Updated: May 17
Behold, the glorious month of May– bookended by a pair of epic American races, blessed in between with the color and fragrance of lilacs.
For many of us, the Masters Tournament in April is the surest harbinger of spring. But Augusta National owes much of its early spring verdancy and floral splendor to its southern Georgia latitude, hundreds of miles below the Mason-Dixon line and where, to us Yankees anyway, it is either really warm or downright hot while we are still keeping our snow shovels handy. The month of May, however, constitutes the final nail in winter’s coffin just about everywhere except the stubbornest frosty extremes of the upper north.
I love everything about the month of May– the birdsong, blossom-bedecked mornings, the ever-later sunsets, and everything in between. May is my family name. The month of May betokens youthful optimism. My oldest child was born in May. I got married in May. (Twice.) And my subjective take aside, May is certainly one of our most colorful months, giving us all manner of brilliant flora.
And finally, the month of May is book-ended by two iconic American races– the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500.
Upon turning the calendar page from April our attention is immediately drawn to Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky for “the Run for the Roses,” i.e., the Kentucky Derby. While the Super Bowl– halftime included– lasts for four hours and a seven-game series in the other major sports covers half a month, the Kentucky Derby is famously known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports” and, though perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, often lives up to its hype. And so on May’s first weekend we suddenly all become horse handicapping experts and Dixie gentry for a day as comically elaborate hats and mint juleps (recipe video HERE) make their annual one-day appearance in our lives.
Bold solutions to a decidedly First-World problem.
Click HERE for a concise history of the Kentucky Derby.
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And just as the Kentucky Derby ushers in May, so too the Indianapolis 500– a.k.a. “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing”– signals its conclusion.
From a distance, Indy cars look a lot like Formula One (F1) race cars because both are low-slung, open-wheeled vehicles with their engines mounted between the driver and the rear wheels. But Indy cars are heavier with higher straight-line top speeds, while F1 cars are designed for cornering speed and nimbleness on twisty road courses. If the two types ever raced, the winner would likely be determined primarily by the course configuration. A bigger difference between the two categories is that Indy Racing emphasizes strict homogeneity among the cars while F1 is both a race between the drivers and a competition between the manufacturers– e.g., Ferrari and Mercedes– for superior (faster) technology and the resultant bragging rights.
Legendary driver Mario Andretti with his 1974 Indy 500 ride. The Indianapolis 500 has been around since 1911; for detailed history, click HERE. For more on the only recently consolidated sport officially known as IndyCar Racing, click HERE.
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For what it’s worth, what do the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500 have in common, other than the month of May and enormous crowds? Well, upon close inspection and with a little imagination, a few parallels become apparent. Like oat-fed racehorses, Indy Cars are environmentally-friendly “green” vehicles– they switched to ethanol fuel in 2007, and beginning this year they will run on “renewable ethanol” made from sugar cane waste. Furthermore, both races have signature sing-along songs– “My Old Kentucky Home” is the traditional prelude to the Derby, while “Back Home Again In Indiana” has long been the go-to pre-race song for the 500. And both races even have signature beverages– the Derby’s aforementioned mint julep, and the long swig of ice-cold milk traditionally enjoyed by the Indy 500 winner at the finish line.
But much more importantly, I think, the fact that these events take place in Indiana and Kentucky serves to reflect something important about our country. These states sit side-by-side deep in the mostly rural heart of America– far from the coastal elites who run this country, and yet home to many of the farms and farmers who actually feed them. Might it just be that the midwest– as opposed to, say, Manhattan and San Francisco– more accurately embodies the qualities that form the fabric of our country? And in a perhaps related story, both of our big May races feature fundamental essences of American culture… we’ve long revered our TV and movie horses– like Trigger (Roy Rogers) and Silver (The Lone Ranger) as well as our greatest racehorses (like Man O’ War, Seabiscuit, and Secretariat.) Likewise, post-WWII America has been fascinated with the automotive arts as expressed in the throaty mechanical growl and sinuous bodywork of Ford Thunderbirds, Chevy Corvettes, and Dodge Chargers. Horses and cars... how better to explain the underlying soul of America to a visiting extraterrestrial?
And so, with the previous holiday season a distant memory and the upcoming Christmas too far in the future to contemplate– and NFL football mercifully nowhere in sight– the month of May gives us Americans (at least those of us too old to live with our faces constantly in our phones) the opportunity to enjoy other outdoor diversions such as horse and car racing.
So... what about those gorgeous lilacs?
As if by Divine design, the annual May bloom of lilacs is situated almost exactly between the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500. Oh, how I love lilacs! Back when I was in college, I used to buy my girlfriend a perfume by Ralph Lauren that smelled quite directly of lilac. (It was labeled simply “Lauren;” I’m not sure when or why they discontinued it.) When I ran a college-town restaurant in my twenties, the appearance of lilacs almost exactly coincided with the Five College graduation season, a furiously busy and profitable fortnight before the onset of the summertime torpor. I am thereby programmed for life to respond to nature’s lavender, purple, and white bouquets with a youthful rush of adrenaline as well as ageless awe at nature's beauty.
And now, as a grumpy old man-splaining, get-off-my-lawn suburban homeowner, I am primarily concerned with fashioning our lilacs into an attractive and serviceable hedge… and yet every mid-May I find their uniquely lush fragrance and lovely hues no less exciting than I did four decades ago in the springtime of my adulthood. Rather than generate memories made all the more wistful by their sheer age, the first sight and smell of lilacs every year makes me feel young again and infuses my admittedly aging spirit with renewed optimism and vigor.
The city of Rochester, NY is famous for its annual Lilac Festival, a 10-day affair that features 500 different varieties. Our region's lilac season is notably prolonged by our proximity to Lake Ontario.
As with gasoline, the combustion of ethanol yields carbon dioxide. However, not only does ethanol burn much more cleanly than gasoline, it also replaces exactly one-for-one the carbon dioxide drawn from the atmosphere by plants to produce it.
And speaking of ethanol, the Bourbon used to make those mint juleps– contrary to popular misconception– doesn’t have to originate in Bourbon County, Kentucky to be genuine. (Click HERE for a detailed explanation.)