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The Indy 500

May 20th, 2020

It was 7:30 a.m. on the Sunday before Memorial Day 2019, and I just couldn’t start drinking again quite yet; my companions were undeterred by the hour. The seven of us were sitting on lawn chairs in some friend-of-a-friend’s yard a few blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the makings of screwdrivers were being passed around.

Events had been placed in motion the quiet Tuesday just a few days prior. I’d received a telephone call out of the blue from my fraternity brother Jared. “Do you want to go to the Indy 500 this weekend?” I hadn’t recognized the number, so I was caught unprepared for an invitation into such hedonism. “Why, yes of course!” I said, scrambling to fill in the gaping logistical holes that resulted.

But my credit being good enough, both in a material and interpersonal sense, the path was smoothed, and thus I found myself on a jet inbound to Indianapolis the evening before the race.

On approach for landing, we passed alongside the Speedway. Lit by the golden light of the waning sun, but otherwise idle, the view only hinted at the spectacle that would soon be upon it.

My view of Indianapolis Motor Speedway from my flight

My view of Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we were landing

I deplaned with a small knapsack into the belly of the airport. Everywhere I turned, the theme was racing, and heavy on it. Checkered flags galore; Indy car memorabilia; actual Indy cars; and shells of Indy cars for more acceptable flouting of “no touching” signs. You could have a burger at the 500 Grill or grab a magazine about the race at the Pitstop Market. Bits of racing chatter hit my ears as I made my way through. “Pagenaud was looking fast.” “Did you see Herta made the second row?” “What an embarrassment for Alonso and McLaren.” “They’re saying rain.”

Clearly, Indianapolis had hitched its cart to the Cult of Open Wheels, at least for the month of May.

I burst into the humid midwestern air right about the time Jared rolled up in his BMW convertible, top down. In the car already were two more of my fraternity Brothers, Ryan and Chris. I hadn’t seen them or Jared in person in almost a decade. Could it really have been so long? We all looked a bit different, worn by time, and yet we picked up right where we left things those many years ago.

I jumped in the back and we zoomed off into the verdant suburbia northwest of Indianapolis.

At Jared’s house, four more of my Brothers greeted me. I hadn’t seen George, Kevin, Kyle, or Phil in forever either. Wives and numerous children rounded out the coterie.  Jared had a keg of excellent homebrew beer on tap — civilized! — and as we all partook we caught up with one another on the highs and lows of the recent past.

And more beer, and laughing, and more talking, and more beer, and karaoke, and talking and beer an tlakng andd beeer and… suddenly it was 1:30 a.m., and we’d need to be up in a few hours, and, and… and…

Morning, too soon. But there was a coffee pot, and it was functional.

The cooler was packed with amazingly delicious sandwiches, snacks, and a layer of beer in cans below. I thought we were being clever about the beer, but no: you can bring pretty much whatever you like into the Speedway as long as it isn’t glass.

Which brings us back to the dawn screwdrivers in the yard. We chatted with the homeowner, sharing predictions about the race and gossip about the drivers and teams.

After our supply of orange juice and vodka had been exhausted, we made our way to the track past numerous other boisterous groups still in the midst of tailgating. Above us, clouds.

Rain loomed, the forecast chance being 100%. Unlike Formula 1, or even unlike road courses in IndyCar, oval races are done only in the dry. If it rained, we’d be at least delayed if not postponed. I had to fly back to Denver that evening regardless.

Drastic measures were warranted. I figured I’d guarantee that it wouldn’t rain by wearing my raincoat.

Ten o’clock, and we were past the IMS gates. I’d never seen such a cursory, useless security check of what we brought with us, not even at the airport. The “no glass” rule was effectively on the honor system. It was a heartwarming show of trust in our common decency, something far too uncommon nowadays.

We had a couple hours until the worthwhile festivities started on the track-proper, and our alma mater Rose-Hulman was handing out snacks and good beer at a pop-up tent. I was expecting the hard sell about how much they needed alumni donations, but no. Perhaps the beer would become much more expensive later if one were to avail themselves of it too often?

The sun did battle with the clouds; the humidity crept higher. The trees around the perimeter of the track grounds were lush thanks to the moisture of Indiana, but that moisture was the enemy for the day. Still, nothing had condensed, at least not yet.

We made our way to our seats.

It was time for the pre-race pageantry: the endless presentation of people of dubious notability; the delightful antique race cars that sorta-kinda still worked, belching alarming amounts of oil smoke (or were they diesels?) as they puttered parade laps around the 2.5 mile circuit; the people along the wooden benches in the grandstands who were improbably already hammered; and — this was really cool — the fly-over by an A-10 and an F-16. The former made multiple low laps around the oval, while the latter made a dramatic exit by doing a “quick climb” at the middle of the track, pulling from level to straight up, driving to the clouds.

Crews inserted starters; starters cranked engines; and 33 engines began singing the high-speed motorbike-like idle of racing.

The field fell into formation laps as the quarter-million of us in attendance stood on our feet in anticipation, and then…

Green! Green! Green!

The engines roared! The race was underway!

View from our seats at the exit of turn 1 at the Indy 500

View from our seats at the exit of turn 1 at the Indy 500

Every 40 seconds, the field screamed past us. We were ten rows up from trackside in the exit of Turn 1; the sound would have been deafening without earplugs. You could feel the pulsing of the engines even from that distance.

I was astonished how fast the cars were moving. Despite spending my four undergraduate years living in Indiana, I’d never been to the 500, and the racing I’d done the previous weekend in my Formula Vee was, at most, far less than half the speed I was now seeing. The cars were moving so fast in front of us that it was impossible to track them with a turn of the neck or a flick of the eye. It was nothing I’d ever experienced.

“Who’s your man?” I was asked. “Herta!” I replied, cheering on the young rookie. Four laps into the race, Herta’s gearbox expired, and he was out. I decided it was time for a drink.

The space below the grandstands was not one for lingering. A continuous light drizzle of booze — I hope it was booze — drifted down from the increasingly inebriated throngs on the benches above. Lines were long at the concessions for your choice of beer, hot dogs, pretzels… and not much else. The physical plant, especially in the corroding bathrooms, seemed straight out of the 1940s.

And yet, it was not cheap. Ticket prices were in the triple digits, and those hot dogs were similarly dear. You needed to be reasonably well off to be so lucky as to be low-brow for a day.

It was in many ways as though the decadence and depravity of the Kentucky Derby had migrated a hundred miles north in the weeks between that horse race and this horseless race. Perhaps it was once, like many things, an indulgence of the blue-collared, but now it seemed a fling for the well-to-do as much as anything else.

The race continued. The field settled into a rhythm, grinding out green-flag laps. The rain never came, which was good, but there wasn’t much passing (or crashing), which was a little boring. For the most part, the machines held together. And so it went for the next couple of hours.

But then, drama!

Two cars got into it in Turn 3, which led to three more being collected. The race was halted temporarily, and when the restart came, the 500 had turned from a button-down enduro into a lively 14-lap sprint! There was passing galore, there was close racing, and in the end, Pagenaud prevailed by an incredibly short 200 milliseconds. A wonderful finish! A fun day.

We went directly to the airport, where I bid farewell to my friends, and, once on the airplane, I promptly fell asleep.

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