June 3, 2016

The Indianapolis 500: Experiencing the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsport for the First Time and Why Rossi is a Perfect Winner

The 100th running of the Indy 500 from a fan's point of view.

You probably read many wonderful articles about the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 from professionals inside the credentialed area.  Here is another perspective,  that of a long time fan attending his first 500.

Our friend Derick Stackpole had been wanting to see the 500 in person for a long time, this year he got the chance to and shared his experience and a few top tips for those planning to be one of the 300,000 or so people who attend the show.

The Indianapolis 500: Experiencing the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsport for the First Time and Why Rossi is a Perfect Winner

by Derick Stackpole

My buddy Jason and I had been talking about going to the Indianapolis 500 since our first Indycar race at Richmond International Raceway back in 2009 and our schedules finally allowed us to start planning for the 100th running a few months ago.

The plan: I would drive to D.C. on Thursday after work,  e'd load up Jason’s SUV and drive to Indianapolis on Friday, attend Legends Day at the track on Saturday, the race on Sunday, and drive home Monday.
We would camp in the infamous lot C or “coke lot.”  This campground had gained a controversial reputation after a man was killed there a couple of years ago during an altercation. Changes have led to tighter security, a large police presence (including an ever present helicopter), and all campers being required to wear wristbands for access to the grounds.
If you are planning on getting sleep during the weekend, this area is probably not the best spot for you. The party goes on through the night,  the soundtrack a mix of music genres pulsing through the night.
Despite the reputation,  we had no problems during our stay there. Police would ride by occasionally, giving a wave and asking if we were enjoying our weekend. They would joke with college students and we never saw them impinge on fun being had.

When we arrived at the infield, neighbors on either side of our well-marked camping spot immediately greeted us. The grounds are populated by a mix of older couples, families and a large college age population. Whether long time race fans or simply there for the party,  the majority are friendly.   Tell a veteran of the race it is your first time and they will have suggestions for how to plan your race day.

This is not like other race events, Indy draws a unique crowd. Fans of Formula 1 rub shoulders with fans of NASCAR and both share a common language. I spent 45 minutes jumping from F1 to Moto GP to Indycar with a fellow camper while we drank and watched the party.  We never introduced ourselves and did not see each other for the rest of the weekend; however, we could immediately jump into a conversation and relax.

A word of advice: If you are camping, plan on leaving after the race. Over 90% of the lot clears out by Sunday evening and security along with the police presence is gone. Locals looking to scavenge for tents and camping equipment left behind converge on the place and the atmosphere changes quickly.

Saturday saw the two of us up early and tired, but the anticipation pushed us towards the track located a short distance from our camp site. Attending the 100th running meant we would get to attend events Indy officials had organized to commemorate the occasion. Arriving at 9:00 AM, we could hear cars on the track and this only added to our excitement.

First Impressions after walking through the tunnel to the infield: This place is massive and reminds one of the chariot track from the film Ben-Hur. Cars from different eras had been brought here by their private owners to traverse the brickyard and provide a quick history lesson. Drivers like A.J. Foyt, Danny Sullivan, and Bobby Rahal have become legends, but the cars they drove have become just as identifiable and famous. Seeing the Lotus 38 going around the track at speed is a memory I will never forget.

Be prepared to wait in line for specific events. Organizers had set up two “Legends Autograph Sessions” with former winners and participants of the 500, the line was four hours!  However,  standing for that period of time allowed us to get to know our fellow fans and talk Indy history.  We were all in it together and at one point people both in front and behind us, including a very nice couple from Toronto, allowed both Jason and I to leave the line at the same time. Jason went for the commemorative event pin  that was being given away nearby.  A nice woman pointed out Bobby Rahal walking near our line,  she gave me a marker and said go. I got his autograph and Sarah Fisher’s, returning to the line in the same place I left and our new friends excited they had helped make our trip memorable.

I would suggest going to a smaller venue if you want access to the current driver line up in the Verizon Indycar Series. Race weekend keep the drivers busy with various events and there are so many people trying to get autographs it is hard to approach them in the garage area. However, heroes of a bygone era wander gasoline alley and most are willing to sign memorabilia and take pictures if you keep your eyes open.
After the autograph session, where Emerson Fittipaldi agreed to stay a half hour later to finish signing autographs, we decided to head to the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is a smaller venue,
meaning it can be covered very quickly and time not wasted indoors. For ten bucks you can see a special collections of cars from Indy’s past. After watching so many vintage racecars on track in the morning it was a different experience to look at these sitting still. The cars are as iconic as those who drove them. The “roadster” that first recorded laps over 150 mph and driven by Parnelli Jones sits near A.J. Foyt’s 1977 Indy 500 winner. In another room Jim Clark’s 1964 pole winning Lotus 34 sits with dignity in a corner. The red steering wheel identifies the driver as much as the livery.

Speaking of liveries, It's hard to miss how the more modern the cars in the exhibit the less memorable they become.   Standardized chassis and the current fight between just two engine manufacturers  pales in comparison to the lore of Indy past.   Engines on display are marked Ford, Buick, Alfa Romeo, Porsche just to name a few.  The Indy 500, like other great races, saw manufacturers bringing unique designs  in order to gain some advantage over the competition. The car itself, the livery, the engine, you can tell it's a Lotus 38; however, I can’t seem to even remember the paint scheme Juan Pablo Montoya won in last year.
The past is the past and Indycar, like other series has to adapt to the times, but it would be nice to see an independent team be allowed to show up to Indy with something unique.

Day of the race we woke early and made sure we had everything we would need for the show. My best advice for anyone going to the Indy 500 is to take plenty of sunscreen and drink a lot of water. Our seats, located on the infield down from tower terrace, were in full sun all day.

We found our seats and were greeted by the people around us, some of which were attending Indy for the first time as well. The pre-show consisted of tributes to the armed forces and montages of races past. All of this culminated in Darius Rucker singing the national anthem and an awesome flyover before the most famous line in motorsport, "gentlemen start your engines" sent the field off on the formation laps.

I have been watching the Indy 500 live on television for ten years. Every time the cars line up three wide before the green flag I get a lump in my throat and seeing them come off of turn four my heart was pounding. This is why we came here. This is why we drove through 5 states and endured the heat. This is why those around us came. This is the Indianapolis 500!
They came onto the straightaway and just as they reached our section they throttled up and the roar of 33 engines overcame us. The stands erupted in a cheer.

Anyone concerned about being bored or not knowing what is going on during the race while sitting in an isolated section of a 2.5 mile track can rest easy. The speakers around the track are loud enough and the commentary enjoyable. We were sitting directly across from a large screen attached to the balcony of the outside stands and we could watch action at other parts of the track being broadcast to ABC. We had brought radios and headsets to listen to driver communications. We did this for about 50 laps, but there was so much to take in that we decided to turn them off.

I will not provide a breakdown of the race I am not a racecar driver and there are plenty of places to get armchair commentary. I will only say that Alexander Rossi is the perfect driver to win the 500 this year. The headlines leading up to the race focused around Hinchcliffe’s pole after his accident of last year, on if Castroneves might win his 4th 500  and poor old Andretti luck.

This year an American driving for Andretti Autosport won the race. An American who has allowed us to see our flag on the side of an F1 car in recent years, even though it was with two back marker teams. He provided us with drama as he slowed on the last lap and relief when he crossed the bricks in first. A rookie that was able to do what another American, unfortunately, could not during the 100th anniversary of the first 500 in 2011 when Hildebrand hit the wall on the last corner of the last lap.

We left Indy happy, hungover, and a bit hoarse from chanting U-S-A U-S-A . . .

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