You walk off the jetway at the Indianapolis airport in May and the first thing you think of is humidity.
It may be raining - in fact, it's likely to be at least misting or sprinkling. It may be warm, it may be cool. But always, always it is muggy.
As your plane descended over the city you could see the moisture in the air in the form of an everpresent haze. But most times the haze is not thick enough to obscure the giant rounded rectangle with the thin gray border that is cut out of the green of the trees just west of the city.
That rectangle is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in a few days' time you will be there, sitting with a quarter million of your closest friends as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing unfolds in front of you.
Once you extricate yourself from the Indy airport rental car lot, you head up I-465 to your hotel. On the highway you do not get the sense that Indianapolis is a metropolis. Though you can see the distant peaks of tall buildings out your right window, they are few and far between. You feel more like you are in an oasis of suburbs cut from a state full of farmlands and trees.
You see all the staples of midwest shopping - Bob Evans and Steak 'N Shake restaurants hovering near the highway waiting to suck in unsuspecting drivers, Marsh supermarkets and Menards home-improvement stores anchoring strip malls. And surrounding them, homes with expansive green lawns and enormous trees in all directions. A pleasant place to live? It seems that way... at least from the seat of your rental car driving up the 465.
You take the 10th Street exit and stop at the Mug 'N Bun drive-in, which you are assured is a traditional focal point for racers and race fans alike. It is straight out of a picture book of 1950s Americana, and as you sit at one of the outdoor tables you see a neon sign in the front window that says, with an entertaining lack of grammar: "You've tried the best now your [sic] getting the best." You may not think so when your enormous pork tenderloin sandwich arrives, but one bite (plus a sip of homemade root beer) later you realize that sometimes your arteries can take a back seat to indulgence in an Indianapolis tradition.
The "Monster" tenderloin sandwich and homemade root beer at the Mug 'N Bun Drive-In (via mug-n-bun.com)
On race day, you get up with the dawn. You trudge down to your rental car for the push towards the Speedway. If you are smart, you have packed your race scanner, seat cushions, some bottled water and some smuggled hotel washcloths for hot days, and rain gear just in case. Not much else - you want to pack light at Indianapolis because of the sheer size of the place. You'll be doing a lot of walking.
Of the western approaches to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from I-465, the main access is via the Crawfordsville Road exit that runs past the heralded Union Jack Pub. Today you are coming in from the northwest off of 38th Street in the hopes of avoiding some of the traffic. If you're lucky and you get away from your hotel early enough, you can make it in less than an hour.
You drive past the "Coke Lot," the main IMS camping area that is owned by the local Coca-Cola bottler (which, coincidentally, is also owned by the Hulman-George family). You have decided to circumvent the crowds in the "official" parking lots by negotiating a deal with one of the neighborhood residents on 24th Street to park in their front yard. It's more convenient and the company is wonderful while you wait to head for the track.
Eventually, you leave the shade of the giant trees and head for Georgetown Road. From where you have parked you can see the Turn Four grandstands, but trees obscure the rest of the track. You trudge towards Georgetown - perhaps with a brief stop at the Camp and Brew on the way to meet with some more of your fellow fans. Already the humidity is starting to make you sweat as the sun begins its rise up into the sky, but it's not time for the washcloths yet.
The closer you get to Georgetown Road, the more roadside entrepreneurs you see. Georgetown, in fact, is a veritable midway full of sellers of a dizzying variety of products. From giant turkey legs to tenderloins to T-shirts to track memorabilia (some licensed, some not), the 7/8ths of a mile from 24th Street to the intersection of Georgetown and 16th Street is choked full of trailers, booths, card tables, portable deep fryers, and other assorted vehicles of carnival consumerism.
The view up Georgetown Road from 16th Street - the frontstretch of IMS stretches into the distance
(Photo: Tony Johns/PopOffValve.com)
Turning the corner of 24th Street onto Georgetown Road, you finally see the entire length of the IMS frontstretch. It looks at first glance like an industrial park, stretching off a mile into the distance. You see no details of the infield - just a mass of latticed metal and concrete hiding the history of a century from the masses making their way down Georgetown.
