Growing up a motorsports fan in the Northeast in the early 2000s was as antisocial as it comes.
In attending two elementary schools, I met only “racing fans,” and both were fans because of their dads. They both grew out of it by eighth grade. Girls.
Racing is a niche sport — always has been, always will be. It’s not the first BBQ, water cooler or social gathering topic. It doesn’t cause fan riots that shut down cities as a result. It’s far more insulated.
That is why it’s so astonishing that the largest single-day sporting event in the world occurs in the Midwestern United States and is a race — the Indianapolis 500.
The day of the Indy 500 starts early — really early. Some working at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar actually will sleep at the track the night before the race. The teams will arrive bleary eyed and full of butterflies, around 4-6 a.m. And the fans will start emerging, either from a night of debauchery or a simple Midwestern chain restaurant dinner, from 6-11 a.m.
We (my girlfriend and I) arrived at the track for the 101st running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing around 8:30 a.m. And do know it is the greatest.
As you step off the plane at Indianapolis International Airport, you are reminded many times it is “The Greatest.” Walking out of the terminal, you are told that you are “The Greatest Fans in Racing.” I was waiting to run into “The Greatest Urinal in Racing.”
After a seemingly short Uber ride from a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, we hit dead-stop traffic 2 1/2 miles from the speedway. We only could listen to our Uber driver drone on so long, talking about how only an hour earlier there was no traffic.
So we ditched the car and started walking. We weren’t alone. At this hour, it was a march of the early and dedicated.
People were in the usual patriotic attire celebrating Memorial Day and their societal-imposed idea of how to dress for a race: Sleeveless T-shirts, jean shorts, cowboy boots, flip-flops and (my personal favorite) shirtless.
As we arrived to get our credentials, we experienced the first signs that the speedway has done this 101 times. There was no line. And not in the context that you would expect a line at an event of this magnitude, but that there simply was none.
Multiple times, I used bathrooms that were completely empty. I’ve been to events with 100 people that seemed more overrun.
We headed into the infield and the garage. But in doing so we walked amongst the general admission, the Snake Pit and grandstand ticket holders.
What is the Snake Pit?
Well, in a move that blurs the line of genius and lunacy, the speedway has decided to legitimize the college and youthful overindulgence that the infield has harbored for years.
The Snake Pit is now a full-on, all-day EDM festival inside Turn 3. Starting at 7 a.m. and coming to a fireworks-exploding, bass-booming conclusion just before the race ends at 3:30 in the afternoon.
It is the truest example of an old joke about big races: “It’s a party where a race broke out”
Inside the Snake Pit, you can’t even hear the race cars. This is an attempt at introducing young people to the race, which would have you believe it would be easy to separate the Snake Pit attendee from the race fan.
The problem is aside from an obsession with a girl named “Molly,” Snake Pit attendees and race fans coexist impossibly well among the crazy attire and obvious signs of intoxication.
Which brings me to the race fans.
What first strikes you as you look at the fans or “attendees” as we should call them? They are in normal clothes. No team jerseys, favorite driver hats or sponsor-laden attire. This is unlike a NASCAR race, which is full of shirts signifying allegiances to a driver or team.
These attendees are not IndyCar fans. They don’t even know many of the drivers’ names. They are Indy 500 fans. This will be the only race they attend, and they will not watch another on TV for the rest of the IndyCar season.
But come May 2018, they once again will walk through the gates of this hallowed ground amidst hundreds of thousands. To sit, sweat and watch their favorite race.
To put this in perspective, the IndyCar series’ second race of 2017 occurred at the much-vaunted street course in Long Beach, California. Only 321,000 people watched on NBCSN. There was an estimated 300,000 in attendance for the 2017 Indy 500.
After a short walk in a dispersed crowd, our gracious passes allowed us to join the famous, the elite, the Hall of Famers and the fat wallets of the race grid. Much like being invited onto the red carpet of the Oscars, it’s a who’s who of the Indy 500.
The cars sit guarded by team members as they are engulfed by sponsors, family members and a famous actor or two. This year, it was Jake Gyllenhaal, who at one point was 10 feet from me. We never made eye-contact or acknowledged each other’s presence. He looked like he does in the movies.
It was about an hour from the ceremonial “Drivers, Start Your Engines!” Slowly, the grandstands were filling until suddenly, I looked and all I could see were people.
