For me, the Indianapolis 500 is family

Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

The deafening roar of IndyCar race cars immediately propels me back to my Indiana childhood. Before I learned how to walk, I was surrounded by Indianapolis 500 fever from my dad and his family.

Dad grew up in Indianapolis and began attending the race at age 16, heading with his buddies and his older brother to the infield, the notorious inside the two-mile racing oval. A few years later, Mom and Dad got married, and I came along. They would take me (and later, my brother) to my grandparents' or my aunt's and uncle's house early in the morning that last Sunday in May, then head to the motor speedway.

They moved up to the grandstands for about three years, where they watched the race along the third turn as guests of a fellow teacher, but then they stopped going to the race in the 1980s. The party then turned into a PG family affair at our house.

My dad's family descended on our southern Indiana home because our television stations were broadcast from Cincinnati, which meant we didn't have to curse the Indy 500 TV blackout that most of the Hoosier state suffered through.

In those years, the race started earlier, at 11 a.m. Uncle Kevin and Aunt Diana would pull into the driveway every year at about 10:58 a.m., burst through the side door and peer around the corner at the living room TV. "Did we miss the start?"

No one wanted to miss the start, especially when Jim Nabors sang, "Back Home Again in Indiana," his rich baritone voice filling us with pride for our home state (even if he was from Alabama). Nabors sang for us for 34 years before retiring after the 2014 race.

The opening ceremonies concluded with the much-anticipated "Gentlemen, start your engines" -- or better yet, when there were women drivers, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines." The roar and revving of the cars took over and filled our living room, as relatives started telling their familiar stories from their infield days.

Every year, Uncle John, in his booming voice, would tell us how much he stood to win in the office pool if a certain driver came in first or dead last. Every year, my squealing squad of younger cousins would be shooed out of the room and into the backyard.

The roar and revving of the cars took over and filled our living room, as relatives started telling their familiar stories from their infield days.
Melanie Padgett Powers

The adults who were too late to snag a spot on one of the two couches, perched instead on extra chairs pulled in from the dining room and bedrooms. They balanced paper plates overloaded with burgers, deviled eggs and our family's famous orange sherbet salad while resting pop cans or beer bottles on the floor.

We all leaned forward on our stern, uncomfortable chairs, straining to see on the 25-inch, decidedly non-HD TV, straining to hear over my uncles talking loudly at the same time, interrupting and challenging, joking and ignoring. We'd pass around that day's Indianapolis Star, folded to the page with the lineup of drivers. We'd wait for the inevitable crash or mechanical problem to affect one of the three-generation Andretti drivers, leading relatives to start shouting simultaneously every year, "And Andretti is slowing down!"

I don't watch any form of race car driving the other 364 days of the year, but the Indianapolis 500 lures me back every May. I now live in Maryland, where my husband and his family don't follow most sports, let alone racing. Some years, they dare to schedule family potlucks on this important Sunday, forcing me to record the race and watch it alone that evening, after avoiding Facebook spoilers all day.

As I sit in my living room without the spectacle and noise of my relatives, I occasionally fast-forward through a few laps, feeling like a traitor. I yearn for the days when we were shushing my uncles and straining to see who caused a crash. We argued over whose "turn" it was to win that year, and we'd throw our arms up in the air to celebrate as the victor crossed the finish line while the checkered flag waved wildly.

This year, I'll be at the Indy 500. I'll watch the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in person for the first time, sitting next to my dad in the grandstands on the straightaway, waiting to be engulfed by the sound of those engines. We won't be surrounded by all those aunts, uncles and cousins, but when I hear that roar, I'll know I'm home.

Melanie Padgett Powers is a freelance writer and editor based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is the owner of MelEdits.

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