Dateline: May 15, 2009. My employers had a suite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and rewarded several employees across multiple departments with a few hours of free time at Indianapolis 500 practice. Recipients got to hang out with each other, enjoy the suite amenities, walk around the pits, and watch occasional cars drive in a speedy circle without crashing. Fun times a few days before the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
That’s where the following photos were taken. The race’s connection to my Hoosier upbringing goes back a bit further.
(As always, photos are clickable for enlargement and resolution and such.)
When I was a kid, the Indy 500 was the only major sporting event that captured my attention for more than three minutes at a time. Even then, it was the only race I watched all year. Until adulthood I had no idea “IndyCar racing” was a full-on league comprising an entire series of races in other states. I mean, I knew other states had their own racetracks, but I assumed they were irrelevant. The Indy 500 and an Indianapolis Indians game once every few years were more than enough sports for me.
In grade school my two best friends and I had an annual tradition of listening to the race every year on WIBC, 1070 AM, in one of our backyards. We got lawn chairs, we plugged a radio into the outside outlet of our brick townhouse, and we listened to the excitable announcers describe events and position changes as quickly as possible in between the same ten radio commercials played on Repeat, with occasional intermissions from racing pundits geeking out about racing technology or spouting racing trivia or interviewing drivers who’d dropped out of the race due to crashes or equipment malfunctions or ennui or whatever.
Some memories and incidents remain stuck in my head. The joy of hearing Rick Mears or the AJ Foyt win again and again. The photo finishes that had the announcers screaming into their microphones to the point of total sonic distortion. The crashes that livened up some otherwise dull stretches of peaceful lap after peaceful lap. The joy of hearing someone new win their first Indy 500. The schadenfreude whenever anyone was forced out in the first five or ten laps. Those suspenseful seconds between the time a crash was announced and the moment they finally confirmed who was involved. That horrifying time a loose wheel flew over the fence during a race and killed a spectator.
They’re not all warm memories, but they’re indelible parts of the whole.
From a selfish standpoint, the worst Indy 500 ever was in 1985. The race had nothing to do with it. As a chubby young lad I hated wearing shorts, but within the safety of my backyard I figured it wouldn’t hurt for once and changed into something a little more comfortable after I shook the dust off them. We listened to the race for the usual 3-4 hours and had a fun time the the backyard without anyone mocking me. I felt comfortable and liberated by my bold choice until I woke up the next morning with second-degree sunburns covering both legs. The pain was so excruciating that I could only take two-inch steps and couldn’t wear pants, which were mandatory school dress code in those days. (Shorts were unilaterally banned in our township until high school, when someone invented Bermuda shorts and forced the first known fashion revolution in my lifetime. The administrators went into such a tizzy.)
I missed the last week of seventh grade but ended the year on the honor roll anyway. After a few days of healing, my friends came over and got to watch me poke at my giant-sized leg blisters, moving pus back and forth from one pouch to another. To this day my swollen, stoplight-red legs remain the most entertaining injury I’ve ever sustained. Thanks, Indy 500!
By ninth grade all my longtime neighborhood friends had moved away to other neighborhoods and lost contact. I kept up the annual WIBC tradition on my own, though the backyard party aspect was phased out. Somehow, though, listening to it indoors with family was never as satisfying. My Indy 500 fandom diminished as my teenage isolationist years moved forward.
In 1990 I attended my very first Indy 500. A high school friend who was a huge racing buff, and who hoped one day for a career in the field, had tickets and invited me. That was unexpected. At long last I’d finally see what all the fuss was about up close. I lived two miles west of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — close enough to hear the engines roaring every May, and close enough to be their best possible parking spot without paying some Speedway resident big bucks to park on their lawn and hopefully not get damaged by drunks.
My first time at a live Indy 500 taught me a lot:
1. There are drunks everywhere.
2. Those women in the crowds who allegedly take their tops off at a mere finger-snap were an urban legend.
3. Even after you enter the gates, walking to your seat takes forever.
4. Waiting for the race to start takes forever.
5. The race takes forever, about three times as long as when you’re listening at home in your comfy chair.
6. The cars are really far away and really tiny and don’t photograph so well.
7. The loudspeakers are inaudible. At least, I think there were loudspeakers.
8. If you want to know what’s going on, you have to bring a radio with headphones, which negates part of the reason for showing up in the first place.
9. Maybe there are great concessions, but you’ll have to climb past thousands of drunks to get to them, so you’re better off bringing your own snacks.
10. The view from inside Turn 1 lets you see the cars zoom by for about 0.75 seconds per lap.
11. After four to six hours in direct sunlight, the drunks around you are at their least amusing and conscious.
12. The walk home takes five times as long as the walk to the track because now you’re surrounded by tens of thousands of drunks stumbling out at the same time.
I know Arie Luyendyk won, and I recall at least one crash in Turn 1, so there were a few exciting moments where I saw lots of dust and a few bits of debris. Otherwise, most of my attention was turned to the radio announcers in my headphones.
My second and most recent Indy 500 race was in 1994, when that same buddy came home from college and invited me to come along again. I’d moved out on my own by then, but my mom’s place was still free track parking and was therefore the designated meet-up spot. I overslept at my place, couldn’t be contacted because I didn’t have a phone yet, and scrambled to catch up with everyone else at our Turn 1 seats shortly before the race began. This was during my young-stupid-male period when I was busy making all the stupidest decisions in my life. I have no other individual memories of that Indy 500 experience except I’m pretty sure there was mud to make some things worse.
After that I drifted away from the Indy 500 experience and lost track of it all. It moved on without me. It was the closest I ever came to having a sport to call my own. In the last several years, its path has intersected with mine in odd ways. That 2009 day at Indy 500 practice was certainly a keeper.
I still recognize the names of several drivers who stayed in the fray and are still around today — some as participants behind the wheel, some in related capacities managing cars and careers for others. Their names will pop up on the news, or we’ll see them riding in the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade, which my wife and I have been attending for kicks the last few years. It’s become a fun date-day, a new Indy 500 tradition to call my own. Our own.
And it’s that time again! the 99th Indianapolis is coming up this Sunday, and the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade is tomorrow morning. My wife and I will be at the parade once again for another date-day taking another round of photos for You, the Viewers at Home, and the usual bumper crop of marching band photos for parents in other states who can’t be here in person to see their kids do them proud. We’ll do what we can for longtime readers and passersby alike. It’s all part of the MCC service. And it’s a valid excuse to see some of my favorite drivers of yesteryear once more.
Not to mention some of their more interesting fans.