May 28, 2017: The 101st Indianapolis 500
After a day exploring Indianapolis, I woke up at 5:30 and immediately chugged a beer because today is day of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 aka Race Day. The city has been preparing for this day nearly a month. The hype has happened and now it’s time for the show.
5:30 AM is actually considered a very late time to wake up. Most people are at the track and drunk by 6 (that is not an exaggeration). We all took our time and by 7 we had donned our most ridiculous “America” outfits and were ready to leave. We each had a bag full of beer (they let you bring in alcohol to the event). My host Katharine´s dad picked up us and drove us to the track. Traffic was awful but we negotiated the side streets and got fairly close. We then walked over to some random person’s house, and started drinking in their front lawn.
It was now about 8 AM. I was quite a few beers in and ready to go into the track. My friends still wanted to tailgate so I ventured off on my own with a plastic bag containing 6 beers and a Jimmy John’s sandwich.
As I walked in, thousands of people were tailgating and blasting music. Eventually, I found my way into the entrance- a 4 lane road that went underneath the grandstands. Cars were still driving into. My back underwent a cursory search and I walked into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Speedway is gigantic. The track is 2.5 miles around. This is so big that Yankee Stadium, the White House, Churchill Downs, the Rose Bowl, Roman Coliseum, Taj Mahal, Liberty Island, and the Vatican City combined can fit inside. Even with 350,000 people, it did not feel overcrowded.
Right past the entrance in between Turns 3 and 4 was the Snake Pit, a large rave that required a separate admission ticket. Luckily I had bought the ticket and went in. From 7 AM to 2 PM, electronic dance music (EDM) artists performed. The lineup included Zedd, Marshmello, RL Grime, Adventure Club, and more. Adventure Club was performing at 8:30 when I got there. The dubstep was going and people were dancing and drinking. Right around 9, I saw the first person puke. The people watching here was superb.
At 10, I decided to wander and made my way to the final stretch of the track- a good 15-minute walk from the Snake Pit. The grandstands extend on both sides of the track here. It still blows my mind that so many people can show up in one place.
I worked my way under the grandstands to the famed Pagoda at the finish line. A 36-inch wide strip of bricks extends out from the Pagoda representing the legendary finish line. In 1909, the track was mostly brick. Over the next few decades, portions of the track became paved over with asphalt. In 1961 when the track became fully asphalt, the track managers decided to keep a 36-inch strip of bricks at the finish. For this reason, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also called the Brickyard.
Just south of the pagoda is Gasoline Alley, where all the pit crews work and store their cars. Crews were moving their cars onto the track as I was walking by. The cars that race in the Indy 500 are called Indy cars. They are a specific type of open-wheel car which means that the wheels are located outside of the chassis (car body). Indy cars are required to use a specific chassis, tire, and get to select one of two engines: Honda or Chevrolet. I was surprised by how low and small the Indy cars were!
For comparison, NASCAR cars are called stock cars and are meant to look like normal passenger cars…just faster. IndyCars, due to their lighter construction average speeds almost 50 mph faster than NASCAR cars but are much more dynamic- they can turn very quickly which leads to more passing. In IndyCar, the drivers have so much control of their car that they can race just inches away from each other. For these reason, IndyCar is widely considered a more exciting sport to watch.
The Indy 500 is the only major IndyCar race in the country (there are others), although open wheel racing is extremely popular around the rest of the world. Other famous races around the US including the Daytona 500 are NASCAR races. This distinction is part of what makes the Indy 500 so special and revered.
It was now 11am, so I bought a famed pork tenderloin sandwich and wandered the infield. Along the backstretch was the largest tailgate I have ever seen. Somehow, I ran into Katharine and her friends. We watched the pre-race festivities as a military helicopter flew by with soldiers hanging off!
I then wandered back to the track to watch the start of the race. I discovered a way to sneak past the guards into the grandstands and found my way about 200 yards from the finish. The stands were packed!
Around 11:45 am, the pre-race festivities began. Numerous patriotic songs were sung, a general spoke, an invocation was given by a local pastor asking for safety for the racers, and finally the Chicago Blackhawks announcer sang “Back Home in Indiana” backed by the Purdue Marching Band.
Then, the famous command was given: “Drivers, Start Your Engines!” With that an unbelievably loud hum started the would never stop.
The pace car led the racers who bunched up into eleven rows of three. For four laps they crawled around at 75 mph. Then the green flag dropped and the race began!
Immediately, the cars sped up to 230 mph and the roar got exponentially louder- luckily I brought earplugs. The neat formation broke up as drivers tried to start passing. Every 40 seconds, the cars would barrel through. In the first 25 laps, there were over 60 passes! Nobody could possibly say this was boring.
The difficult part about the Indy 500 is the length. 500 miles or 200 laps is a long time. In perfect conditions, the race would take about 2 hours 15 minutes. However, that never happens because crashes happen and on lap 53, a huge crash occurred in which Scott Dixon’s car flipped multiple times and was completely destroyed. Fortunately, nobody was injured. After 20 minutes of a red (no racing) flag, the race finally restarted under a yellow caution flag. Under a yellow flag, the pace car comes back out and the race continues, but nobody can pass and everyone has to go 75 mph. It is boring.
Finally, the green flag was lowered and the race restarted. At this point, I had gone back over to the Snake Pit where the rave continued. Nobody here had the slightest idea that there was a race going on.
The people here were very drunk. The people watching was at its best because people were at their worst- crying, passed out drunk and sunburnt (am I a terrible person?).
It was now 2 PM and the race was still going on. After a number of yellow flags, it was only Lap 112. So, I walked down to the south end of the track- about a 30-minute walk away. After walking past thousands of people and cars, I was surprised to find that the south side of the track had plenty of room to watch the race. Instead of pushing past crowds to get a glimpse of turn 4, I got an unobstructed view of turns 1 and 2. I then took a quick power nap.
Unfortunately, it was really hot and sunny. I woke up sunburnt- badly. I found someone who gave me sunscreen, but it was too late. I was going to peel. It was just a matter of when. The shoulders were hurting.
I checked the race board and realized that there were only 30 laps left! I wanted to catch the end of the race in the stands, so I sprinted over to the grandstands and managed to sneak my way in right behind the pit crew of Takuma Sato, a Japanese driver currently in 3rd place.
With 5 laps left, Sato took the lead and ended up winning the race! His pit crew went insane while celebrating. In accordance with tradition, Sato drove over to victory circle, kissed the bricks and chugged a glass of milk. The crowd went wild.
I then headed out and was hoping for the best. By a stroke of luck, I ran into Katherine and her friends just outside the track. By another stroke of luck, we were somehow able to hail an Uber nearby. It took an hour to escape due to the insane traffic, but we were back around 5:30pm after a wild day!
The Indy 500 it the real deal. The racing is far more impressive than I imagined, the American cultural display is so over-the-top, and the party is great. I cannot recommend this event highly enough. Just make sure to BYOB.