Indianapolis: Steph’s Race Day thoughts

Uncategorized — By on June 1, 2011 11:05 am
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Paul has evidently decided that he has so much to say about this past Sunday that he needs more than one post to contain it all (http://morefrontwing.com/2011/05/31/indianapolis-pauls-race-day-thoughts-part-i/). I don’t have quite as much to add to the discussion, I’m afraid — I hope no one minds if I can pull it off in one!

In his pre-race review post, Paul mentioned that he and I are afforded some privileges due to the fantastic support that we receive from our readers. While that is definitely true and we’re extremely grateful for it, having had my daughter with me this weekend means that my perspective is much more in line with that of a casual fan. I didn’t walk the grid, nor did I go into the garages. I walked with the baby around Pagoda Plaza for about a half hour — just long enough to catch a glimpse of the Gordon Pipers — and then proceeded to our seat where we stayed (more or less) until about an hour post-race.

This was in stark contrast to last year, which saw me spend my first live 500 entirely in the media center. I was three months pregnant at the time, and the scorching heat of Race Day had me concerned about being outdoors for too long and harming the baby. Watching the race in air-conditioned comfort behind panes of glass with the ABC broadcast in the background left me feeling very disconnected from the proceedings around me. In fact, I recall standing next to someone just before the start who showed me his arm and said, “I’ve always told myself that if I ever stop getting goosebumps at this moment, that’s when it’s time to stop coming.” I didn’t have goosebumps at all, and I felt like something was wrong with me. I felt none of the emotion and excitement that my friends told me I would feel. (Never mind how twisted it is that I’m complaining about watching my first live 500 from the media center of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway!)

This year, though, I was right in the thick of it, and I was so glad to find myself completely overcome by the tradition, the ceremony, and the emotion.

But first thing’s first: no recap of Race Day is complete unless it starts with a discussion of the traffic. As many people have reported, it was terrible. Construction, road closures due to police investigations, and what later became clear as being an increased attendance for this year all conspired to make the trip into the Speedway miserable on Sunday morning. Getting from 38th and High School to 30th and Georgetown took over 90 minutes. It turns out that taking some side streets would have mitigated this somewhat, but this is one area where I’m definitely still making rookie mistakes. (Speaking of police investigations: if I wasn’t sure before that I’m not the camping-on-Georgetown type, that news sure hammered the point home. A stabbing? Really?! Although from what I’ve heard about the Night Before the 500, perhaps the more surprising statistic is that it doesn’t happen more often. This Canadian doesn’t handle crime involving bodily harm very well. I’ll keep my cozy north side hotel room with the lock on the door, thanks.)

It was about 9 AM by the time we got into the Speedway and settled. After taking the aforementioned walk around the Pagoda Plaza, we used the pedestrian tunnel to cross over to the outside of the track and find our seat in the Paddock. For my purposes this year, the ticket I had purchased was perfect: it had a great view of the opening ceremonies, the pylon, the flag stand, and the start-finish line; it had a big screen immediately across the way so that I could keep tabs on the entire track; there was a ladies’ washroom and a drinking fountain for refilling water bottles immediately downstairs; and it was covered to keep myself and baby out of the blazing sun. My only quibble was that there was a view of turn 1 from my vantage point but I’m not quite tall enough that I could see over the crowd when everyone was standing. In the future when I’m not so concerned about having convenient access to the other facilities, I think I’d prefer to sit closer to turn 1 or turn 4 to get a sideways view of pit lane but a head-on view of a turn as opposed to the other way around as it was this weekend.

Between the shade and the breeze, I found the weather to be extremely comfortable all day. I’m not sure that the people sitting in uncovered seats would say the same, but other than ensuring that I was staying hydrated, I didn’t feel it was a hardship in the least to be outside all afternoon.

One of the concerns I had going in was that I was going to end up sitting with a bunch of drunken rowdies who would force me to pay more attention to them than to the race, but that was not the case at all. The people sitting on either side of me were extremely nice and friendly, and we chatted plenty before the race and even tried to chat a bit during it as well. The crowd around me was loud and enthusiastic, but no one was boorish or obnoxious. Frankly, I was relieved — I’ve had too many live sporting events ruined through having people seated nearby imbibe too much, and it was great to be able to relax and enjoy the race.

By the time the crowd had filled in from my view, the only place on the track I could see where seating wasn’t packed in was the Pit Road Terrace — but were I shopping for a Race Day ticket, those seats certainly wouldn’t be my choice. Everything from turn 4 through the Paddock and Tower Terrace and right around turn 1 appeared to me to be packed to the rafters, which was very encouraging.

