I’ve lived in Indiana for nearly seven years now. In that time, I’ve been to three Notre Dame football games, an Indiana basketball game, a Purdue football game, a Colts (preseason) game, and a Pacers game. I’ve also watched high school basketball players like Josh McRoberts, Eric Gordon, Michael Conley, and Greg Oden. My Indiana sports resume had two glaring omissions, however. I’ve yet to go to a Butler game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and I’ve never been to an Indianapolis 500.
Notice I said had. I knocked a big one off the list by attending my first Indy 500 on Sunday.
Why did it take me seven years to get to a race? Well, I’m not a big race fan for starters. Sitting in the heat for hours watching cars go around the track over-and-over never appealed to me. Also, this is the first spring since we moved here that we’ve not either been pregnant or had a sub one-year-old in the house. Finally, I’ve heard the horror stories about people getting stuck in traffic for hours. I thought the smart move was just to take that option out of the equation by staying home and listening to the race and then watching the replay that night.
But my step-dad decided he wanted to go to the race this year,1 so I bucked up and decided I should see what the fuss is all about.
I had two big goals for the day: make the commute as stress-free as possible and avoid a blistering sunburn.
We packed up and left the house at 8:00 a.m. In 45 minutes we came to a grinding halt, but we were a mile from the track. It took another 30 minutes to crawl closer and find a decent parking spot, followed by a 15-20 minute walk to the track. After picking up our tickets we were in our seats at 10:00. A totally acceptable commute when roughly 250,0002 people are trying to get to do the same thing.
We walked around a bit, but without pit passes, we couldn’t see a whole lot of good stuff. So we returned to our seats and waited. And waited. And waited. The race didn’t start until 1:00 and there really wasn’t much going on until 11:30 or so, when they began towing the cars out to the starting grid. I slathered on sunscreen and did some people watching.
Oh, our seats were decent, but not great. We were in the main straightaway, across from the entrance to pit row. But we were very low, just five rows up, limiting our field of view. We could see down to turn four, then roughly half of the main straightaway before the cars disappeared from view. It would have been nicer to be higher up so we could see more of the front side of the track.
Also, we were right in the sun. As we sat and waited, we baked. My stepdad and his friend were smart enough to go up into the higher seats that were shaded. I chose to stay in our seats and guard the cooler. Luckily, the sunscreen came through and I did not get burned. I was drenched in sweat, though. Thankfully, just as the race started, the sun passed behind the overhang and we were in the shade.3
After all the pre-race festivities, it was finally race time. Three parade laps and then the green flag dropped. Everyone I’ve talked to who has been to a race, whether IRL or NASCAR, has said there’s nothing like the opening lap, when all the cars are bunched together and each throttle is floored. I can report those claims are accurate. It’s pretty amazing to have 33 cars come to speed right in front of you and blow past. Everyone stands and cheers and there’s a sense of relief that the waiting is over and the event is finally starting.
Once the cars pass, everyone shifts view to the many video boards that show the action. It took about 15 seconds before a collective “OOOOOOH!” went up and everyone pointed at the screens. A crash on lap one! By the time the cars came around again, the pace car was back in front and they were slowed down to caution speed.
A few laps of yellow, clean up, and we went back to green. That was the upside to our seats, each time there was a restart we got to see them shoot out of turn four and rocket towards the start-finish line. The sound is the same as you hear on TV, just a lot louder, obviously. But one difference is you hear the cars literally ripping through the air. It sounds a little like a flag whipping around in a heavy wind, times about 100. It’s odd because you hear that sound before the car passes.
A couple laps later, another yellow. Was it going to be one of those days?
Fortunately, things improved from there on. There were a few wrecks, but there were also long stretches of uninterrupted racing. In the early laps after a restart, it’s interesting to have 15-20 seconds of relative silence as the cars circle the opposite side of the track. You can’t hear the person next to you when the cars go by, so people try to squeeze in quick conversations during those breaks. They don’t last long, though. Within a few laps, the cars have stretched out and the stragglers are well behind the leaders. Also, a significant chunk of the fans wear some kind of hearing protection, either ear plugs or heavy headphones. It’s tough to hold a conversation when your ears are stopped up.
