Indianapolis in May. Take it in. Not many places successfully roll patriotism, history, pride and party into one desirable package as successfully as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway does. On May 29, the Speedway will observe the 100th running of the Indy 500. My dad and my late father-in-law both shared an appreciation for the Speedway, my dad having taken his basic training in nearby Camp Atterburry and my father-in-law making yearly treks to the Speedway for qualifying. It is a tradition that burns inside you and even if you don’t go every year, you carry it with you. My wife and I share a love of the Speedway.
One year—1997, I think—we planned our escape to “Carb Day” at Indy. It was the last official day of practice before the 500 and featured pit stop competition, cars practicing at speed and all of the Indy-in-May hoopla. Our twins were too young to go, but a manageable age for Grandma so we decided to make a bike trip of it. The Heritage was relatively new then and providing solid, trouble-free miles. The six-hour one-way ride would be easy, we’d take in the day’s activities at the track, have a nice relaxing night away and a pleasant ride back the next day.
We left very early in the morning, before sunup. It was springtime cold, just above freezing, so we leathered and layered up for the ride, eager to see the sun. The crisp clear morning eventually gave way to a beautiful sunny day as we throttled toward Indy, still bundled up, but comfy. The ride to the speedway was uneventful, but we did hear a few comments from pedestrians as we rolled into the Snake Pit in turn one that it looked like we’d ridden in from Alaska! We could hear the unmistakable scream of Indy cars in the distance and we casually made our way trackside.
One of Carb Day’s events this particular year was the Pit Stop competition. It was a timed completion for the entire team. The driver raced a short distance into a pit box, the crew performed a tire change and fill-up, and then the driver raced away to a finish line, tripping the team’s time. We could hear this in the distance as walked through the spectacle that is the Speedway. The physical landmarks take you in. The timing tower where drivers from Harroun to Foyt to Franchitti ruled the day. The distinctive, yet ever-changing scoring pagoda, the famous front-stretch grandstand and Gasoline Alley were all racing appetizers to be savored, not inhaled like fast food. And savor them we did, meandering from one attraction to the next, just happy to be there.
We finally made it to pit lane where all the action was taking place. We squeezed in so we could see as well as hear, taste and smell the horsepower. We watched with great anticipation as one team completed the Pit Stop challenge, and then it was over. The first team we saw was the last team in the competition! We’d ridden six hours to get there and almost missed the whole thing!
This was a time before we held all of life’s answers in the palm of our hand; a time that allowed genuine, authentic stupidity to occur naturally, without prompting from an app. And we were good at it, damn it!
There is no place I’d rather be on Memorial Day than Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The respect and honor for our country, and those who sacrificed to make it what it is, are never far from center stage. There are traditions here. Even track announcers become legendary. Following World War II through 2006, Tom Carnegie’s voice resonated through the track’s PA system. Three generations of my family have heard this man’s voice announce, “It’s a new track record!” the way only he could. Mr. Carnegie is no longer with us, but remains as much a part of the Speedway’s history as the men and women who race there.
Then there are the “Yellow Shirts.” A racetrack can be a very dangerous place and the IMS
Safety Patrol wear yellow shirts, enforce rules for public safety and are seemingly constantly blowing their whistles to warn of a car coming through or an unsafe activity. The Yellow Shirts keep the place safe and it wouldn’t be the same without them.
The thrill of engineering and the evolution of speed is in every inch of the place from the yard of bricks at the start/finish line to the world-class museum in the infield. People die racing here. Nobody really wants to see that, but the fact that people are willing to die to do what they do elevates the importance. This place has to be seen in person to be appreciated. And even if there isn’t a car on the track, there is something special, and uniquely American, yet international in flavor, about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway any time of year. No trip to the Speedway is ever a wasted trip.