The opening ceremonies were awe-inspiring from start to finish, and being in the middle of it for the first time stirred me very deeply. There were a couple of moments that stuck out in my mind. First, I’ll never in my life forget seeing the Marmon Wasp being driven around the Brickyard with my own eyes, and by the great Parnelli Jones, no less. (There was a lap turned at some other point in the day by even more classic cars, but I somehow missed it.) Second, the national anthem and the flyover by the Stealth Bomber gave me goosebumps, and it’s not even my anthem! The crowd around us didn’t even try to sing along — everyone just listened in silent awe. The woman sitting to our right had a son in the Air Force, and by the end of it she was wiping away tears. I felt completely swept up in a moment of patriotism for a country that isn’t my own — if that’s not a demonstration of a job well done, I don’t know what is. And third, being in the stands to hear Jim Nabors sing Back Home Again in Indiana — and singing along with it for my daughter at her first 500 — brought tears to my eyes and choked me up so hard that I only made it as far as the Sycamores. Having not grown up in the Midwest or in a racing family, I had never been exposed to any of this first-hand before, and I finally felt in that moment that I fully understood the importance of the tradition of Indianapolis, which is something I’ve been searching for during my entire time as a race fan. By the time the engines were being fired, I felt that the centennial running of the race had been well-served indeed.

That being said, it’s a real shame that the directive made by Al Unser, Jr. at the drivers’ meeting on Saturday for the field to keep a three-abreast formation for the duration of the parade laps and pace lap went completely out the window. They didn’t do too badly for the parade laps, but things fell apart on the pace lap, and by the time the green flag fell they were once again far from being in eleven rows of three. In fact, I was watching the starter’s stand on the start and just about every restart, and I was completely shocked at how much time there was between when the green flag fell and the field finally reached the start-finish line. Brian Barnhart told MFW a couple of months ago that he has no intention of waving off any restarts (http://morefrontwing.com/2011/04/27/barnhart-speaks-out/), and the way that things operated at start-finish made that abundantly clear. The drivers evidently thought it was clear as well, given that there were many times when the leader was car lengths ahead of the rest of the field before reaching the line.

Speaking of restarts, I felt that the double-file restarts went fairly well. I haven’t had a chance to watch the television broadcast yet, so I may be missing a few details (and I hear it was terrible, so I may still be missing details when I’m done). But from what I saw, the only incident that clearly was caused by restarting two-wide was the overly ambitious move by EJ Viso. Otherwise, the drivers appeared to respect each other and give each other the racing room they needed, and I recall seeing the sweepers out, so the marbles must have been cleaned up well enough that they weren’t a factor. It added a great deal of excitement, to be sure, and the people in the stands around me certainly seemed happy!

The one incident all day that I had a perfect view for was when the left rear on Will Power’s car flew off immediately after his first pit stop. I think it took about five minutes before I finally picked my jaw up off the floor. It was amazing that the incident wasn’t worse than it was. But after driving it around tireless for 2.5 miles, the left rear suspension was damaged enough that he was in and out of the pits for most of the day as the team tried to effect repairs. With the championship fight being as tight as it is, that mistake by the Verizon Team Penske crew could wind up being one of the defining moments of Will’s 2011 season.

I’ll admit that being in the stands with no radio meant that I had lost track of who was on what fuel cycle by the end of the race. But it added to the excitement of the last 20 laps in a sense because I was never exactly sure of who had the fuel to make the distance as the names cycled around. I had a moment of panic when I thought, “Oh, no! What does it mean if Danica wins the Indianapolis 500 and then leaves for NASCAR next year?” Then she pitted, and I thought, “Holy cow! Bertrand Baguette might win the Indianapolis 500 for a one-off team! That would be one of the biggest upset stories in all of racing!” But then JR Hildebrand passed Dario Franchitti for second shortly before Baguette pitted and relinquished the lead, and I thought, “Wow! Panther is finally going to win this thing and with a rookie! How great would it be for Captain America to win in the National Guard car on Memorial Day weekend?!” But then, the last turn of the last lap happened. There was a lot of confusion around me, and I don’t think anyone (including me) had the presence of mind to look up at the pylon to see who was in second in the midst of trying to absorb what had just happened. It wasn’t until the track PA announced Dan Wheldon as the winner that the crowd finally erupted.

As much as I was extremely happy for Dan and all of Bryan Herta Autosport and Sam Schmidt Motorsports, my prevailing emotion was absolute devastation for JR and Panther Racing. Only at Indianapolis can a team finish second for three years in a row, part ways with a driver at the end of the previous season, then return to Indianapolis with a rookie and come within a half straightaway of winning it only to end up in the wall and come in second yet again — to the driver they had finished second with for the past two years. But as hard as it all must be for Panther to swallow right now, that kind of gut-wrenching defeat is one of the things that Indianapolis is all about, just as much as it’s about the victories, and this is a finish that the ages will never forget.