It was obvious early Dario Franchitti had the best car. He took the lead from the start, and once they had a long stretch without yellows, he blew the field away. At one point he would race by us and we would look to turn four and still not see the second place car. His lead was up to ten seconds at one point, which is nearly a third of a lap.
While a lot of the established drivers are very popular, there is an obvious fan-favorite at Indy: Tony Kanaan. He’s been close many times, but hasn’t been able to get a win at Indy. This year he had a horrible qualifying weekend and ended up squeezing into the field in the final position. But everyone knew if his car was right, he had a chance to get into the mix before the race was over.
That was the case. He quickly worked his way through the field. The announcers, recognizing his popularity, gave frequent updates on his position. “Race fans, Tony Kanaan is up to 12th place!” Cheers from all. When Kanaan jumped up to second, everyone jumped to their feet and tried to will him to catch Franchitti.
The big down-side to being at a race is you don’t get all the information that viewers at home get. While there are announcers over the PA, you can’t always hear them. So, after a final yellow with 20 laps to go, it was hard to know exactly what was going on. Franchitti had fallen to fifth, but two drivers in front of him still needed to pit. Helio Castroneves was in the mix, but he was right on the edge of needing to pit before the checkered flag. And Kanaan was lurking.
Franchitti suddenly looked slow. Was he conserving fuel, or had he lost whatever magic was in his car?
So we get to the final ten laps and it’s looking like a shootout to the finish. Helio takes the lead. But with eight laps to go he shoots into the pits for a splash of fuel. People in the stands look at each other in confusion. Three laps later, Kanaan does the same thing. There’s dismay in the crowd. What the hell is he doing?
From what we can hear over the PA, Franchitti may have just enough fuel to finish, but it’s going to be very close. Were Helio and Tony gambling that Dario wouldn’t make it to the finish and hope they can work their way through traffic back to the front? I guess.
The white flag comes out and Dario is going even slower. Is he on empty? Where are Helio and Tony? Can they pass him? Suddenly, a big gasp goes up in the crowd. The video boards show a massive wreck in turn three. A car is airborne, crashes into the fence, and disintegrates while sitting on top of another. The yellow comes out. Who is in the lead?
The video boards show Dario cruising along the interior lane on the back stretch. If he can muster another half lap out of his car, he’s the winner, as positions are locked because of the yellow. He makes it, with fuel to spare, and wins his second Indy 500 under caution. Dario may not be as popular as Kanaan, but he is well-liked in Indy, and now we had the added bonus of getting to see Ashley Judd celebrate! Helio finished ninth, Tony 11th. Danica Patrick, who had a rough month and was booed by the crowd both after qualifying and in Sunday’s introductions, took sixth.
Then came the mad dash to the parking lots. People arrive in waves, but after the race, most try like hell to get out fast. The streets are mobbed with people, some of whom have been drinking since early in the morning. I had a cute girl who maybe weighed 100 pounds slam into me and not even notice. She just kept walking forward, trying to stay upright.
We got to our car quickly, merged into traffic, and were back on the interstate moments later. We left our seats at about 4:20. We were home an hour later. If you park in the right spot and hustle out of the Speedway, you can make very good time.4
So my first visit to the Indianapolis 500 was a success. No sunburn, decent commute, fun race. My only real disappointment was that we only saw part of one wreck. It’s not that I had a morose desire to see drivers get maimed. I just wanted to see how a crash when you are mere feet away compares to seeing one on television. We saw a car that had run into the wall coming out of turn four bounce across and hit the wall that separates the main raceway from the pits. Nothing very spectacular.
Anyway, I can mark that off the old Indiana sports to do list. Now to get to a Butler game…
- He went several years in the early 80s and has always been a fan of the race and its history. ↩
- Allegedly. The IMS does not release official attendance statistics for races they host. So it was an estimated crowd. There were lots of empty seats, though, so while the crowd was massive, it still is a far cry from the race’s glory days. ↩
- During the race we learned it was the hottest Indy 500 ever, with the air temperature reaching 96 and the track temperature going over 130. Thank goodness we weren’t in the sun the entire time. ↩
- On a normal day, it’s a 20-30 minute drive from our house to the Speedway. ↩