I didn’t want to love the Indianapolis 500.
People told me horror stories about “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”: the monstrous, miles-long traffic jams that’d make me beg to watch paint dry, the drunken debauchery of the Snake Pit, the mind-numbingness of watching cars go round and round a 2 1/2-mile track for 3 ½ hours. . .
I’m sad to say that, for 21 years, I believed them.
Until this year.
Indianapolis Monthly offered me press credentials, and I had the opportunity to pursue a Danica Double of my own: covering two of America’s preeminent sporting events, the Rose Bowl for the IUPUI Sports Capital Journalism Program and Indianapolis 500 events for Indianapolis Monthly, in the same calendar year.
Both, of course, which require early-morning wake-up calls.
It was 12:30 a.m. the night before my first Indianapolis 500. I was getting up in 6 ½ hours.
I wondered if I should get up in five.
Hoosier friends I’d talked to set out for the track in pre-dawn stupors at 5 a.m., 4 a.m., in one case, 3 a.m. (!), opting to watch the sun rise over the Speedway.
I’d been through the 5 a.m. drill once this year for America’s foremost flower festival, the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena.
I didn’t have an overwhelming desire to repeat the experience.
I got up at 7.
It turns out I needn’t have worried: I hit more traffic commuting to Indianapolis on a Monday morning than I did driving through Speedway at 8 a.m. on Race Day.
As the Speedway came into view, I felt a twinge of shame.
I was the New Yorker who’d never seen the Statue of Liberty. The Parisian who’d turned a blind eye to the Eiffel Tower.
I’d lived in Indiana all my life, and I’d never attended the Indianapolis 500.
Despite the fact that the race occurred 13 miles from my house.
Walking along Georgetown Road outside the track, I was struck by the crush of people that surrounded me on all sides. Sure, I’d visited during practice and qualifying before, but this was different. The grandstands looked like . . . well, actually, I can’t tell you what they looked like, because I didn’t see them until after the race.
The bleachers were drowning in a sweaty, passionate, 2 ½ mile-long ocean of 300,000+ race fans.
And I couldn’t even see half of them.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Media Center was the same story: all the Rose Bowl media members fit in a single press box atop the west end of Rose Bowl Stadium.
The IMS Media Center has four levels. Even from the top of the tower, you can’t see around the entire track: You just have to imagine the Snake Pit is somewhere off in oblivion, and trust that when the cars disappear around the bend, they aren’t being swallowed by a dragon that spits them out 30 seconds later on the opposite end of the front straightaway.
With temperatures hovering in the 90s at the second-hottest 500 on record (first place goes to 1937’s 92-degree inferno), it often felt like it.
And it didn’t, um, exactly smell the best.
In January, I wrote that if you could bottle the scent of the Rose Parade, it’d be “roses mingled with magnolias alongside asters bundled with buttercups.”
IMS would be a lit cigarette doused in sunscreen (and then deep-fried for good measure).
Okay, but in the Speedway’s defense, no one comes to IMS to smell the roses.
They come to kiss the bricks.
Meandering through the pits before the race, I snapped photos of the cars, treaded the Yard of Bricks the winning driver would soon lock lips with, and even crossed paths with Chris Hemsworth, this year’s green-flag-waving celebrity.
The pre-race pageantry gave me goosebumps — my heart burst with Hoosier pride to hear Jim Cornelison belt the backwoods strains of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
“Back home again in Indiana. . .
From the fields I used to roam.
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash
Then I long for my Indiana home.”
The Rose Bowl has pomp and traditions, sure — the New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade, the Rose Queen, the marching bands from all over the country that line up, shivering, in the pre-dawn darkness on Orange Grove Boulevard. . .
But the Indy 500 is in my state.
“Drivers, start your engines!” The roar of revving race cars broke the spell (side note: I’m in awe of how quickly the “yellow shirts,” or IMS staff, cleared pit lane in the fewer than five minutes after the conclusion of “Back Home Again in Indiana”).
After a few practice laps, I watched Thor, a.k.a. Chris Hemsworth, wave the green flag, and the cars flew by in a blur of greens, pinks, blues, and oranges — to follow a car, I had to lock in on it at the beginning of the front straightaway and track it with my eyes all the way down the track. Otherwise, it was no more than a 220-mph blur.
Three-and-a-half hours later, on Lap 196, I watched Will Power take the lead for good and then, four laps later, coast across the Yard of Bricks, the survivor of a scorching, suspenseful slugfest. He unleashed a primal scream, having just won the Super Bowl of his sport.
IMS does things to you, man.
Case in point: Power hadn’t even bothered to provide a preference for the type of milk he’d receive if he won, as he follows a dairy-free diet. But then he changed his mind. The hell with it, he thought. He’d just won the race of his life. He was drinking that milk (and then spraying the rest of it — accidentally — in the face of a 500 festival princess).
I was amazed how quickly the Speedway emptied out after the race — after listening to owner and driver press conferences, I slipped out at 5:15 p.m., and was home by 6 (and I even had time to go by the grocery store on the way!). Traffic, schmaffic.
Chris Hemsworth and I have something in common: We attended our first Indy 500 this year.
And something else, too: We’ll be back.
By Sarah Bahr | @smbahr14