Saturday, May 25, 2024

Indy 500 memories

Since 1911, cars have raced around an oval track for 500 miles every Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At the height of its popularity, the race attracted 500,000 fans. This year, almost 340,000 are expected. That’s still a lot of people crowded into a small area. For people who live near the track, that creates problems—and fun opportunities, especially for people-watchers like us.

The afternoon before the race we’ll park close to the track and walk down Georgetown Road from 30th Street to 16th, taking snaps of fans. Or we’ll brave the congested traffic and hepped-up drivers on Saturday night and take our stroll then. We used to get up at sunrise and walk along 30th Street the morning of the race, too. You wouldn’t believe what we’ve seen…

“If this van’s a-rockin,’ don’t come a-knockin.’” In years past, on race day cars jammed 30th Street starting at 4 A.M. as drivers waited for the gates to open at 6 A.M. One year, amid all the vehicles lined up waiting to get in, a van started rockin’—and rockin’—and rockin.’ A few minutes later, the van stopped rockin’ and a man in a cowboy hat and jeans emerged and staggered off. Another male person entered the van and soon it was rockin’ again. A couple of sheriffs on foot patrol walked by the rockin’ vehicle and moved on. No problems here— in the interest of good PR, the local police refrain from making arrests over Memorial Day weekend unless the offense is especially egregious.

In a similar vein, one year on race day some partiers had set up a tent near 30th and Georgetown. As we walked by, an inebriated fellow managed to hold up a full-sized street sign that read, “Show Your T—s Av.” John was peering through his camera lens looking for a good shot when the fellow’s two female companions lifted their shirts. I elbowed him and he got the shot. (I’d include it here, but this blog is rated PG!)

One year, the night before the race, a bearded young man in a robe dragged a full-sized cross on his back down Georgetown Road from 30th Street to 16th Street and back again several times, accompanied by a friend carrying a “Jesus Saves” sign. Most of the rowdy crowd grew quiet and gave them plenty of space as they made their solemn trek, although some people laughed and threw beer cans at them.

Once several hundred thousand fans are inside the track and the race starts, an odd phenomenon occurs—there’s very little traffic on the streets of Speedway and environs, like on any Sunday morning. In 1990 we took advantage of the empty roads and drove a U-Haul full of our stuff to our new house a few miles from our apartment. We unloaded the truck and listened to the race on the radio as Emmo (Fittipaldi), (Bobby) Rahal, Al (Unser) Jr., and Arie Luijendijk battled it out, then popped a cold one and congratulated ourselves on our cleverness when the streets filled up again. (Arie edged-out Rahal by 11 seconds for his first 500 win.)

In 1999, we attended Legends Day and met drivers like pole-sitter Luijendijk and defending champion Eddie Cheever and got their autographs for Rob and Jurina, our Australian friends who are big 500 fans. That year we were at the track before the race when a B-2 stealth bomber flew overhead. It was very eerie—the plane was so quiet you could hold a conversation during the flyoverso different from a normal aircraft or the usual Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, or F-16 Viper demonstrations.

In 2001, we were walking around taking pictures outside the track on race day when a “yellow shirt” (safety patrol person) motioned us over to his gate and asked if we wanted to see the race! We said, “Sure!” and waltzed in. The race wasn’t half over yet. We stood by the fence in the infield and watched the cars zoom by. I told John, “Helio (Castroneves) is going to win this,” and he did, his first win of four.

Some years ago we were walking through the parking lot at 30th & Georgetown on race day and saw a young man passed out face down in a pile of puke in a moat of beer cans next to a car with California plates. He was shirtless; his back was beet red, his front pale white. The poor guy had driven 2,000 miles just to spend the entire race unconscious and never made it to the gate only thirty feet away.

One time, we passed a big RV with scaffolding parked in the Coca-Cola field (scaffolding in the track infield is prohibited) with a two-foot high, four-foot wide circle of beer cans completely surrounding it. You’d have to wade through the knee-high moat or jump and spin like Simone Biles to get to the door.

Another year, two young fellows near 16th Street were juggling lit torches around a man about the size of actor Will Sampson—six-foot seven, 260 pounds—standing with his arms crossed. John immediately started taking his picture—it’s great to take crowd shots and snaps of individuals in a crowd, but people are always moving, making it difficult to get a crisp, clear shot of a single individual, and here was a perfect model standing still! John created a “shadow man” picture from his photo—never showing his face—a silhouette he’s used in some impressive artwork.

After the race, we usually head over to the corner of 38th Street and Moller Road to wave goodbye to the fans. But that’s another story…

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