Rarely do sporting events ever live up to their hype. Then again, rarely do sporting events celebrate a 100th anniversary.
On Sunday, as race fans celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, they were greeted by beautiful Indiana weather, tremendous racing throughout the day, and a finish that will live among the epic moments in sporting history. The unthinkable last lap, which saw JR Hildebrand’s quest to become only the ninth rookie ever to win the great race come up less than a half mile short, capped an incredible day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The day started on a sour note for many fans as a great number of people suffered through waits of 1.5 to 2 hours trying to get into the Speedway. Making matters worse was the temporary closing of Georgetown Road between 25th and 30th Streets at about the time the aerial bomb was released to signal the opening of the track at 6:00 AM. After police had concluded their investigations into a pair of incidents there in the overnight hours, the major arterial roadway northwest of the track was reopened, but the damage was already done — traffic had been snarled and would take hours to recover. Complicating matters even further was the construction of a new interchange at I-465 and Crawfordsville Road, the main exit leading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Unfortunately, the project is scheduled to take upwards of three year to complete, so there was simply no way to avoid closing part of the interchange for race weekend.
Once people finally arrived inside the track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was more filled than I have seen it in many years. Though officials said it was the best attendance in four years, I have a hard time believing it was this full even that recently. From my position in the Tower Terrace, the only available seats I could see were in the bottom three or four rows of the Tower Terrace and C-stand across the straightaway. From the little bit I have seen thus far seen on TV, there were still some empty seats in the Northeast Vista backstretch stands (which are, in my opinion, by far the worst seats in the entire facility to the point that I would forgo them if I was able to sit in the general admission lawn seating). There were also scattered seats available in the North and South Vistas. I didn’t see the massive blocks of a bare aluminum that have been visible over the past several years in any of the sections. Furthermore, the infield general admission viewing mounds looked to be completely filled from the entrance to turn two through the exit of turn three, likely adding another 30,000-40,000 spectators to the crowd. Based on Curt Cavin’s estimates of nearly available 258,000 seats, I would put my highly unofficial estimate of attendance at right around 300,000. That’s pretty darn good.
Likely helping boost the attendance figures, especially the general admission numbers, was the absolutely beautiful weather that greeted the fans on race day. After a month of downright miserable conditions, the weather gods finally dealt race fans a royal flush with sunny skies, temperatures in the mid- to upper-80’s, and a refreshing southerly breeze than kept conditions comfortable. After sitting through the blazing infernos of 2006 and 2010, the heat on this particular race day never seemed oppressive. Though it was certainly warm and the sun was quite strong, I don’t recall ever thinking that I was miserable or desperate to find some shade for a while. If every Indianapolis 500 is run under conditions like this until I am no longer capable of attending, no one will ever hear another complaint about race-day weather from me.
I am the first person to admit that, thanks to the amazing support of our readers, Steph and I are able to do some pretty cool things. The greatest of those privileges is being able to walk through the garages, the pits, and the starting grid on race morning at the Indianapolis 500. I know it is cliché to talk about “the buzz” that is palpable on race morning, but truly, there is no other way to describe what happens before the cameras turn on and the green flag flies.
Before the cars were released to pit lane, it seemed that most crew members in Gasoline Alley were trying to occupy themselves in a desperate attempt to make time go faster and keep from dwelling on the task before them. While some team members polished their race cars for the umpteenth time, others were busy already dismantling their temporary homes built inside the garages or were transfixed on televisions to monitor the action from the Grand Prix of Monaco. There wasn’t the same sense of nervous hurriedness as on Fast Friday or during qualifications. Instead, it was more of a “calm before the storm,” a sense that all that can be done has been done by this point and teams can do nothing but race with what they have on hand.
A couple of hours later, only minutes before the Purdue University Band played “On the Banks of the Wabash” and the pit crews were instructed to grid their cars in position on the frontstraight, I returned to Gasoline Alley. The “calm before the storm” had been replaced by an eerie silence that truly indicated all work was complete inside these fences. There was no sound of engines warming up, no sound of air wrenches blasting on cars, no sound of conversation. Even the dull buzz of fans in the grandstands was almost inaudible. The garages were all shut down, though a few of the doors to various offices were open. Behind those doors sat the drivers, their engineers, their strategists, and a handful of other well-wishers, but to the casual observer, this glorious race morning was almost indiscernible from any other random day throughout the year. Where only a few hours earlier hundreds of people roamed between each banks of garages, now I could look down entire rows and not see a single soul. I felt like a trespasser in an area that inhospitable. For whatever reason, one scene kept running through my head as I felt so alone there in that place: I was constantly reminded of the scene from The Lion King shortly after Mufasa is killed during a thundering stampede of wildebeests where the young Simba stands alone as the dust settles back to the ground around him. The action in that place was over. The herd had moved on. This place was now silent.
