By on June 4, 2013

 

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Having just attended the 97th Indianapolis 500, I’m feeling especially passionate about telling others to get there in person someday. I believe Indy to be one of those special experiences that you have to see in person to appreciate. I’ve attended IndyCar, NASCAR, American LeMans, NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, and many other sporting events, but the Indy 500 stands out as something special.

Speeding at the 500 – Personal History

My personal journey to the Indianapolis 500 began before I was even born. It was way back in the 1930s when my great grandfather was a mechanic for various teams at the event.

In those days one mechanic would actually ride with the driver during the race, while another mechanic was in charge of warming up the car before the start. While warming up the race car my Great Grandfather was caught speeding… while driving on the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Makes me proud to be a Fink. Not many people can claim they were punished for speeding while on the track at Indy. That love for motor sports was passed on to my Grandfather, then to my father.

You Always Remember Your First 

My father began taking me to sports car races at the age of 9. Early on he would tell me stories of Indianapolis. He said the cars were so loud that the grand stands physically shock when they went by. As a kid, that actually made me quite nervous and I distinctly remember telling him I didn’t want to go to Indy. Let’s stick to the Mid-Ohio Racetrack dad, where my seat stays perfectly still thank you very much. Well, my dad knew better than that. He began by having me watch the 500 for a couple years. Back then I would choose who I was going to root for based on the color of their car. Cheering for the “black car” was how I began. Then it was little Al. Always little Al in that Valvoline car. I’m going to assume all kids in America rooted for him because somehow we felt he was like us. Ya know, raised by a millionaire Indy 500 winning racing legend father… just like the rest of us. Finally in 1992 my dad took my brother and I to our first Indy 500. For years the Indy 500 was held on a Saturday out of respect for local churches. In 1974 the owner was given the blessing of local churches to hold the event on a Sunday. So we felt it only right to support a church by paying to park in their lot. You could even pay them to drive you to the track in the back of an old U-Haul. With over 300,000 people trying to find parking spots, every front yard within 2 miles of the track has a kid trying to get you to pay $10 to park in their lawn.

 

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Our tickets were on the inside of turn 4. Not great, but we were there. That also meant we had to walk through the infield. The infield, well, has a certain reputation. As we came up out of the tunnel to the infield we were approached by a man using a keg of beer like a unicycle riding it around greeting fans. There were thousands of fans that had been partying there for days. Many I assumed would never actually know there was a race going on around them. Due to the sheer number of people wearing shirts that read, “Show us your tits”, my Dad had to keep my eyes covered for much of the walk to our seats.

 

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The infield is just, well, a different experience.

 

The one thing you know for sure is that when you’re at Indy, you’re experiencing history. For my first trip to Indy, that meant attending the coldest Indy 500 in history. Of course this was 1992 and weather.com wasn’t around yet so we were wearing shorts and t-shirts in 37-degree wind chill that day. No worries, Dad had a fix for that. Taking extra trash bags out of a nearby can, he tore a hole in the top and put them over our heads. Instant windbreakers. To be clear, he did NOT win ‘Father of the Year’ that year. Who am I kidding, he took us to Indy, who cares if he dressed us in trash bags he should have at least been in the running. Before the race even began 2 cars wrecked on the parade lap, including one right in front of us. I was hooked. The first time by the cars were so fast and so loud it was hard to distinguish any one car from the mass of colors blurring by. It was an adrenalin rush and it was when IndyCar racing became an addiction to me. The sight, the sounds, the smells, and the color were incredible. That 76th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is most famous though for the battle between winner Al Unser, Jr. and 2nd place finisher Scott Goodyear. It was also the record 35th consecutive start for AJ Foyt. The cold temps and high winds turned the race into a crash-fest. In other words, exactly what a 12-year-old kid would love. Being on the inside of the turn severely limited our view that’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there. We could see cars loose control and hear the tires screeching… but never actually see them hit the wall. We couldn’t even see any scoring stands to tell who was leading; we had to rely on those listening to radios nearby to shout out the standings. I remember being ecstatic to hear Michael Andretti, who had seen his dad and brother both wreck and be taken to the hospital with injuries earlier, had broken down after dominating most the race. That ended up being the final race for many Indy legends including AJ Foyt and Rick Mears. The race ended with the narrowest finished in Indy history, .03 seconds. To compare, 100 years ago at the race first place had 13 minute magin of victory. I had had my mom record the race on something called a “VCR” so when I got home I could find out what had happened on the other parts of the racetrack – something those of us in the infield only knew about by listening on the radio.

