columbian Juan Pablo Montoya has also come out of retirement trying to become the eighth three-time champion. Sitting in the pole position for the fourth time, New Zealand’s Scott Dixon is the favorite this year to drink the milk for a second time.
They have fierce competition from a cadre of young drivers carrying the racing torch to their generation. Colton Herta wasn’t born when Scott Dixon began his racing career, and he will start next to him in the middle of Row 1 coached by his father Brian who raced in six Indy 500s. Rinus VeeKay, Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward are three other competitive young drivers who have come to America to race Indycars. They will all begin in the front four rows followed by defending champion Takuma Sato of Japan trying for number three.
The international appeal reflects the influence of America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who died for our freedom and liberty throughout the world. Wherever you kick off this first post-pandemic summer, don a poppy to remind others of why we gather on Memorial Day. Show your appreciation with decoration, commemoration, and celebration. If you watch the race, click below for a free spotter’s guide.
God bless the fallen and their families. God Bless America. Happy racing!