Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Dario and Jim

Over the last few years, the announcement of who will drive the pace car for the Indy 500 should've been followed by rimshot, because it always sounded like it was a punchline to a joke.

Through the first 85 years or so of the 500, the car was typically driven by someone with an open wheel connection, like a former driver or contributor to the sport. But right around the turn of the century (this one), it became more of a "celebrity" thing, which to me was kind of an embarrassment. In the last five years alone, racing legends such as Josh Duhamel, Robin Roberts, Guy Fieri and Jim Harbaugh have been behind the wheel, and each one of them made me shake my head.

And don't forget that in 2011 Donald Trump was tapped to drive, but thankfully was "fired" and replaced by AJ Foyt at the last minute given the unpopularity of that choice.

But this year? Man, they got it right, and in a big way. Three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time series champion Dario Franchitti will take the field to the green flag on May 25, and I couldn't be happier.

Well, I'd be pretty happy that day anyway because race day falls on my birthday, but you know what I'm saying.

Hopefully that restarts the tradition of putting real "stars" behind the wheel, and at the same time, it gives the fans the opportunity to give Dario the sendoff to his career that he deserves. Like many, I was horrified by his accident in Houston last October, and was sad the day he announced that he was retiring because of his injuries.

It's always tough when an injury forces any athlete to retire, because it would be nice if everyone had the opportunity to go out on their terms. You want to retire because you just think it's time, and he didn't get that chance. And at the same time, no one, not the fans, the drivers or the series, got the chance to show him an appreciation for a career well done.

While I don't put Dario on my Rushmore of open wheel racing, he is a true giant of the sport. His legacy will be one that lives on long after all of us are gone. There is no doubt about that.

I know I have been critical of him in the past, but I started to warm up to him after his third win two years ago. Then I covered the race at Milwaukee and spent some time in the interview room with him (though I didn't ask any questions!), and really came away with the, this is a SUPER nice guy. While I didn't openly root for him, I had a newfound respect for him as a person and a driver.

Not only that, any time he has a conversation about racing, you can just hear the passion for the sport in his voice. He truly loves racing, he appreciates the history of the sport, and for sure when it comes to Indy, he totally gets it. It is a very good thing that he will be involved with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and the series as a whole. He could be one of the next great ambassadors of the sport, and I would love to hear him give TV a shot sometime too.

So count me among those who will be standing and cheering like crazy when he brings the cars to life in May. He deserves that from all of us.

Another person I will be cheering for will be Jim Nabors, who will end a 42-year tradition (with a couple of missing years along the way) when he sings "Back Home Again In Indiana" for the final time this May. Now 83 years old, it's just too tough for him to make the trip from his home in Hawaii. Completely understandable, by the way.

Still, it won't be the same without him. Since 1987 he has missed the race just twice, in 2007 and 2012, and his rendition of a song that was first written in 1917 will be remembered forever. It's a true institution and for me, it's one of the final moments before the race when I start to get the feeling that "it's on".

To hear it on TV is one thing, to hear it as part of a large crowd, and to see the balloons released skyward as the song draws to a close, is, to me, the second-most moving thing behind the playing of "Taps", which is also an unbelievable experience. But when Jim belts out the final notes of the song the roof just goes off the's pretty crazy.

Of course, thoughts have moved on to who will be his successor. Part of me feels like this tradition should retire with him, but what takes its place? It will be a difficult decision, and one IMS needs to think long and hard about. This is one decision that should not be made with marketing, buzz or television in mind. 

I know this sounds hokey, but the thing that makes the song resonate is because Jim Nabors delivers it with honor and humility. He is a kind and gentle man, and he sings that song for us, because he has a beautiful voice that he likes to share with others. The song is done absolutely without ego or a desire for attention, and I even wonder if he accepts any compensation for doing it. Jim sings the song because he can and I think he likes the fact that he can make so many people happy. I really believe deep in my heart it is that simple for him, and that's why it resonates for all of us so much.

So the person that carries on the tradition must possess those traits too, and that will be where the difficulty in the decision will like, because there are very few people like him. And he will be missed.

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