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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
-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:
-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…
-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.
-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.
-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.
Why oh why are these people playing volleyball DURING THE RACE!
-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?
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.
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.