Indy 500 Experience
This past weekend a few others and myself went to the Indy 500 race for the first time in our lives. We decided sort of on a whim about a month ago that we should make the road trip from North Carolina to Indianapolis to enjoy the big race. Being from North Carolina, we all keep up with racing and go to occasional races, including NASCAR, but we have never seen an Indy Car race. A few in our group keep up with Indy Car racing and know a lot more than I do about it, but I was along for the ride to take in a new experience.
I knew going into it that it was going to be like something I’ve never experienced before and probably never experience again. The Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world, and also the single, largest one-day sporting event in the world. The race draws around 300,000 spectators every year. So, I knew it was going to be pretty crazy as far as the number of people, but I couldn’t even imagine what 300,000 would be like. When we got there, it didn’t take long at all to realize I was in the presence of A LOT of people.
Before we had even gotten to the track, it was a madhouse. Finding a place to park was an event in itself. We knew going into it that it would be that way, but we ended up parking just under two miles away from the track, payed $15, and started our trek to the speedway. We walked alongside a four-lane highway and through a cool little neighborhood area filled with small, well-kept houses before we finally reached the track. Thankfully it was cloudy and in the mid-70s at that point so we weren’t tired from walking. But we had reached the historic race track, and it was humongous!
When I say the track was humongous, that’s an understatement. But more on that later. We walked up to some vendors selling Indy 500 merchandise and purchased a few shirts before showing our tickets and being granted access in. From there we really didn’t know where to go. We had about 2.5 hours before we wanted to be in our seats for all the pre-race excitement. The place was so big we didn’t really know where to start, so we just started walking. We ended up walking down onto the racetrack, which was pretty cool, and into the infield area. There were plenty of things to see in there.
We walked past the garage area and saw some cool things, including Mario Andretti’s 1969 Indy 500-winning car and some of the original cars they raced with in the early 1900s. We walked past camera crews that were hyping up the crowd for a quick television segment. There were a lot of whistles blowing stopping the crowds from walking at certain times to let important people, possibly some drivers, through on golf carts. It was an absolute madhouse. Just walking was challenging because you were always almost bumping into someone no matter which direction you decided to go. It was easy to feel that 300,000 people were surrounding you.
We continued walking and came across Corvette pace cars, old and new, that have been used in past 500s. We stood in line to fill out a quick form for a free t-shirt, and even that took close to 20 minutes. There were stages set up with live music and also people playing bag pipes marching through the crowds. Just past us was a huge area with a lot of things set up for people to do, see, eat, drink… and it was called the Snake Pit. We decided not to go in there because it looked even more crowded than where we were currently at. It was at that point I looked across the Snake Pit and I caught a glimpse of the grandstands on the other side of the track. It was WAY off in a distance and that’s when I realized just how big the track really is. We were standing in the middle of it and the other side looked as if it would take 45 minutes to walk to.
Tired of walking in the endless amount of people, we decided to go to our seats, anxious to see all the festivities that would soon begin. Our seats were right on the front straightaway, about 100 feet beside the finish line, and on row H, which meant we were just 8 rows up from the track. We were thrilled to have such good seats close to the action. Sitting in our seats waiting on the race to start was no problem at all because there was so much going on and we had excellent seats for it. The Purdue marching band played numerous songs, which made me think I was at a college football game, but it really added to the atmosphere. Oh, the atmosphere…that was the best part of the whole experience for me.
Aside from Purdue’s marching band, we saw the bagpipe players march back through, military members marching and being honored with a speech, music, and singing, Lee Greenwood sing his hit “God Bless the USA”, “America the Beautiful” performed, “God Bless America” performed, Kelly Clarkson sing the National Anthem, Jim Cornelison perform “Back Home in Indiana,” the green flag delivered to movie stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale, military helicopters fly over, and a flyover from two fighter jets with one shooting straight up into the air until he almost disappeared. We seen the Andretti family, including Mario, take a lap around the track, the Indy Cars being brought out, and pre-race videos on the big screen on the other side of the front straightaway. I’m sure there were some other things that I forgot to mention, but there was so much going on right before the race.