The following year we returned to sit in the pits. Again in the infield, again an amazing experience. That year the big news was Bobby Rahal failed to qualify. Indy is a big deal and just getting in some years is a huge feat. Note to NASCAR fans, IndyCar does not give a free entry to past champions. They have been doing things the same way for decades. Even the track itself has never changed since it was built over 100 years ago. Still exactly 9 degree banking in 4 identical corners around the 2.5 mile track.

History is Made

It had been 20 years, but I attended my 3rd Indy 500 this May. It is still the world’s largest single-day spectator sporting event and as usual, history was made. It was the fastest Indy 500 in history finishing in just under 2 hrs 47 minutes at an average speed of over 187mph beating Arie Luyendyks record of 185mph set in 1990. Back then they never closed the pits and didn’t packed up the field allowing them to keep the race speed very high so many expected that record to never fall. They didn’t even have a pit speed limit! Oh, and it also DOUBLED the most lead changes in history with 68! Would I like to go to Monaco someday? Of course, but you may not see 68 lead changes in a whole season of F1. This years 500 also had the most different leaders in history, with 14. Pole sitter Ed Carpender is an Indianapolis native so the cheers were audible over the sound of the engines whenever he went to the lead. Ever more crazy though was when Tony Kanaan took the lead, the crowd went bonkers.

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What the crowd looked like every single time Tony Kanaan took the lead.

 Maybe it’s because he led the 500 ever year from 2002-2008, yet had never won one. Or maybe it’s because he’s a laid back middle-aged man that men like me somehow feel like we can relate to. The race finished under yellow because as 3rd place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay said, “This is Indy. There’s a certain way things are done. Tradition is tradition, we don’t try to produce results out of green-white-checkereds.” Speaking of middle-aged men, Buddy Lazier who raced in the 1992 event I was at, once again raced this year.

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Why You Should Go Next Year 

-Well, to experience history. Indy officials have already said they want to break the all time qualifying record set by Arie Luyendyk. He did a lap at over 239mph with a 4 lap average of 237.4mph.

-To see the size of it. Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) is the world’s largest spectator sporting facility. You can fit the Rose Bowl, Yankee Stadium, all the courts at Wimbelton, the Kentucky Derby, the Roman Colliseum, and all of Vatican City… just in the infield at Indy.

 

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-To people watch. In my Great Grandfather’s day everyone came to the track wearing full suits and hats. Now you will see people like this:

 

 

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-For the tradition. Indy sticks to their traditions and that’s part of what makes it great. Hearing Jim Nabors sing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ (for the 43rd consecutive year) as the Balloon Spectacle takes place along the front stretch is something you need to see in person. Then there is the field starting 3 wide, the winner getting to keep the pace car and drinking the milk, and so much more…

 

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-It’s more than a race. The parade of bands around the track begins at 8am and there are on track activities up until race time. You may even get to see a childhood hero like Parnelli Jones or Mario Andretti.

 

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-For the danger. Today’s drivers aren’t quite the dare devils that they were 100 years ago, but there is still something about watching a race that you know has had so many horrific wrecks over the years. TV doesn’t do justice to how fast a pack of cars at over 225mph looks.

-Because it’s cheap. I couldn’t get over the fact that you can bring in coolers to the track. I literally saw hundreds of people carrying cases of Natty Light right to their seats. That’s some cheap entertainment.

 

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-If you’re not into the race (then I can’t relate to you), you can pay $30 to get into the infield. There you will find bands playing, sand volleyball courts, zip lines, fair rides, and more than a few people using a keg of beer as a form of transportation.

 

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Why oh why are these people playing volleyball DURING THE RACE!

 

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-You can hear Bob Jenkins’ voice as the track announcer (I miss him!).

-You never know what you may see like this year when Chip Ganassi gave Alex Zanardi his Reyanrd-Honda IndyCar that he was driving when he made “The Pass” at Laguna Seca in 1996.