As the day progresses, Georgetown fills from curb to curb with an enormous crowd of humanity. Occasionally a car tries to make its way south, but aside from repeated soundings of its horn and the frustrated imprecations from its driver it makes very little headway against the throng. You see so many different types and nationalities of people cruising Georgetown in the hours before the race... and you can believe that the whole world has come to see the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
You make your way into the Speedway past the yellow-shirted security. Inside the grounds, but still outside of the stands, it seems like you are walking through an iron-and-concrete-bordered park. A very busy park, it turns out - full of humanity bearing all sorts of interesting loads, from seat cushions to coolers to official programs to bags full of souvenirs. Along the periphery of the grandstands, you take time to stop at the restrooms - and if you're male, you end up spending some quality time at a long trough shoulder to shoulder with total strangers. It is low-rent in that peculiarly charming way that only facilities of great history can boast, and that at other, less glamorous locales would be considered a disgrace.
Finally, it is time to head to your seats. And it is at this moment of transition, from the outside of the Speedway grounds to the inside, that your goosebumps begin in earnest.
The vista that greets you as you walk up the ramp to the grandstands is simply glorious. It's as if you have stepped into another world contained within the boundaries of the Speedway. The small-town suburban feel you got from your sojurn up Georgetown Road is erased, for before you is the sprawling grandeur of The Brickyard itself. From the lush green of the infield grass to the gray ribbon of asphalt that is the track surface to the filling grandstands that already are so full that they look like a Seurat painting, you realize that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing less than a work of art.
This year, you have chosen a seat in Grandstand J at the exit of Turn Four. From your seat you can see the whole of Turns Three and Four, the North Chute, and almost the entire frontstretch. To your right you see the Pagoda and the entrance to Gasoline Alley. A bit farther down the track is the start-finish line, and over the heads of several thousand other fans you can see the tiniest glimpse of the Yard of Bricks. Straight ahead of you is what is left of the Snake Pit - this year, there is a sizable Brazilian contingent merrily waving their green, yellow and blue flags and singing loud songs.
What surprises you is how many people there are. Even at a low mutter, the collective voices of over a quarter-million people in one setting staggers you. If you were not struggling with claustrophobia it might impress you more - you are packed in the grandstands like a sardine. If it is a hot day, then you feel every degree of the heat and humidity - and this is when you break out the washcloths. Dousing them with water, you place them on the back of your neck and feel the chill of the evaporating water. And despite your sweat, you start to feel human again.
Thankfully, you have a Diamondvision screen in front of you, because even the pre-race festivities are over a half-mile away. The cheers for introduced celebrities ripple around the grandstands like a vocal version of The Wave. You hear the faint echo of the Purdue University All-American Marching Band in your right ear a second before their music blares over the public-address system. Celebrities drive past in the back seats of convertible "Festival Cars" - most waving, many taking pictures or video for their own memories of this day. Indiana state troopers ride past on their motorcycles in formation, doing stunts and entertaining the crowd.
Finally, it is time for the traditional ceremonies to get underway as you hear "On the Banks of the Wabash" from the band. You can hear people singing along and you wonder how many of these people are actually Indiana natives. The feeling you get is that it doesn't matter, for today everyone is a Hoosier; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has in fact become the second-largest city in the state on this day.
The pre-race ceremonies continue. Florence Henderson sings "God Bless America." And then over the P.A. you hear, "His voice has become an institution..." In years past, these words have been uttered by Tom Carnegie, the longtime voice of the Indianapolis 500 public address system. Tom, sadly, is gone... but when you hear the words, you still hear his voice.
Whatever else is said is lost as the first real cheer erupts from the packed grandstands: Jim Nabors is here and ready to sing. It seems like everyone knows the words. Actually, you can barely hear Nabors' voice as more than 300,000 people sing loudly along. Hundreds of multicolored balloons fill the sky.
Then, after "Taps" and the obligatory flyover, it is time for "the most famous words in motorsports." On hand to deliver them, as always, is Mari Hulman George. As she says, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines," the crowd roars its approval. You can't actually hear the engines start over the cheering. The crowd noise gives you the queer impression that the cars are silent as they begin to roll down the frontstretch.
