40 seconds, one lap, 20,000 horsepower, and I was changed. I became an IndyCar fan.
The start of the Indianapolis 500 was all it took to convince me that every single prejudice and assumption I had made about the series in years of being a Formula 1 and sportscar lover was wrong. I always wrote it off as boring; on boring American tracks with boring American drivers in the same boring American car. I preferred my racing with diversity and international flair—if not overtaking, in the case of F1, or TV coverage, in the case of sportscars.
So why was I at Indy then? It’s a place that demands respect, from any racing fan. It’s where Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart and Jimmy Clark came when time allowed to race their native machines—or jump in some beautiful, roaring American beast—and drive on this curious “oval” course. It’s the simplest track, a rectangle. The simplest race, 500 miles, as fast as you can go. But from those ingredients come excitement like no other race, on a scale greater than can be imagined.
Also, I live nearby. A six hour drive is no excuse to avoid the great Brickyard, so the day before the race I picked up my “Indy Car friend” Justin and headed to Louisville, Kentucky to stay the night with an aunt. Upon arrival we discovered that Indianapolis was not, in fact, across the river from Louisville as I had thought, but hours away. Our route planning was clearly not as thorough as our grandstand seat research in buying tickets six months earlier. So, we awoke at four in morning, having not slept before race day as usual, to drive across Indiana.
Lack of rest did not contain our excitement, and when we finally arrived, it was like Mecca. We were at a sacred temple of racing, and the top row of the empty Turn 4 bleachers at 8:00am was a poignant sight—but enough of that. There must be no romanticism on our Indy 500 weekend.
There were hours before the race, and we needed something to do. Having attended mostly less-organized sportscar races, I am accustomed to being able to nonchalantly wander into almost any restricted area. This is not the case at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Belligerent, yellow-shirted men wait at every gate, garage, and trailer, keeping innocent, young race fans from sabotaging Will Power’s car. My attempts throughout the day at getting in to the pitlane eventually got us on the “unspoken blacklist” for the Gasoline Alley area. My idea of standing on the podium—that probably wouldn’t happen.
Disappointed by the “stupid” security and still carrying the roll of nickels intended for the air intake of a Team Penske car (only kidding), we made our way to the infield museum. Again, Indy set itself apart from the NASCAR oval stereotype. The museum was not just former 500 entrants, there were Ford GT’s and Ferrari 250 LM’s and even bikes! At the center of it all, my hero. The Lotus 38: Ford-engined, rear-engined, built by Colin Chapman, driven by Jimmy Clark to British victory at the Brickyard. Its offset wheels were for Indy only, but the green and yellow livery remained when Lotus visited the states. I spent several, several minutes climbing about the car’s special podium taking endless iPhone pictures. Sadly, few others understood my adoration. More eyes were on the Danica Patrick cardboard cut-out.
According to my t-shirt, I was supporting… Ford; neutral at this race. I needed to pick a side. I had done research on this, and eventually settled on ex-Peugeot Le Mans driver Simon Pagenaud as my favorite, followed by ex-F1 people Rubens Barichello and Takuma Sato. Above all, I was pro-Honda. And finally, for the hell of it, go Jean Alesi; aging, ultra-French, Canadian Grand Prix winner unfortunately equipped with a useless Lotus engine car his Indianapolis debut. He’d need at least one fan out there, though. So Justin and I headed to the overpriced merchandise tent for some Pagenaud and Dario Franchitti gear. 128 combined dollars later, we were equipped with matching, brightly-colored IndyCar jerseys—sorry ladies.
By the time we were in our seats, we were already badly sunburned. Weirdly, we were glad. We wanted the full, earsplitting, backbreaking, heatstricken experience, and that’s what we got at the outside of Turn 4, sun in our faces until just after the checkered flag. These seats had been chosen carefully, and had been the subject of much debate back in December. Research on recent races found that the most action outside of the expensive Turn 1 occurred at Turn 4. As it was, no action occurred there this year, and all at Turn 1. But we still got the benefit of blinding UV exposure and sweaty drunks where we were.
After much Memorial Day troop-honoring and the singing of more patriotic songs than I knew we had, the close countdown to green started with driver introductions. First up, last on the grid, sixteen miles per hour off the polesitter’s pace, Jean Alesi. “Allez Alesi!” I shouted to confused stares. Right, moving on. Sebastian Bourdais, also ex-Peugeot, “Wooo!” Simon Pagenaud, “Allez Simon!” Takuma Sato, “Shouri Takuma Hai!” By Ryan Briscoe, we were out of breath and unable to speak, having loudly voiced our opinions on every driver on the grid. My pro-Sato and anti-Rahal position had made us few friends in nearby rows, but the cars were on the parade lap; no time to care about anything else.
The first lap was an emotional assault of awe, excitement, rushed grid analysis, and happy fear, compounded with the physical effects of incomprehensible shouting and a massed turbocharged roar that felt like the sound barrier was about to break you. In seconds the sound fell and the thousands of voices and loudspeaker commentary was comparative silence. Cars coming around again, pressed into the banking of Turn 3 visible even from here, kilometers away, and you get a sense of the scale of Indianapolis: massive. With the clean open sky above tiny cars speeding around the rim of a giant bowl, they may as well be rockets, the race an air show. You watch them come from a far off turn, they swoop down to your corner’s apex, hit you with their turbo roar, and are off down the front stretch, nose rattling over the bumps and bricks.
Like I said, by now, I am an IndyCar fan. And what a first race to attend. In a few laps, poor Monsieur Alesi was black-flagged for being too slow and I was of course the only person in Indiana who seemed to mind. In better news, Will Power then crashed out, but was unhurt (to be honest, Justin and I were high-fiving before his condition was announced) (it didn’t look like a bad wreck, okay, we knew he’d be fine).
The race progressed in gripping excitement with more battles and restarts at a faster pace than anything I had ever seen in person. Eventually, Franchitti made his way up to the lead from 30th and a slew of cautions set the stage for voice-destroying excitement. Indeed, our voices were destroyed, specifically by trying to ignite an Interlagos-style widespread “Olé” at Tony Kanaan’s launch from 6th to 1st. When it came down to Takuma and Dario, 1st and 2nd, Justin and I were at odds but also mentally spent, brains running solely on decibels and overtakes. It didn’t matter who won, this was the greatest thing ever.
As it turns out, it did matter who won, to me. I was heartbroken, but post-race is the best time to eat, so straight to the teams’ VIP hospitality tents I went, waltzing into Mr. Penske’s buffet line, grab some hot wings, maybe a hot Coke, make no eye contact, leave before anyone says anything. We ate like race winners from Ganassi’s plate of mini-burgers.
Finally, hours after the checkered flag as the grandstands slowly drained, I made my way across an unguarded bleacher and into the Pagoda, Osaka Castle of Indy, towering and air conditioned yet also intimidating to the young, non-credentialed, security-bypasser. Goal of the day in sight, we walked right past Mr. Franchitti’s Borg-Warner trophy, right past 2012 500-winning chassis, and stood on the podium, alone, no hordes of photographers, but nonetheless satisfying.
“You boys are gonna have to leave this way.”
Yes sir. Dream over. Still, what a day.
I had undergone the full IndyCar immersion program, I discovered and judged every driver, and not all are boring Americans. A little Japanese man fought for the victory, an awesome Brazilian finished third, and look who won! A Scot! Like Jimmy Clark! The track, while American, was not boring—probably the most incredible venue that I had ever seen. And the car, turns out, is Italian. I had experienced it all and loved it, but it really wasn’t necessary. All I needed was the first lap.