The thing about greatness

by Lorin Michel Monday, May 28, 2018 12:15 PM

I am a fan of open-wheel racing. I became a fan in 1995 when Kevin and I started dating and he took me to the Long Beach Grand Prix. It was my first adventure with Indy cars and open wheels but it wasn’t my future husband’s. He’s been a fan forever, and regularly made the journey to Road America in Wisconsin. At the time, he was a huge fan of Al Unser, Jr, who happened to win the Grand Prix the year we went.

The Long Beach Grand Prix, whose official name is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, takes place over the course of several days. At that time, there was a Celebrity Grand Prix on Friday, something on Saturday that had to do with the pits, with the actual race on Sunday. Kevin had gone down on Saturday and called me from the pits to see if I wanted to come back with him on Sunday. I had no affinity for car racing – though I’ve always loved fast cars – but I already had a great affinity for him, so I said yes. 

It was a glorious day, as is usual at the beginning of April in Southern California. Because it was in Long Beach, there was a lovely breeze coming in off of the water. He had bought me a t-shirt the day before and I was wearing it proudly, even though I had no idea what I was about to encounter. From the moment the command was given to “start your engines” and those amazing machines roared to life, I was smitten. The incredible power, the growl as they raced through the streets at speeds of 90 plus miles an hour, the disgusting food, the crowd. By the end of the day, my skin felt grimy, I had dirt under my fingernails from the oil and gasoline in the air, and I couldn’t remember having so much fun.

That was the last time we went to a race, but we watch them regularly on television. Over the years, I’ve had favorite drivers – Jimmy Vasser (who won the Grand Prix in 1996), Dario Franchitti. And Danica Patrick. I used to always root for the women who drove, but mostly they were awful. Then along came this 5’2” fireball. She had attitude, she spoke her mind, and she could drive. She raced Indy cars from 2005 until 2010, and she brought some needed life to a sport that had been in decline. She was a competitor, she was fierce inside and outside the car. She led laps at Indianapolis, the granddaddy of open wheel racing, and placed as high as 3rd in that crown jewel. Yesterday, after 8 years in NASCAR, she came back to Indy. She qualified in 7th place, but she crashed on the 68th lap. It was her last race; she retired. Will Power went on to win in what was a pretty good finish. 

Kevin and I watched, of course, me cheering for Danica, him just thrilled to be watching. After the race, we talked about it, and about Danica in particular. I told him that the thing that made me root for her was simple: she had the potential to actually win. Other than Janet Guthrie, who raced at Indy in the 1970s, no other women ever came close. Their names were hardly mentioned. But Danica’s was, and often. It was fun to have a female race car driver to root for, more fun because she always had the chance for greatness. The potential for greatness. 

Wikipedia defines greatness like this: “a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person or object in a particular place or area. Greatness can also be referred to individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others.”

Sounds about right. I wonder how many people feel that they ever achieve greatness. I wonder if those people who do actually are great, or just perceive themselves to be. Some greatness is easily understood. Meryl Streep has achieved greatness. Like him or hate him, Tom Brady has achieved greatness. I believe Barack Obama achieved greatness. I suppose the current occupant of the White House has to, if we use the narrow definition above. 

I think, though, that greatness is also about selflessness, about character and grace, humility and humor. For most there is ego involved in achieving greatness but it is matched and perhaps tempered by candor and honesty and dignity.

On this Memorial Day, a day when we celebrate, among others, the men and women who fought and served in World War II – the greatest generation – I wonder what they think greatness means. I wonder if they believe they achieved it or if it was simply conveyed upon them by Tom Brokaw. That generation, the first of the 20th century, grew up during the depression, and enlisted to fight after our country was attacked in December 1941. There was a common purpose, a coming together, a desire to defend our country in any way they could. They didn’t choose to be great – they simply did their duty.   

I wonder when we will come together again to achieve what once made us great. I wonder if we will. 

I wonder.

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