Shortly after the race, I hopped on Twitter and expressed the opinion that my initial reaction was that if PT isn’t a winner of the Indianapolis 500 then Dan isn’t a two-time winner. I was just starting to see responses when my phone died and I was unable to defend myself! Several people sent me pictures of Dan being ahead of JR with the green light on, and what I would have said at the time is that those pictures didn’t matter because they didn’t matter in 2002, either. When PT passed Helio and then the yellow light came on, the justification at the time for moving Helio back into the lead was that the scoring was reverted to the end of the previous lap. Therefore, based on the facts that I had immediately after the race, I thought that since JR had crossed the line to finish 200 laps and the yellow had come on before the conclusion of the lap, precedent would have dictated that the scoring would revert to the end of lap 199, which of course would have given JR the win. However, the perfectly reasonable explanation that differentiated this situation was that JR’s car was disabled to the point where he couldn’t have continued, and a car in that state shouldn’t be allowed to win the Indianapolis 500 unless it actually does cross the line first. I was glad to have an explanation that gave the win to Dan for the sole reason that he was the driver who fans felt had won, and very little would have taken the steam out of the centennial celebrations as quickly as having 99% of fans completely confused and having gone through all of the post-race ceremonies only to have them mean absolutely nothing — especially after hearing how emotional Dan was over his win.

I may as well touch on this since I’m certain I’ll be asked: yes, I took a baby with me to IMS on race weekend, and I survived! I got some funny looks, particularly on race day, but the sentiments that were actually expressed to me were people saying that I was brave and that they admired my ability to handle it, which was very nice. (Of course, the people who had negative things to say likely said them after I was out of earshot.) The two or three people who asked me incredulously, “You brought a baby with you to the race?!” were met with a shrug and, “Yeah, and we’re doing fine.” It truly wasn’t a hardship. In fact, someone said to me before I left that a racetrack seemed like an awfully dirty and stinky place to take a baby, but I’ll be perfectly honest: the part that had me the most concerned by far was not the tire rubber or the car exhaust — it was the intense volume of cigarette smoke. Indiana is a very tobacco-friendly state! Anyway, baby and I had a great time and lived to tell the tale. Here are the reasons why I think we pulled it off: a) I carried her around on my chest in a carrier — trying to get a stroller around that place would have been next to impossible; b) I bought hearing protection for her months ahead of time and practiced using it a few weeks before the weekend so that I wasn’t springing it on her at the track and thereby making her miserable; and c) I just happen to have a very happy and easy-going baby who doesn’t mind new and intense experiences as long as she’s with me. This last point can’t be controlled, and I did a lot of soul searching before booking the trip to ensure that she truly could handle it and that I wasn’t being selfish, and it was gratifying to have it play out as I had expected. But certainly, not every baby would be able to roll with it as well as mine did, so that call needs to be made by each individual parent.

We’ve spent all month talking about what Indy means to drivers, car owners, and fans, so I guess it’s only fair that Paul and I each take a moment to share what Indy means to us. I’m a relative newcomer to Indianapolis, and so while I deeply appreciate the importance of the tradition and the incredible moments of history contained within those walls and can say that those are the things that drew me there, I can’t say with honesty that they fully encompass what Indy means to me right now. I’m really just beginning to understand all of that, and I still have a great deal to learn.

Instead, what Indy means to me at this moment is the future. For my first 500 last year, my daughter was there with me — she was only about two inches long at the time, but she was there. And this year, we were able to share her first 500 together on the occasion of the centennial running. I would love more than anything in the world to have my daughter be able to say in adulthood that her first 500 was the centennial and that her mom has taken her to every one since. I would love to share every one of my experiences at the Brickyard with her. And I would love to be able to raise her with an understanding of and reverence for the importance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that I never received myself. This will come with challenges (I’m not looking forward to trying to pay attention to the race while wrangling a toddler!), but I see it as an opportunity to share with her one of the things that is most important to me — a love of racing — and to give her the gift of memories to be cherished that will last her a lifetime.

Paul and I really can’t thank you enough for your support of our coverage of the centennial Month of May. We hope you’ve enjoyed our Centennial Interview Series, A Smaller View (which wraps up later this week), our special Featured Team Member profiles, and our own observations as the month has played out. As always, your support of More Front Wing means a great deal to us, and we hope you’ll continue to visit and share your opinions for the rest of the 2011 season and beyond.

 

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