Walking out of the race 20 years ago I saw a guy carrying out a race used wheel and tire from a wrecked car. Sure it’d be cool to catch a foul ball someday, but this guy was taking home part of the freakin car! To this day my dream is to get a wheel and tire from an Indy car and put a piece of glass over it for a coffee table.

My father taught me several things that I take with me today, including how to be a Buckeye fan, and to appreciate the smell of race fuel in the morning. Thanks dad. How many more years before I can take my 3 year old son here?

 

 

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Video of the 1939 Indy 500. Warning: a little graphic. Crazy how lightly they treated death in motor sports then.

Get there early. The race starts just after noon, but there is a lot of traffic. Indianapolis does know what they are doing after putting on the event for a century though and it’s not as bad as you’d think. Especially if you have a GPS and can cut through the neighborhoods instead of staying on the main streets.

 

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Give yourself time to get into the gates. There was probably 20,000 people trying to get into this one gate. As it got closer to race time, they just stopped inspecting bags and just let everyone in. Safety-first boys.

Obviously IndyCar racing isn’t what it used to be… but IMS is still The Racing Capital of the World. 

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31 Comments on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing – Indianapolis 500...”


  • avatar
    doctor olds

    Good article. Cool pictogram illustrating the relative size of the facility!

  • avatar

    I’ve been to several races, mostly F1 @ indy (although i don’t follow racing) and IMHO the pinnacle racing is really Isle of Man tt. Those guys are INSANE.

    I’m really trying to get my wife to go with me next year when our son will be 2 1/2.

    With that being said, I just rediscovered ama superbike last weekend @ elkhart lake, and had such a good time I’m going to try to drive up to ohio & indy for those 2 races as well, wife-permitting.

    They even make their full races available in HD:
    http://www.amaprolive.com/rr/dvr/

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Fink

      Can’t really argue with Isle of Man TT, that’s nuts. Though, with it not being “wheel-to-wheel” racing and actually a time trial (I believe) race, and the fact that it is only a 6 lap race, it’s not very spectator friendly. Superbikes at Mid-Ohio are great, have fun.

      • 0 avatar

        I am not sure if it’s the same at mid-ohio but when I went last weekend they actually opened the paddock and you could go & get signed photos from the drivers, say hi, etc. Couple hundred people/spectators in the paddock when open. Easy to walk around — very fan friendly!

        So awesome…

  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    Glad to see the Indy 500 coming back. I was there two years in ’92 & ’93 and it was a unique experience. The photos brought back memories. About 10 years later, I had tickets to the Indy USGP and that F1 crowd was very different from the Indy series…still rabid fans, but different. For example, the IMS ran out of Foster’s beer at the inaugural USGP race. That sin was not repeated.

  • avatar
    @markthebike

    Good story and WHY are those people playing volleyball during the race?

    • 0 avatar

      Some people go for the environment, some people go for the race, IMHO.

      Kind of like going to a football game to tailgate.

    • 0 avatar
      EquipmentJunkie

      The two times I went to the Indy 500, it seemed like a lot of folks were there because it was a Hoosier tradition…almost like a state fair. However, I was impressed by the knowledge of the entire Indy series by the average fan in the early ’90s. I wonder how that would compare to today? I, for instance, haven’t paid much attention to what goes on at the IMS on Memorial Day weekend since the Oval vs. Road Course split.
      (Feel free to discuss conspiracy theories involving Bernie Eccelstone and Tony George)

      • 0 avatar
        Matt Fink

        I agree with the knowledge of the fans. Just the fact that the majority of the crowd (where I was at least, outside of turn 4) were cheering for Tony Kanaan shows they know the sport. The casual fan I would assume would cheer for a name they recognize like Andretti, Rahal, Helio, or even the local star Ed Carpender.

  • avatar
    Compaq Deskpro

    Anyone notice the 2014 Impala in the first picture? How did that get sneak out of GM’s factory?