So, even before the race began, you could actually feel the atmosphere. You knew you were in a really special and historic place from the vibe of just being present. It was like a big parade before the race and you knew all those things were keeping a tradition that has been going on for a VERY long time. When I looked around me, the grandstands had an old-timey look to them. Everyone sits on bleachers, which almost makes you feel like you’re watching a sporting event from a different time period. Every part of Indianapolis Motor Speedway looked and felt special. The only thing that I can compare it to that I’ve experienced was Wrigley Field. It’s just one of those places where you can feel you’re in a very special place.
After all the awesome festivities, it was time for some racing. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was introduced as the pace car driver, followed by a row by row introduction of all the drivers. They went around the track a few times until the green flag finally signaled the greatest race in the world had begun. The first thing that I noticed was something I was already fully aware of…those cars are fast! Like the 300,000 attendance figures, the quickness of the cars was something I knew to expect, but just couldn’t even imagine the reality of beforehand. Since we were on the straightaway, the cars were full throttle going past us and the only thing we could pretty much see was a quick flash. In about the time you can blink, the cars were gone. It was amazing looking up and seeing the same cars that just went past us already in turn 1, which was pretty far away, and fly around those turns at a speed that almost didn’t seem real.
Also being right in front of the straightaway allowed us to be right in front of the pit area. When cars came in for a pit stop, about every 35 miles I noticed, I always made sure to pay attention. It was unreal how fast the pit crews changed the tires on the car and got it moving again. Things like that are very important in a race, so I imagine I was witnessing the best of the best. There was some chaos on pit road, however. Helio Castroneves and James Davison made contact in the pits, which caused Davison to spin around. Will Power locked the brakes down and slid out of position in the pits, and also made slight contact with a pit crew member. And Jordan King hit a tire in pit road, which sent the tire flying into a pit crew member who needed to be carried off. It was a pretty entertaining day just in the pits.
The racing went pretty smooth, with just one real wreck. That was between drivers Graham Rahal and Sebastian Bourdais. Bourdais squeezed Rahal a little bit and they made contact, which got both of them loose and spinning. Getting out of the car, Rahal was visibly upset with Bourdais, running over to his car and giving him an earful. It was pretty entertaining to the crowd. Though we couldn’t see that, because the track is so big and we only saw a small part in front of us, we were able to watch it on the big screen in front of us.
Frenchman Simon Pagenaud pretty much dominated the race. Out of the 200 laps, Pagenaud led 116 of them. It definitely felt like he deserved to win the race, but it got very interesting the last 5-10 laps. Alexander Rossi had made an impressive charge towards the end of the race, picking off cars one at a time. The final laps were a shootout between him and Pagenaud, with each car passing the other one multiple times. But in the end it was Pagenaud who held off Rossi for his first career Indy 500 victory.
The victory celebration was very cool with Pagenaud collecting his trophy and drinking (pouring it all over himself) milk, keeping with the old tradition. He took a victory lap around the track, greeting fans while sitting on the back of the car and getting interviewed. It turns out that Pagenaud is hilarious and his interview kept everyone laughing. It was almost like a comedy show. But he seemed like a really cool driver to pull for. When the victory lap concluded at the finish line, it was time for the ceremonial kissing of the bricks, also keeping with the old Indy 500 tradition. So Pagenaud and his team all kneeled down and kissed the bricks, maybe about 150 feet in front of our seats. Being able to take in a tradition like that, from that close, was awesome.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience. I would recommend that anyone go to an Indy 500 at least once in their lifetime, even if they aren’t a fan of racing. Like I mentioned earlier, the atmosphere of the whole event was awesome, and that’s something that anyone can easily enjoy. I don’t know much at all about Indy racing, but I really enjoyed myself and the great tradition that is the Indy 500. There were only two real drawbacks for me. The first being that the track is so big, you could only see what was in front of you, and a small part of turns 1 and 4 if you stood up. After the cars flew past us, we basically had to wait until they came back around the track to see them again. But we did have the big screen to watch, so it really wasn’t that bad. The second drawback was just the massive amount of people all in one place. The crowds inside the track and outside the track were a little overbearing at times and created a nightmare for people trying to leave the track who were parked closer to it than we were. But then again, you want a large crowd for an event like that to really help the atmosphere be as great as it can be. I guarantee if you decide to be part of the 300,000 people next year, you won’t be disappointed!