The crowd forming for our Friday afternoon flight was growing impatient. Families with small children, the elderly, and veterans had already disappeared down the jetway, and the rest of us began pushing forward with expectation. I looked down at my phone and checked the weather in Indianapolis again as Group A began boarding. “Not looking good for Sunday,” I heard someone say. “Yeah, might be in store for the first rainout since ’97,” another quipped. I almost checked another weather site, but then I thought better of it. I was getting on the plane to Indy either way.
The Indianapolis 500 was calling. Like the rest of the race-crazy fans around me, I wasn’t going to miss my shot at attending one of America’s most revered racing traditions.
After the flight, it was easy to see where to go. Standing beneath the placard I was searching for curbside stood a handful of neatly dressed gray-haired men in full-on traveling-dad garb. On bottom, they were all wearing khaki shorts or pants with zip-off legs, while up top they rocked pressed-and-tucked-in race-car T-shirts or polos.
They were double-checking their organized folders of printed receipts and shuttle schedules and pickup locations amongst themselves while bemoaning the shuttle driver’s tardiness. I’ve never been able to verify my location, transportation options, and local forecast as quickly and as accurately in my life.
My own father was waiting for me at the hotel bar, his flight from Atlanta having arrived a few hours earlier. He had already managed to make friends with a random group of strangers from all over. The crowd consisted of a few Aussies, a couple of Tommy Bahama-clad men chewing unlit cigars, a few young couples, and several retirement-age men — all of whom wore the unmistakable giddiness of the first hour of vacation, and all of whom had come here for the same reason — to be a part of the world’s oldest major automobile race. I had some catching up to do.
Buffets and a yard of bricks
Saturday morning was upon us several hours too early, particularly for those of us hailing from the West Coast. My dad scheduled a full hour for us to get to the lobby, eat breakfast and get in line for the bus that was to take us to the track for pre-race festivities. That was about 50 minutes more than I would have scheduled, but about an hour less than he wanted to schedule.
When we reached the buffet, I could see in his eyes that the empty coffee mugs and half-eaten bagels were like deer tracks in the snow on a cold morning hunt. We were early, but not early enough. I checked the weather again. Rain was on its way, and it looked angry.
Our wagon train of charter buses dropped us off in a strip-mall parking lot directly across the street from the track entrance. The lot and adjoining yard were full of RVs and fifth-wheel campers, pop-up awnings, lawn chairs and coolers. We had about four hours to wander the grounds, explore the pits and attend the drivers’ meeting.
We went ahead and posed for many of our obligatory “We were here!” photos, knowing full well that race day would be a complete zoo, but the scope of the Brickyard was difficult to capture. The place is humongous, with two and a half miles of oval asphalt stretching much farther than you might think two and a half miles should.
We explored, taking our time taking it all in. We toured the pits and ate fried track food and got barked at by security before making our way to the drivers’ meeting. The sun began to beat down on us, but the clouds were high, heavy and increasing. I checked the weather again.
Start your engines
Race day was upon us early, but this time I was ready. The hotel was buzzing. Early-morning sunlight was streaming through the lobby windows while everyone fueled up three-wide on scrambled eggs, sausage, coffee and Bloody Marys.
Once on the bus, we watched the throng of bodies multiply with every block we passed. No point in checking the weather now. Our commitment looked like it was about to pay off.
Once in our seats on the front stretch, Dad dialed in his radio as I cracked peanut shells, sipped cold beer and archived the moment in my mind. The starting line bristled with 33 contenders, all looking to position their open-wheel weapons ahead of the pack and earn their place in history.
For backup, I snapped pictures to shuttle off to friends and family. “Where are you?” one reply shot back. “Up on the front straight, right across from the pits,” I said.
“No way,” came the response. “I’m in turn two…”
Kelly Clarkson then began her performance of the national anthem as a quartet of the Air Force’s finest approached from a distance, and all 300,000 of us rose to our feet in solidarity. Then, those famous words — the ones we had all traveled so far to hear — reverberated through the grounds. “Drivers! Start. Your. Engines!”