  • avatar
    JMII

    This was a great Indy500 with all the passing… with 15-10 laps to go anyone in the top 6-8 could have won the race. So far this season in the IRL has been fantastic, if your not watching you are really missing out. I’ve been to IRL races at Atlanta and Homestead, I will get to Indy one day and Austin to watch F1. Alot like football you really have to experience it “live” at least once in your life to get the real feel for the event – the sounds, the smells, the speed, the crowds… its an experience, thus you just don’t get “it” watching on TV.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Fink

      Well said JMII. Now you just need to get to Indy! (This is not said to correct you!) Personally I think it’s good the series is not called IRL anymore as it brought up a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Just going by IndyCar helps connect it with the past.

  • avatar
    SomeGuy

    I strongly suggest if you are not into IndyCar to visit the museum at the track and take a ride around it. It is pretty cheap cost wise and well worth it.

    After my visit to the museum I now at least try and follow IndyCar a lttle bit more than I used to.

    I think I will attend an Indy 500 eventually. It seems like a neat experience!

    Great article.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Are you allowed to pay a fee and drive a personal vehicle around the track, provided it’s in good-enough shape? (I assume that someone would check it over prior to the laps, or you’d have to sign a waiver absolving the Speedway of any legal trouble if you mess up.)

  • avatar
    Highway27

    While I’ve never attended the Indy 500, I have gone to 5 of the US GP’s at Indy. And if you like racing, you HAVE to go there for a race sometime. I can’t say that the F1 experience was exactly like the 500, but I imagine it was similar. Driving through the streets nearby that almost seem designed for people to sell parking on their lawns, thousands of people walking towards the Speedway, all anticipating a great race.

    And then seeing the place, it’s impressive walking up from behind the stands, but you don’t understand the scale of the place until you get inside. SO HUGE! We sat in Speedway Turn 4 for the F1 races, and I can’t imagine those same seats for the 500, looking down the front straight and watching cars just disappear into turn 1. The track seems so narrow because it’s just dwarfed by these stands on either side, then you realize how big everything is.

    I attended plenty of CART races at Michigan and Cleveland (including the first Hanford Device race), and while Michigan is big, it just doesn’t compare in epic-ness to Indy. I don’t know if anything does.

    • 0 avatar
      stingray65

      Huge was my impression as well – as a teenager I ran 3 circuits of the track on a warm summer evening when the speedway was open for some Indy car dealer event. Took me something like 16 minutes to run each lap, while the race cars do it in something less than 40 seconds.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Patti (before her health went away) and I made the 2008 and 2009 races, and will always have incredible memories of both years. The first year, of course, was the hurricane.

      The second, however, will always be my favorite memory of my late wife. She spent a small fortune in a donation to Ride for Kids, so I could take my ’69 Bonneville cafe racer on a lap of the track (the MotoGP course, not the whole oval). The day of the ride, she was shocked that I insisted she get on back.

      The ride, of course, was supposed to be a nice quiet 35mph pack lap . . . . only I managed to stall the Bonnie just as we pulled on the track. Damned if I didn’t over-flood the carbs (tickling carbs on a warm engine isn’t advised, I know better)trying to get restarted, and by the time the old girl was ticking over again, the pack was already 2/3rds thru the lap. Funny, I notice a Ducati 916 and something Japanese seemed to have gotten lost with me.

      Well, it WAS pounded in to us that we were supposed to leave the track as a group, so we had to catch up. And catch up we did. Patti’s eleven years of riding with me stood her well as I howled that old bike keeping up with the two newer compatriots. And I even managed to get under the Ducati and pass it on the final right-hander just before the left that put you on the finish straight. Where I almost lost the bike coming in way too hot from the previous pass.

      When we got back, it was mentioned that all four of us (don’t blame Patti, she wasn’t in control) weren’t particularly welcome on any RFK events at Indy. But the look in Patti’s eyes as we pulled off the track made it all worth while. Ten months later, she had the stroke. Three months after that, the PSP kicked in hard, and she was in an out of nursing homes for the next two and a half years; until it ended this past February.

      That Indy ride was our last big one together. It’ll always be my last good memory of her.

      Hopefully, I’m going back this year. I’ve missed that race. It’ll be rough without Patti along . . . . . . although I’ve got a new woman now, who’s working like mad to take Patti’s place.

  • avatar
    Rhiadon

    One very minor (in my mind) nitpick. John Andretti is not Michael Andretti’s brother. He’s his cousin. As far as I know, Michael has no brother, at least one that races.

