May 27, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; The sun rises over the front stretch grandstands and scoring pylon prior to the running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
Few things stay the same in our ever-changing lives, which is why traditions might just be underrated.
When NASCAR started making mass changes at the height of its popularity midway through last decade, I was in favor of almost everything officials were doing.
New points system to create a playoff? Great idea!
Moving the Labor Day Weekend race from rural South Carolina to Southern California? Smart move!
There were two main reasons for this: First, I was new to the sport and had no sense of history; second, I was young enough that traditions didn't matter much to me. Whatever decisions would "grow" NASCAR seemed wise, traditions be damned.
But the older I get, the more I realize how important traditions really are. And nothing emphasized that more than attending my first Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.
In the days and weeks leading up to the race, everyone I talked to said the exact same thing: Make sure you're down on the starting grid for the final hour before green flag, because it's unlike anything else.
Because of this, I had incredibly high expectations. But you know what? They were right. I'd never experienced anything like the pre-race buildup to the 500.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 are special because the pagentry and traditional elements of the event never seem to change. The people and the cars do, but the race really doesn't.
From marching bands on the frontstretch in the morning to the "Drivers to your cars!" command at noon, from Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again In Indiana" (via video this year) to Mari Hulman George's distinguished "Start your engines," I could feel the importance of just going through each ritual, one by one.
The one thing we can count on in life are traditions, because everything else changes. We lose family members and friends, move away from our childhood homes, switch jobs and find new relationships.
In that sense, there's a great degree of comfort in familiarity. Sometimes, we like to do things for no other reason than because we've always done it that way.
My girlfriend grew up in Indiana and makes an annual pilgrimage back to Indianapolis for the 500. Two years ago, she missed the race for the first time in her life and deeply regretted it. She won't make that mistake again.
I get the sense that for as long as she can, she'll make the journey every year to attend the 500, sit at the annual parade through downtown and enjoy one of life's few constants. In her family, that's just what they do. Back home again in Indiana.
As an Indy 500 rookie, I soaked up every moment. There was a sense of gravitas at the track – like everyone respected the place and its history – but also a child-like joy that came with experiencing Race Day at such a place. All 200,000-plus people in attendance experienced the traditions together.
Why is Indy such a rarity?
All professional sports – not just NASCAR – have done an outstanding job of ruining traditions in the last 20 years. In the rush to build the latest and greatest new stadiums and tracks, with sparkling suites and high-tech amenities, the places where we can relive so many memories have been demolished.
As a Denver Broncos fan, for example, I'd give anything to go back to the old Mile High Stadium. The new stadium is nice, sure, but it's not Mile High. And though Mile High may have been a dump, it was our dump. Now it's just a parking lot.
My views on some of NASCAR's decisions have changed as a result of these realizations. For example: I now have no doubt the traditional Southern 500 date should never have been taken away from Darlington. And while I've long been a fan of the Chase, I'm starting to see how emphasizing the final 10 races has hurt the first 26.
In NASCAR, the only thing that has stayed the same recently is the drivers themselves. Everything else – the points system, rules, schedule, cars, tracks, track surfaces, sponsors, start times, race names – has been changed in ways both big and small over the last 10 years.
Certain elements of the sport have to change with the times, but the Indy 500 made me realize how important it is to find certain traditions and stick with them.
NASCAR tracks should keep doing everything they can to build traditions. Whether it's bringing back the same national anthem singer every year like Atlanta, keeping the race name the same like at the Coca-Cola 600 or designating a special campground area like Bristol's Jelloville, all tracks need to emphasize familiarity.
In life, we all need some constants to hold on to. So when sports abandon traditions, it feels like they're abandoning us, too.