The Indianapolis 500 has always been on my bucket list as a thing I’d like to do someday, but like most items on my list, I knew next to nothing about it. I figured, given its name and my uncanny deduction abilities, it was probably in Indianapolis. I had no idea that the “500” referred to the number of miles that the racers must drive to win the race. As luck would have it, I attended the 102nd annual race this year and it was nothing short of spectacular. You’ve got to see it to believe it….and hear it.
The race is held the Sunday before Memorial Day traditionally and is the largest one day event in the world. It is considered a third of the Triple Crown which includes the Monte Carlo and Le Mans races. Although it started with humble beginnings over 100 years ago, it has evolved into an event with around 350,000 fans attending in person as well as the millions who watch it on TV.
The race itself is the main spectacle, but there’s lots of other events preceding it and going on during it, so there’s not much chance to be bored if you’re worried that you’re just going to be watching cars drive in circles. There are concerts, celebrities,marching bands,auto displays and traditional rites that go back almost a century. As luck would have it, I was able to get a press pit pass which allowed me to places that would normally not be so easy to get to. Wherever you are at the 500, you’re guaranteed a grand old time, but having the magic tag around my neck got me up close and personal with the movers and shakers of the race. Plus, I got a selfie with Thor.
Every race has it’s famous celebrities on the red carpet and this year Chris Hemsworth was attending with Diplo, Deadmau5, Kelly Clarkson, Miss America, and some other notables. After watching Chris for a few moments, I realized that it’s not easy being Thor. Hundreds of women were trying to get a selfie with the superhero even though he was dressed down in a white button down shirt. Thus is the price of being a mega-star. He must have left his hammer in Asgard because the officials gave him the task waving the green flag with Deadmau5 in tow. Of course before all that went down, there was lots of other things going on.
After watching the red carpet stars arrive, I headed to Gasoline Alley, where one can view the race cars up close as the mechanics rev them and check them one last time before the race. Some of the drivers were hanging around to take pictures with fans . During the festivities, the “Snakepit” concert venue on the opposite side of the track has one music act on stage after another. It’s reputation has calmed a little from it’s former torrid past, but you probably still want to think twice before you bring your kids into the arena. Diplo, Deadmau5, and Gris were the headliners, but there was live music playing the day before the race even started.
Around noon, everything started to happen almost at once. The cars were brought onto the track, the drivers introduced, Jim Cornelison sang “Back Home Again in Indiana”, planes dropped confetti from above and the audience began to cheer as they got ready for the race to start. Kelly Clarkson sang the national anthem, Jon McLaughlin sang “God Bless America” and at 12:19 (always at 12:19) the race began.
There was something magical about the cheering of the crowd mixed with the deafening sound of race cars revving up and starting their 200 lap journey around the 2 1/2 mile oval course. There were quite a few accidents that day that slowed the race , but as soon as each wrecked race car was removed from the track, everything went back into full swing.
The race track has come a long way since it was originally created from bricks in 1909, hence the nickname “brickyard” that is still used today. The modern version has one 3 foot strip of the original brick surface remaining as a tribute to the original. Race devotees have a tradition of bending down and kissing the bricks for good luck before the event begins. It’s sort of like an Indiana Blarney stone.
The race is exciting enough, but it’s fun to walk around and see the cars speed by from different vantage points, people watch and have a local bratwurst, the official junk food of the race. I got to cool down in the press building with Fox, ABC and all the other world media outlets broadcasting the show to almost 300 million homes around the world. It doesn’t get much better than that. It was cool to watch the reporters air their live broadcasts in person while watching them overhead on the TV monitor. I had never watched the race before, so I knew very little about the drivers. However, one name stood out of all the hopefuls on the list because it seemed like the perfect name for a winner: Will Power. You can’t make up a name that good.
As suddenly as the race began, it ended a few hours later. In spite of my lack of driver stats, I had accidentally picked the winner. Will Power from Australia passed the finish line first and the crowd went wild. The stands cheered, the media hurried out of the building to film the driver getting out of his car. I chased after their heels so i could capture the golden moment on my phone. As Will got out of his car, he had a wreath put around his neck, a Firestone cap stuck on his head and the 150 lb. Borg-Warner trophy placed clearly in sight. The giant prize weighed more than his wife. His excitement was contagious. As he was handed a bottle of milk, I knew what would happen next: He took a drink and poured the rest over his head. Does it make any sense? Not really, but when there’s a tradition that goes back since 1936, you don’t really need to.
Then it was over. The biggest and most exciting race in the world was finished and the biggest traffic jam in the world was just starting. I remembered a little too late that sometimes it’s best to just have a seat, grab a cold drink (did I mention the race has a BYOB policy?) and wait. Watching traffic in Indiana is actually “a thing”. There were literally hundreds of people sitting in lawn chairs watching the cars sit motionless in front of their homes. They seemed to enjoy it as much as the race.
The least expensive and most interesting option is to fly to Chicago and drive a couple hours south to Indianapolis. Uber to the stadium or book a hotel with a shuttle that bypasses the police roadblocks. If you’re lucky, you might even get to meet Thor.