(INDIANAPOLIS, In.) — When I was 10 years old, I got an Aurora AFX electric racing set for my birthday. I remember spending hours running my toy cars around the dual slot courses, often pretending I was behind the wheel of some jacked up Formula One racer. If it was Monday, then I was Jackie Stewart, expertly negotiating the hairpin turns of Monaco. On Wednesdays, I was Emerson Fittipaldi winning another Formula One Championship trophy. Come Friday, I was one of the Unser brothers, or maybe even A.J. Foyt on my way to a coveted checkered flag at Indy.
Fast forward fifty years and I find myself once again at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time, however, it’s not some fantasy concocted from my years as an AFX driving legend—this time it’s for real, as an on-site correspondent for Bluegrass Sports Nation. Together with a boatload of rabid racing fans and hundreds of other sports journalists of every ilk and breed, I’m taking in all the sights and sounds of a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experience. It’s the Indianapolis 500–exciting, smoking hot, and LOUD!
Those of you familiar with “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” know that the Indy 500 isn’t just a one-day event. In fact, the lead up to the race itself is frequently referred to as the “Month of May” because of all the painstaking preparations prior to the green flag. Pole Day, Bump Day, Carb Day, and Fast Friday all comprise a twisted conglomeration of testing, qualifying, and positioning for the 33 cars that will be eventually vying for the gigantic Borg-Warner trophy. It’s a combination of a global sporting event and a local state fair, with the pungency of burning rubber mixing pleasantly with the cooking oil aroma wafting from a perfectly crafted batch of deep fried elephant ears. Mix in the occasional dose of fetid body odor and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for a memorable world class gathering.
The media credentialing process for this 102nd running of the Indy 500 was akin to vetting for senate confirmation. Approval required disclosing everything from your eighth-grade math scores to your current underwear size. Once approved, race officials then required you to make an in-person advance trip to their offices for the requisite photos, waivers, and officially issued race IDs. Forgive my exasperation, but a six-and-a-half hour round trip car ride to stand in a line reminiscent of the DMV just isn’t my cup of tea. Only a chance elevator encounter with David Letterman kept the day from being a total washout. The former late-night TV host turned racing team co-owner dished up his best elevator etiquette—surprisingly polite and friendly while smirking behind those gapped central incisors and that bushy white beard.
Race Day dawns early as I’m inside the gates just after 6 am. Even at this early hour, tailgating is already in full force as I make my way through a mass of RV’s, portable toilets, and revelers in various levels of undress. Photographers stationed at the famous third turn of the speedway track have been camped out in their precious slots since midnight. They’ll be no such shenanigans from this old scribe, as I make my way to my reserved seat inside the monstrous four-story, air-conditioned media center directly across from the finish line. The entire set up reminds me of Mission Control on launch day, with rows and rows of journalists huddled over their computer monitors amidst the backdrop of the picture plate glass windows overlooking the cosmos that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The thing that immediately strikes me is the size of the complex. A two-and-a-half-mile oval is huge enough, but there’s also a modern infield road course and four holes of a neighboring golf course shoehorned into the raceway grounds. Two hundred and fifty thousand permanent grandstand seats together with room for 150,000 additional patrons in the infield makes the IMS the highest capacity sports venue in the world. Slathered in sunscreen and armed with earplugs, on the second hottest day in race history, I’m ready to take it all in.
I make my way down to the garage areas just down Gasoline Alley. It’s here that I get my first up-close glimpse of the mechanical wizardry known as Indy cars—single seat, open cockpit, open-wheeled, purpose-built beauties utilizing 2.2L V6, twin-turbocharged engines, tuned to produce a range of 550-700 horsepower, and designed to travel at speeds well over 200 mph. It’s surreal seeing them in such a dormant state, as if they’re silently and prayerfully meditating before being unleashed into battle like gladiators into the coliseum.
Speaking of gladiators, Indy car drivers all appear larger than life—regal, majestic, and dignified—as if sitting in the cockpit of these supercharged rockets automatically endows them with a sense of superhero strength, stamina, and good looks. In reality, they’re just mere mortals, susceptible to the purposefully unspoken possibilities of injury and death as they’re hurtling around the track at such ungodly speeds. Fourteen drivers have been killed in the actual race, the last being Swede Savage in 1973, who ran over a patch of oil that caused him to hit the inside wall in turn four, which shot him to the outside wall where he crashed again.
I’m fortunate to meet up with my friend Del Duduit, Zach Veach’s youth basketball coach, whose connection to the 23-year-old Verizon Indy Car driver gave us all a special rooting interest for his Andretti Autosport team. As we wander around, it’s like a Who’s Who of racing, a virtual racing legends hall of fame with the anticipation of surprising encounters lurking around every pit bay corner. I’m introduced to George Del Canto, the owner of the Kingdom Racing team. George is a true man after God’s own heart. He gave up a lucrative career in finance and now uses his platform on the racing circuit to spread the Gospel of Christ.
As the massive crowd continues to filter in together with the oppressive heat and humidity, I catch a quick glimpse of Sage Karam, a cocky-looking 23-year-old whose fastest post-qualifying speeds makes him a legitimate contender. I don’t know—maybe I dreamed it—but I thought I also saw Danica Patrick, who’s competing in her eighth and final Indy, surrounded by an impenetrable crowd of security and neck straining well-wishers. And of course, Roger Penske and his Team Penske, with their 16 Indianapolis 500 victories and the litany of big-name drivers driving for the Captain himself. Gary Bettenhausen, Mark Donohue, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan, Danny Ongais, and Al Unser—all names from the past transporting me back to those fun times around the little toy track in our basement back home.
When Jim Cornelison belts out his version of Gomer Pyle’s “Back Home Again in Indiana,” I can barely contain my emotion and excitement. Following the ear-splitting fly by, the green flag mercifully drops and I’m revved up higher than a souped-up racing tachometer. It’s goosebumps galore as the crescendo cheers of more than 300,000 racing fans vie greedily with the incessant engine roars zooming rhythmically before my very nose.
For the record, the winner of the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 today was 37-year-old Australian native Will Power of Team Penske–the one driver who zoomed around the track just a little bit faster than everyone else. Power started in the 3rd position and led 59 of the 200 race laps. Afterwards, he celebrated with the customary swig of winner’s circle milk–the innocence of the simple tradition belying the intricacies of his hard-earned, long-awaited, first-time victory.
“It was the last box to tick to be considered as a very successful driver,” Power said, referring to the win today. “I still have plenty of time left to win more 500s and championships and races…It’s what I needed so badly and wanted so badly and it came true. Anyone here knows how that would feel if you want something so much and it comes through to you through hard work and determination.”
As for me, it wasn’t the race results that captivated my fancy today. It’s seldom the results. For me, it’s always about the experience of the moment. In that respect, the Indianapolis 500 certainly did not disappoint. I’ll be honest–the sheer size, pageantry, and celebrity of the venue took me a little by surprise. The dizzying speed of the cars set me a bit on edge and the massiveness of the crowd became a tad bit intimidating. But that’s exactly why it’s the spectacle that it is. A bucket list item for sure—with plenty of drama, intrigue, and pomp for everyone lucky enough to attend.