    Other than that really nice article. I’ve lived near Indy all my life and it’s pretty much the only oval race I ever have any interest in just because it’s the Indy 500. You captured it pretty well.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      Jeff Andretti is Michael’s brother.
      He was severely injured running the 1992 Indy 500 and left the sport.
      I believe he is an instructor at one of the pro driving schools.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    My first time attending was 1963. The contrast of the Offenhauser powered front engine to the rear engine Chapman cars is one of my memories, but the clearest one is of the mudhole at one of the golf holes where I saw my first publicly naked woman. Or should I make that plural? The Canadian Formula One race and IndyCar’s Long Beach GP should be the racer’s annual pilgrimage. They also hold a rally through the woods here in the Coast Range I went to several years ago that really made me respect the skill of the drivers in this discipline. They must need wheelbarrows to haul their balls. Or, alternatively, they’re certifiably insane. I assume the jury is still out.

  • avatar
    Jacob

    All in all, the IndyCar season had been great last year and it’s fantastic this year. Both Indy500s were good. I agree that attending an IndyCar race is an exceptional value in terms of cheap entertainment. Last year I attended the Indy race in Texas. Coolers were allowed, cars roared at >200mph speeds so loud I thought the ground was shaking, the racing was good, and the tickets were cheap.

    Folk who whine about spec cars and ovals don’t know what they’re missing. Some people don’t like oval races, but you have to experience this at the track. They’re optimized to increase the entertainment value for live spectators. At the Texas speedway there were practically no “bad” seats. From any seat area you could see almost the entire race track.

  • avatar
    comrade slow

    I just love articles like this and they are the reason I frequent TTAC. Just imagining the emotion and exhilaration you experienced and the memories you have of your early experiences with motor racing really conveys the feelings well. Thank you and bravo!

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Fink

      Appreciate the kind words. While writing the story I came across 3 old pictures of my Great Grandfather with his car at Indy from the 1930s. Might be time to blow those up and hang them on the wall as conversation starters.

  • avatar
    brid1970

    After hearing so many negative comments about the boredom of cars going round and round, it is great to know that others share the feeling of the unique magic that is Indy 500.

    This year the multiple lead changes added a lot of excitement, but at the end I felt badly that Tony Kanaan had to win his long sought after 500 under a yellow caution flag. He was running so strong when his friend Franchitti hit the wall, bringing it all to a premature end.

    The lack of technical commentary, and passion, in the voices of ABC announcers just reinforces those who make that boredom argument I mentioned. Or maybe I’m just too accustomed to the, down and dirty, but knowledgeable commentary passionately expressed by the good old boy veterans over at NASCAR.

    All the Andrettis have worked hard over the years, including John who used to do both the Indy and the NASCAR event in the same day. But their victories in recent years have been hard to come by, and so I’m hoping for young Marco to seize that long awaited victory sometime soon.

    It’s also past due for someone like Takuma Sato to grab an Indy 500 win. Lord knows those many Japanese participants have been struggling for years and years without any luck.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Fink

      That’s why it’s great to be there in person, you still get to hear Bob Jenkins (when cars aren’t going by at least)

      I have lots of respect for the Andretti’s and everything they’ve done for the sport. Growing up in Columbus Ohio though, Bobby Rahal was our local hero. I felt like I couldn’t root for Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti. It’d be like rooting for Michigan (as a Buckeye fan!). Being a Rahal fan has stuck with me into the next generation of drivers. Plus watching Graham come up through karting made me want to stick with him.

      I’m with you about Takuma Sato. Thought he was going to get it last year.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Although I miss the old days when qualifying records were broken – or could be broken every year, I understand why IMS took the actions they did to slow down the cars. Slower cars have lowered the buzz factor of the Indianapolis 500, but fewer drivers are dying and being maimed, and the quality of the actual racing is as good or better than ever. The fact is that in the mid-1990s, just after the cars reached 230 MPH, there were suddenly a large number of drivers complaining about blackouts, neck problems and other ailments relating to G-forces. It all came to a head in 1996, the year Arie Luyendyk set the current qualifying record of just under 237 MPH. It was clear that technology allowed for faster cars, but biology was setting the limit for the drivers. The biological barriers are something IMS will have to address if they want the cars to start setting records again. Are G-suits on the horizon?


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