Here come the drivers!
I was very curious to hear who would get the largest cheer during driver introductions as I failed to see a single fan representing any of them.
I was convinced it would be the man of the month, two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, or maybe an American such as Ryan Hunter-Reay.
But the loudest roar occurred when a muscularly compact, one-time winner of the Indy 500 stepped up. Brazilian Tony Kanaan had a level of cheers I have heard only at a Drake concert.
Soon, the Memorial Day prerace patriotism started.
I stood at the back of the grid where there was a tunnel running under the track for fans to reach the infield, and many were obvious Snake Pit attendees. But as the national anthem started, many came to a stop and stood hand over heart. A young man in a Donald Trump sleeveless tank top stood beside an African-American and his lady friend, side by side.
The patriotic displays were not an American eagle gripping a machine gun-patriotism but a more respectful American flag off the front of a colonial house, golden retriever with a Stars and Stripes collar-patriotism.
On a grid full of nationalities, my girlfriend would remark at the incredible amount of different accents and languages being spoken amongst the crowd.
Soon, we were being ushered off the grid by the famously obstinate “yellow shirt” Indianapolis security with a stark reminder “We can’t start this race if you’re still standing here.”
Thanks for clarifying that.
I got one last up-close look into the grandstands to notice the predominant demographic in the crowd.
It was the 35-year-old-and-older male and his family.
On the weekdays he wears the badly fitting, never-tailored suit and is a regional salesman with a Starbucks card. A white collar in a blue-collar pay grade and upbringing. His order request each weekday morning is “The usual” with an anxiety-filled laugh.
This is his off-weekend, a chance to ditch formalities and experience the unplanned and unpredictable, sans Excel sheets. He has been coming for more than 20 years, and it is tradition. The Indy 500 is the Coachella of the Midwestern worker. One of his kids joins him in the stands; the other is in the Snake Pit.
That’s not to say the crowd is homogeneous. As we reached the suite we were provided, I was continually amazed at the diversity in the stands.
It’s not full Brooklyn diversity of pink hair, funny socks, skinny jeans and half-shaved heads. But it’s 9 to 5 Middle America diversity. It’s inclusive as they come, young to old, black or white, natural born or immigrant.
There is a place for you in this event. There is a driver for you to root for.
If the Daytona 500 is the The Great American Race, the Indy 500 is the race for America.
And the thing is, you get the sense the Indy 500 is trying to impress you. Not in the gaudy intent of a rich kid pulling up to a nightclub, but in the endearing pose of a child trying to show his or her parents a new trick or skill. From the pomp and circumstance to the constant reminders you are at “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.”
Add in the tons of activities that have nothing to do with the race, and you feel it’s an event that so badly wants you — the attendees and the first-timers — to enjoy themselves. And to return.
Even the drivers know this is their opportunity.
The iron is in the fire on a stage bigger than the rest of the year combined. If they impress, it could mean millions in winnings and thousands in new fans, renown and career stability.
They race like it, too. Nothing is held back, no move is calculated twice. It’s go hard, make moves and hope it all comes out straight and shiny side up.
Because of this, the race itself is perfect. A balance of skill and death-defying speeds, mixed with an aerodynamic draft that allows almost 30 cars a chance to win the race. Its unpredictable nature along with thrilling speed makes each crowd reaction a feeling of intensity you can’t experience anywhere else.
And as the winner crossed the finish line, it didn’t matter that it was a driver whom few knew. Everyone rose to their feet in applause because it is tradition to do so.
Which is why more than 250,000 have attended this race for so long: tradition.
As we were walking out a mere two and half hours after the race, the track was shockingly empty. And as an evening shower engulfed the track, we were under the tunnel in between turns 1 and 2, where a random man helped us find our way to the Uber pickup zone.
He was shirtless, with a rolling cooler behind him, very sunburnt and alone. It seemed as if a coherent word would have been a struggle, but he spoke with the eloquence of a college professor.
His phone had died, his Apple watch had died, and he was walking home. I asked him, “How long have you been coming here?”
“Fifteen years. All of my friends make a big weekend of it. It has become our tradition.”
Which is exactly what makes it the perfect racing event.
It’s the Indy 500’s tradition to impress you and make you want to keep coming back for more.