What do you get when you combine Memorial Day weekend and some of the fastest cars in the world? You get the Indianapolis 500, the greatest spectacle in sports. Early on the morning of May 21, I traveled to Indianapolis to attend Indy 500 Media Day. I am new to the world of racing and was not sure what to expect. What I got was lots of fun and learning about the behind-the-scenes world of racing.
The 100-year-old track was originally made from crushed stone and tar. But when numerous driver deaths occurred because of safety issues, the track was replaced with 3.2 million paving bricks. It was slowly paved over until it became the asphalt track it is today. There is a three-foot line of bricks across the start/finish line to help people remember the rich history of the track, nicknamed the Brickyard.
As I toured the track with my knowledgeable media escorts, we stopped at the pavers. I learned that each year, the race winner bends down to kiss the bricks. My escorts told me I had to bend down to kiss them.
Well, I was a little uncomfortable with that idea, so I tried to think of excuses to avoid this awkward moment, including telling them that I could catch a virus from the ground and I couldn’t bend down in that position. The next thing I knew, they were giving me a demonstration, and there was just no way around it. I bent down and kissed the bricks, just like the winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, did three days later when he won the race.
Speaking of Indy 500 media relations representatives, they have a tough job! They have to manage what goes on at this massive 2.5-mile track. They are very busy the month of May handling media requests. As I interviewed drivers, they told me a little tidbit about each one so that I could have even more engaging interviews.
I learned about Charlie Kimball and how he is a successful driver even though he has diabetes. They mentioned driver J.R. Hildebrand spends a lot of time showing kids that math and science go hand in hand with being a good racecar driver. They tipped me off that Simon Pagenaud is from France but spent summers at camps learning English when he was a child.
All the drivers we talked to felt like they had a good chance to win the race. It seemed to me that anyone could walk away a winner after feeling the drivers’ confidence levels.
The drivers were kind and generous with their time, and it became apparent why they have so many loyal fans. They are normal, down-to-earth people who care deeply about their sport and their followers.
I was given a tour of Sage Karam’s garage, and he showed me his steering wheel. He has a button that he can press, and water squirts into his mouth when he is driving. His yellow-and-green car sparkled, and the silver engine was ready to rock.
I didn’t want to leave after this fun day, but it was time to prepare to cover the race. When I returned to the track on Sunday, the day began on the red carpet. I had my own SI Kids reserved spot, where I would stand with the other reporters and wait for the stars to arrive. Across the red carpet stood hundreds of fans waiting to see their favorite stars.
As racing legend Mario Andretti made his way down the red carpet, fans were screaming his name. The media representative brought him over, and he gave me warm “hello” and a fist bump. When I asked him what advice he had for a kid who wants to be a driver, he said, “A lot of discipline will get you through whatever your path is if it is open wheels or stock car. As long as the passion is there, there is always a way to do it.”
I asked famed NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who drove the pace car at the Indy 500, the same question. “I started with quarter midgets, and that is where I will probably start my kids. Parents play a huge role in providing a safe and fun environment,” he said. “Find a car you can afford, make sure it is safe, and go have fun.”
Sean Johnson, Chicago Fire soccer player, said his favorite sports were racing, basketball, and soccer. He loves how exciting it is to see the drivers control their cars while they are traveling at high speeds.
It wasn’t long before we had to find our seats for the race. We listened to the national anthem and “Back Home Again in Indiana” performed. There was a flyover of an A-10C Warthog plane from the Indiana National Guard.
Moments later, we heard, “Ladies and Gentleman, start your engines.” The noise was deafening, and I could smell burning rubber after the green flag flew to signal the start of the race. Although it was a very warm day, each time the pack of cars flew by us, a balmy breeze brushed up against us.
There were several accidents that occurred right in front of us. Emergency vehicles rushed to get to the cars to make sure the drivers were O.K., and fires were extinguished before they could get out of hand. Tow trucks picked up the cars and quickly removed them from the track.
Fans were so supportive and cheered for their favorite drivers, even though the drivers couldn’t hear their screams or see their arms waving. The cars, after all, were going at 230 mph.
The race started slow but ended in a tight finish, with Montoya pulling it out after being in 30th place at one point.
It was a great weekend for me at the Indy 500. My eyes were opened to a whole new world on Memorial Day weekend. This is a sport that people of all ages enjoy, and after seeing the passion drivers and fans have for racing, I understand why people from all over the world attend year after year. I hope to be there next year for the 100th running of this historic race.
Photos: Matt Collins