During the pace laps the crowd continues to cheer. As the cars pass you during the first two pace laps they are weaving frantically to build heat into their tires. You hear a low buzzing sound from them, like a swarm of wasps; once in a while, the buzz jumps in pitch as a driver revs the engine.
Then, at the end of the final pace lap, you look into turn three and see the cars arranging themselves into eleven rows of three. And that's when the chills start racing up your spine. You can't help it. The pace car flashes past and dives for pit road, and the cars are alone on the track. As they go by the engine pitch starts to rise, but it is quickly lost in the loudest cheering you've ever heard in your life. 300,000 people are screaming at the top of their lungs and, you discover, so are you. Screaming to tear out your throat, in fact, because on the screen you see the green flags waving and you know that the race is underway.
For a few seconds all you can hear is the cheering. Then, as you peer into the distance at Turn Three, you see the field racing into the North Chute. No matter how many races you have seen either live or on TV, you are not prepared for how fast these cars are going. Airplanes don't look this fast taking off from a runway. You get the briefest impression of the drivers' heads cocked to the left against the G-forces as the cars angle gracefully into the apex of Turn Four.
Then you hear it.
It's a noise peculiar to the Indianapolis 500 - the sound of thirty-three cars going flat-out at 220mph through a sounding chamber of a quarter-million people on both sides. Nobody has headphones or earplugs in - for the first few laps, everyone is listening to the music of thirty-three racing engines. The Doppler effect elevates the engine pitch as the cars approach you. The cars flash past so fast that you strain your neck to follow them. Before you know it, they are flying down the frontstretch, leaving only echoes. Echoes, and the now-weak-sounding cheers from the crowd.
And that's when you realize it. You are present at something you won't ever forget. That sound has seared into your brain like a cattle brand melted it in there. You are shaking with the adrenaline rush. You are yelling as loud as you can but you're not saying any words - just letting out a wordless howl of amazement and excitement. And just about forty seconds later, as the cars come by for the second lap, you are doing it all over again.
Eventually, of course, the race settles into its rhythm. It takes you at the bare minimum five laps before you decide to use the seat you paid for again. But eventually your attention shifts back to the Diamondvision screen as the field becomes strung out. You put your headphones on and listen to IMS Radio as the laps click away. Occasionally a car goes by with engine trouble and you can smell the burning oil and hot machinery even up in your grandstand seat. Or maybe someone misjudges the fourth turn exit and smacks the SAFER barrier right in front of you. A shower of carbon fiber erupts and you feel the impact in your chest.
The one impression you are left with after the race is over is how quickly it all seems to have ended. After spending hours cruising Georgetown and sweating in the sun for the pre-race ceremonies, 200 laps go by as if they were on fast-forward. Before you know it, the winner is drinking milk in victory lane and you are looking over your shoulder at the streaming humanity headed for the exits.
You head back to your car and join the mass exodus, reveling in the air conditioner. After a while, you clear the heaviest traffic and make your way back to your hotel. Maybe on the way, you pick up some Steak 'N Shake for dinner. When you reach your hotel room, you gratefully remove your shoes and relax with a sigh on your bed.
Steakburger at the ready, you flip on the TV and notice you are just in time for the start of the NASCAR race from Charlotte. The only thing you can think of, though, is how slow the stock cars look compared to what you have just seen. A few laps later during a commercial, you switch channels and discover the tape-delayed Indy 500 broadcast on the air.
Tomorrow, you'll be on a flight home after a quick stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum to see the incredible display of history and pick up some souvenirs. You'll preface this with a stop at Long's Bakery for some of their famous fresh donuts. You'll spend the hours in the air reveling about having been at a happening, a day's worth of tradition, history, speed, adrenaline, and sheer sporting joy.
But that is tomorrow. Today is still the day, and with your ears still ringing from the sound of the engines and the roar of the crowd and your heart still racing and your nerve endings tingling from the adrenaline rush, you are not in the mood for reflection.
Just because you can, you watch the race again.