When walking around Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indianapolis 500, it’s not difficult to strike up a conversation with fellow race enthusiasts and the conversation almost always begins with the two parties asking each other how many races they’ve seen in their lifetime. Tradition is part of what the event is built upon, as hundreds of thousands of Indiana natives and people from all across the world flock to racing’s most well-known track to appreciate “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Before the race, which is a Memorial Day Weekend staple, there are several longstanding activities that pay tribute to both the United States and those in the armed forces, while afterward a slew of celebrations honor the victorious driver – a now immortal member of racing history. Spectators remain glued to their seats for these traditions each and every year, but it’s the memories around those moments that truly last a lifetime. Years upon years, decades upon decades, many Indy 500 spectators flock to their same spot by the track, with the same people, to take in a day at the speedway. But there are plenty of rookies, who know little about IndyCar and the 500, making the trek, to cross another thing off their sports bucket list – and this year, for the 102nd Running, one of those people was my Dad.
Born, raised and currently living in the greater Philadelphia area, professional sports have always been a part of my old man’s life, though auto racing was never part of the equation and he’s not alone as, geographically speaking, the northeastern part of the United States has never had the same fascination with racing as the rest of the country – besides small pockets like Delaware and upstate New York. So, when I was approved for credentials for my third Indy 500, I thought it would be a unique experience to take him with me and see if he fell in love with the event the way I had several years prior. A quick look on IMS’ website and he purchased a general admission ticket, so he could bounce around to different viewing locations, offering various perspectives, while mingling with salt of the earth race fans. Not fully knowing what to expect as I built it up to him, he prepared for an event unlike any he’d witnessed.
It wasn’t our first road trip together and, undoubtedly, won’t be our last. I’m sure there were plenty of people who flew in and out of Indianapolis over the course of the race weekend but a nine hour drive seemed way more fun – a chance to catch up on life, sports debates and even some politics. After introducing him to the city of Indianapolis – which he hadn’t really seen since before I was born – on Saturday, we prepared for engine-roaring, sun-blazing, crowd-cheering bedlam that lay ahead.
Parking at IMS, as I found out for the 100th Running, can be painstakingly difficult, especially since the parking lots all sell out months before the race. I warned my Dad of that, since the speedway is plopped right on the outskirts of a neighborhood and a small industrial park, but we managed to luck into some great parking spot right off of Main Street and only had to walk about a mile to the front gate. As we entered, I still wasn’t entirely sure if my Dad knew what to expect, given the concourse area and the steel and concrete wall that, on the other side, held quite a large amount of butts to see the finish line. I wasted no time in taking him into the tunnel, underneath the track, and out to the pagoda area – the guts of IMS. There, we hit up the merchandise garage, people-watched by the trees and more, but noon was quickly approaching, so we made our way to the infield of Turn 4 to take in the opening festivities. Watching most of it from the big screen, we quickly turned our attention to the track as the vehicles began their warm-up laps – gliding past at no more than 100 mph with IndyCar legend Mario Andretti leading the way. Dad didn’t want to see it on the screen, despite our vantage point of only seeing one of the two and a half mile track’s turns but I was with him, so we shimmed our way into the crowd and close to the wall, though we were still a fair distance from the track. The green flag was waved shortly after and suddenly, like a deer in headlights, my old man darts to the wall with his camera in hand. After about seven laps he walks back to me, standing a few feet behind him, with a glazed look on his face.
“Those suckers move fast, I don’t think I got one good picture – they’re all a blur,” he told me, laughing. “They’re already seven laps in – man that was quick, those things are hauling.”
After spending a healthy portion of the race there, he wanted to move to a new location. It was the second hottest race ever, according to IndyStar, topping out at 91 degrees, so getting anywhere or sitting out in the sun for the entire race was certainly a challenge. We cooled down in the concourse over the course of several yellow caution flags and then made our way to the Turn 1 infield. At this point, I could see my Dad was fully into the race, firing off questions about strategies and the various drivers. Turn 1 blew him away – and forced him to break out the earplugs. With a much closer view, the IndyCars roared past, some coming from the pits, providing sensory overload videos can’t offer.
“I can’t believe how loud they are.” he added. “Even out of the pits, my photos are blurry.”
There are now only about 40 laps remaining and strategy is coming into play and Dad and I are going back and forth on what might happen, all while spotting who is currently among the leaders. As he’s learning more about IndyCar, I can tell that he’s fully invested and it’s not just a bunch of left hand turns.
And then it happens. Will Power’s No. 12 Verizon-sponsored IndyCar pulls ahead and holds on to win and, as we watch him and his wife go bananas, Dad is reviewing what just happened while he watches Power drink the milk, take a victory lap and eventually kiss the bricks with his entire crew. We walk back over to the pagoda for a couple of photos together to remember the occasion and decide to head out. Dad is already brainstorming how we could better experience IMS the next time we come back, with more food, a tent or maybe just a seat near the finish line to see the festivities and pit stops. Tired from the heat and the walking, we make our way out, though we think it’s the wrong way. Little did we know, one area opens on the track after the race, for an easy exit, but it also offers an awesome view from the end of the pit area, which thrilled Dad to get to make his way onto the track – and me, because I wanted him to experience it as I have.
The crowd poured out and it spit us out on Main Street, where we found a pair of chairs and did some serious people-watching, as diehard race fans, Snake Pit concertgoers and drunkards passed. We discussed the race, his take of IMS and all of the festivities included throughout the day. Just like what happened to me almost four years before, I could see my Dad appreciating the sport and becoming a mild fan of IndyCar – but more specifically the Indy 500. The memories we made will be with us forever and we’re just one of hundreds of thousands that experienced the exact same thing that day. We could’ve potentially fueled a new tradition, which is just what May in Indianapolis can do to people.