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Kligerman: The perfect racing event happens to be the biggest with the Indianapolis 500

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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.

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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.

Welcome to the Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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!

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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.

The view on the frontstretch grandstands. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

Takuma Sato takes the checkered flag. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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.

Cup Series Thursday night racing factoids

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When it comes to 1.5-mile tracks like Charlotte Motor Speedway, no one driver is getting comfortable in Victory Lane.

Entering tonight’s 310-mile race at Charlotte (7 p.m. ET on FS1), the second Cup race in five days on the oval, the series has seen eight different winners in the last eight visits to a 1.5-mile track.

That streak dates back to June 2019 when Alex Bowman earned his first career Cup Series win in a race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Between that race and Brad Keselowski’s win in the Coca-Cola 600, winners on 1.5-mile tracks included: Kurt Busch (Kentucky), Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), Kevin Harvick (Texas), Kyle Busch (Miami) and Joey Logano (Las Vegas).

The Cup Series hasn’t seen a stretch of parity like that on 1.5-mile tracks since 2011, when the last eight 1.5-mile races were won by a different driver.

Here are some other interesting tidbits heading into tonight’s race.

Jimmie Johnson is entering his 37th and likely final Cup Series points start on the Charlotte oval. His eight points race wins and four All-Star Race wins there lead all drivers.

– Johnson has led 1,936 laps on the Charlotte oval, second most all-time to Bobby Allison (2,338).

– Hendrick Motorsports has 19 points wins at Charlotte by seven different drivers. That number of drivers is tied for the most all-time. Hendrick has seven different winners at Pocono and Talladega. Wood Brothers Racing has seven different winners at Daytona.

– Joe Gibbs Racing has 21 Cup wins since the start of 2019, which is 49% of races. Denny Hamlin has eight of those wins, which leads all drivers. Team Penske is second with nine wins.

– Tonight’s Cup race at Charlotte is scheduled for 208 laps. Only two races at Charlotte were scheduled for less laps and both were qualifying races in 1961 at 67 laps each for the 1961 World 600.

 

Jeff Burton joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

Lunch Talk Live
NBC Sports
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NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton will be on today’s Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico. Today’s show airs at noon ET on NBCSN.

Also on Thursday’s show will be Supercross points leader Eli Tomac.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • Noon – Robbie Earle, Premier League on NBC
  • 12:05 p.m. – Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians manager
  • 12:15 p.m. – Chris Simms, FNIA/PFT/Unbuttoned/Notre Dame
  • 12:30 p.m. – Jeff Burton, NASCAR on NBC
  • 12:40 p.m. – Chris Mullin, Basketball Hall of Famer
  • 12:50 p.m. – Eli Tomac, Supercross current points leader

NASCAR adjusts Xfinity Dash 4 Cash schedule

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NASCAR announced changes to the Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash races on Thursday.

Here is the schedule:

June 1 – Bristol Motor Speedway (will determine four eligible drivers for first Dash 4 Cash event)

June 6 – Atlanta Motor Speedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 1)

June 14 – Homestead-Miami Speedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 2)

June 20 – Talladega Superspeedway (Dash 4 Cash event No. 3)

TBA – Next scheduled Xfinity series race after Talladega (Dash 4 Cash event No. 4)

Each Dash 4 Cash event will have four eligible drivers racing for the $100,000 bonus.

The driver who wins the bonus advances to the next Dash 4 Cash event. The next three-highest finishing Xfinity Series drivers eligible for the series title, qualify for the next Dash 4 Cash race.

Previously, Miami was to have served as the qualifying race and was to be followed by Dash 4 Cash races at Texas, Bristol, Talladega and Dover. All those events were postponed because of the COIVD-19 pandemic.

Cup, Xfinity entry lists for Bristol Motor Speedway

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Almost two months it was originally scheduled, NASCAR will finally hold its first Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend of the year.

The Cup and Xfinity Series continue their marathon of races this weekend. The Cup Series will race on Sunday and the Xfinity Series will compete Monday night.

Here are the entry lists for this weekend’s races.

Cup – Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox)

Forty cars are entered into the race.

JJ Yeley is entered in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 7 Chevrolet.

Gray Gaulding is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s 27 Ford.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over his brother Kurt Busch.

Denny Hamlin won last year’s night race over Matt DiBenedetto.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Cheddar’s 300 (7 p.m. ET Monday on FS1)

There are 37 cars entered.

Modified driver Patrick Emerling will make his Xfinity Series debut in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet. Brett Moffitt drove the car in the first six races of the season.

Carson Ware makes his Xfinity Series debut driving SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

A.J. Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

Myatt Snider is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

Christopher Bell won this race last year over Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer. Chase Briscoe, who finished fourth, is the highest finishing returning driver from that race.

Reddick won last year’s night race over Briscoe and John Hunter Nemechek.

Click here for the entry list.