Next, I took the walk that every racing driver dreams about and had the experience that none will ever forget. Alone, I made the walk from Gasoline Alley to pit road, absorbing the spectacle around me with each step. The eerie silence of the garage was finally broken as I walked under the pedestrian walkway that connects the two sections of the Pit Road Terrance on either side of the Gasoline Alley entrance. There are simply no words to describe the sensation of emerging from that tunnel and seeing the colorful mass of humanity as far as the eye can see to both directions. Having seen the grandstands largely empty for the entire month, everything seemed significantly smaller and more intimate at this moment. Turn 4, which all month looked like it was in another county, suddenly seemed very close. No longer were individual conversations discernible, but instead the sound was merely a buzz of static noise.
On pit lane, crews, officials, sponsors, celebrities, and other VIPs crammed the tight confines and made quick movement nearly impossible. Once the command was given to grid the cars, whistles of the yellow shirts blared almost constantly and humanity parted so the racers could finally be put into position. With the cars, the crowd migrated from pit lane to the frontstraight. Once in position on the track, nearly every car became a backdrop for photographs as fans knelt beside the racers to capture the moment. Almost every car had a crew member positioned as each wheel to ensure that fans didn’t get too close for their comfort. As I leaned over one car to take a picture of the high-tech steering wheel, the crew member stationed on the left front wheel asked me to be careful and ensure my belt not touch the car. The crowds were greater around the cars at the front of the field, but row nine, with the cars of Danica Patrick, Ryan Briscoe, and Marco Andretti, was the anomaly. The increased attention given to Danica, a Penske car, and a person named Andretti made simply getting past row nine a difficult chore. Beyond there, the crews in rows 10 and 11 seemed to be taking in the spectacle, appearing at ease if not relieved that they could continue their work without the distraction of the circus ahead of them.
By the time I’d completed my grid walk, it was nearly time for the official pre-race ceremonies to commence. There is simply no greater half-hour in all of sports than that leading to the start of the Indianapolis 500. This year’s edition was one of the best. Of course, like pretty much every year since she began in 1991, Florence Henderson’s rendition of God Bless America was the low point of the ceremonies and continued to be received by many in the crowd as more of a joke than the actual start of festivities. Thankfully, once the joke was over, the National Anthem performed by Kelly Clarkson, Seal, and David Foster was absolutely stellar, topped off with a flyover by the pride of the United States Air Force, the B-2 Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Indiana.”
Sadly, the nagging public address system problems that plagued the Speedway during the public drivers’ meeting on Saturday reared its ugly head again a few times and nearly deprived the crowd of both the most solemn moment and the most jubilant moment of the ceremonies. For a facility that has literally had months to prepare for this one moment, a system that doesn’t function properly for half of Taps and the first couple lines of Back Home Again in Indiana is completely unacceptable. Still, when the microphones did kick on, the playing of Taps was the most stirring moment of all the pre-race ceremonies. Once the bugler’s first note was projected, the hundreds of thousands of race fans fell completely and deathly silent. There was literally not a word spoken from the crowd, and the only sound to be heard was the whirling rotors from a helicopter circling above. Upon its conclusion, a respectful applause came forth while the crowd remained reverently silent until PA announcer Dave Calaboro introduced Jim Nabors for the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana.
From the most solemn moment during Taps to the most joyous during Back Home Again in Indiana, the emotion and excitement continued to build until Mari Hulman George was introduced to give the command to start the engines. I am always struck by how quiet the crowd is during the command itself. It’s not completely silent as it is during Taps, but while Mari is actually giving the command there is little to be heard. And suddenly, like the very moment a battlefield commander gives the order to fire, the crowd erupts into shouting and cheering, and for a moment drowns out the sound of the 33 engines roaring to life.
For a couple of minutes, the engines idled calmly in their positions and the drivers anxiously waited to pull away. Finally, the first of the ceremonial pace cars started to roll, followed by the IZOD two-seater IndyCar, the official pace car driven by AJ Foyt, and finally the front row. Row by row, the cars were pushed off, the engine pitch heightened, the tires squealed, and the crews scattered. Thirty-three drivers were now all alone in their offices, ready to achieve a dream. It was time to go racing.
Read Part II of Paul’s race day thoughts and observations here.