So, the month of May is wrapping up. It’s a unique part of the year, in my book, and I doubt I’m alone in that. Right now, the weather here is positively beautiful, just about what you could possibly hope for. Even though I am well past those days, never mind going back to school for a while not long ago and actually starting classes in May, there is always still a kind of lingering feeling from the days of youth of the end of the school year coming around.
The month of May brings with it the yearly activity and spectacle of the Indianapolis 500, which has, for me, been a major marker of a calendar year since way back in fairly early boyhood. Never mind that they are not exactly a half year apart, for me there has always been this kind of biannual set of marking points in a year, Christmastime and the month of May at Indy. In my boyhood and adolescence, I think that, along with my general fascination with Indy that developed in my single digit aged years, it was colored with an extra kind of glow because of the way that the Indianapolis 500, on Memorial Day (years ago), or the Memorial Day weekend Sunday, later on, after the change to official Monday government holidays, came around along with the ending of the school year and heading for the gateway into summertime.
(By the way, this is not going to be a long essay about this year’s 500, in case you were not particularly interested and are about to bail. )
This year’s 500 was a good one, with some extra attention coming from the arrival of two-time F1 driver’s champion Fernando Alonso. That was big news in the motorsports world, huge news, given the circumstances, which involved the fact that Alonso is actually a current active Formula 1 driver, in the middle of a season, and in order to compete at Indianapolis, he had to miss the Monaco Grand Prix, a race that, for decades now, has always been run the same day as the Indianapolis 500. That, to explain for people who pay no attention to that world, is a big thing for more than one reason.
First, given the workings and organization of Formula 1, a driver just simply does not generally skip a race in a season or come and go unless something is seriously wrong in one way or another. Drivers and teams don’t simply enter selected races. It’s a drivers championship series and also a constructor’s championship with all kinds of formalities and rigorous organization and requirements and vast money involved.
Then there was the fact that it was not only a current active F1 driver in the middle of a season, but not just any F1 driver, a driver who had won the driver’s championship twice, and is still highly regarded as possibly still the best of them.
There is also the matter of the race he abandoned in the midst of the Formula 1 season being the Monaco Grand Prix. It actually is a slightly silly event in the context of Formula 1, really. It takes place on a temporary course set up every year using public streets (“roads” would be a slight misnomer here) running through what is basically a densely packed little European seaside village for rich people. If the event had not existed for decades, and somebody proposed it, the widespread and maybe even universal reaction would be something along the lines of “are you out of your mind?”. It does exist, and is arguably the biggest even of the year in the season, despite the silliness of everything involved in terms of the actual competition and driving the place and the logistical nightmares. It’s an event that in some ways can be summed up by the simple fact that it’s the kind of event that everybody knows, even when people have no knowledge or interest about the sport involved, like Wimbledon or the Kentucky Derby or whatever.
Also, before this May, Fernando Alonso had never driven an Indy car, or, more importantly, any oval track.
There were reasons given for Alonso’s move, with a large part of it being that Alonso had the ambition to race in the Indy 500 and win the thing, a natural ambition for a racing driver. The basic fact underlying the odd situation of a driver doing this in the middle of a Formula 1 season, rather than after leaving F1, was that Alonso is currently driving for a team that is not doing well at all in Formula 1. This is true despite the fact that the McLaren team is one of the most successful teams in the history of Formula 1, possibly the most successful, depending on how you analyze the statistics, and arguably still one of the best or the best team overall. Their problem, which has been so for a few years now, all revolves around the thing in back making the motive power. That, the package now called “the power unit”, rather than just the engine, because F1 now is a formula revolving around hybrid power, is made by Honda. In the past, one of the most spectacularly dominant periods of F1 history revolved around the combination of McLaren-Honda, with the McLaren chassis and Honda engine of the time being so superior to the rest of the field that in one year in particular, there was only one race in the entire season not won by a McLaren-Honda, and that happened because both of the two McLarens dropped out of the race.
Now, the Honda is hopeless.
Alonso skipped Monaco and went to try his luck at Indy, something a modern day F1 team would normally regard as completely out of the question for more than one reason, but allowed this time to basically try to keep Alonso happy in a period of endless frustration. Part of the way this was possible to arrange was that he went to Indianapolis to drive for a team using Honda engines, where a much different engine in a different racing series was doing very well indeed.
The ironic ending was that Fernando Alonso went to Indianapolis, went very well right from his first laps, qualified in the second row (an impressive achievement at Indy for anyone), ran fantastically well in the race, with a very good chance of winning as the race wound down to the last portion of the race, and then came to an end when his Honda engine went poof.
The race went on to be won by a different driver, a former Formula 1 driver, as it happens, with a Honda engine that did not go poof.
Takuma Sato won the Indianapolis 500, a result that made me very happy, along with a great many people who like Sato, and in doing so became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500. As he pulled in for the celebrations to begin, I was suddenly struck by the scene of a Japanese driver in victory lane at the Indianapolis 500 (a classic bit of Americana in middle America Indiana), with bagpipes playing in the background nearby.
I thought that was pretty funny.
Afterward, some sportswriter for some American newspaper wrote some public comment about being a little uncomfortable with the idea of a Japanese driver celebrating the win at the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day. The obvious implication, of course, involves Japan and World War II. That seems a bit harsh for a driver from Japan born something like 35 years or so after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into the war that ended 72 years ago. Yeah, and I suppose you have to watch those pesky Germans, too, since they’re probably Nazis and are likely to invade Poland and start bombing London if you don’t keep an eye on them.
That is just a bit silly and completely unfair, although it’s not completely absurd, especially if your history or family history includes some very sour recollections of World War II with Japan. I should note that my late father was in the Pacific theater in World War II in the Navy Seabees, and that included a stretch of time in the Aleutian Islands, which, many people might not know, was the only American territory in North America actually invaded and occupied for some time by the Japanese military. I have no problem at all with a Japanese driver winning Indy.
Now, unfortunately, after that came news that said sportswriter had been fired by their newspaper for saying this. That is just compound stupidity. I mean, I thought the writer in question was being a little silly and ridiculously unfair, but it could be understood if somebody had some lurking discomfort based on old history that makes them feel a little weird about it. But, then, we get this bringing on a situation where his newspaper actually fires him for daring to say such a thing. How dare you! That’s a bad thought! The outrage!