Monday, May 10, 2010

Indy 500 Countdown: 5 Days Until the Roar Begins

Having moved to Indianapolis shortly after my 11th birthday, it wasn't long before the lure of the Brickyard had me smitten. My grandfather introduced me to racing at about the age of the boy in this photo, and with my birthday near 500 race day every year, I have great memories of listening to Sid Collins call the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" on the radio while eating watermelon and birthday cake at Grandpa's house. My dad took me to see the movie "Winning" for my 12th birthday and I saw my first 500 for my next birthday. I've been every year since 1976 and the changes that have occurred at 16th & Georgetown have been well documented through the years. I was reminded last week while picking up Mini Marathon packets at the Indiana Convention Center that much of the race's allure has been lost since the 500 was only available on radio. The saddest part is that casual fans will never know what they have been missing. And where will the next generation of Indycar fans come from?

As I shot pictures of this young man walking around Danica's show car at the Convention Center, I flashed back through my years as a fan, spectator and photographer. Every year it seems photographers talk and wonder where the next generation of shooters are who will put in the time that so many of us have invested, waiting for three seconds of action day after day to get "the shot". Around here, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is simply "The Speedway", or "The Track", as in, "Are you going out to The Track today?" It was commonplace to skip class in high school on a nice May day and go watch practice for a couple of bucks. Spending all night waiting for the gates to open on race day to run in and get a spot on the infield fence was an annual event in and of itself. So many rituals like that have fallen by the wayside; many say it is because there are so many entertainment options available to people today.

One reason not often given is a simple change in philosophy at the Speedway: when the decision was made to erect grandstands where the infield crowd used to gather in the Turn 1 Snakepit, the opportunity for casual fans to be part of an "event" began to dwindle. That crowd got moved to Turns 3 & 4 and then the road course was built and the spaces by the fence dwindled even further. I will agree that the spectator mounds have been a great addition for fan comfort. But I still miss the chaos of bikers and loaded-down vans racing into the track at 5 a.m. on race day, now replaced by orderly processions into lined parking areas inside Turn 3. And while it is true that the rowdy fans of years past are fewer in number due to physical limitations, I really believe the loss of that rowdy element has had an effect on the Indy 500 fan base and pushed people to NASCAR where they could camp out for days on end and carry on with relative abandon. Racing has always had that element of wildness and its loss to a more corporate environment is hard to explain to people whose only knowledge of Indy is what they see on Sportscenter.

Ignore if you can all the infighting that followed the IRL-CART split and the bickering among fans who still want to place blame for the "demise" of open wheel racing. The fact remains that creature comforts at Indy are vastly improved and Indy is still the race that every race fan anywhere knows about. Winning the Indy 500 itself is still highly sought after by racers. The Indycar rules since the IRL was formed have arguably created the closest competition that the Speedway has ever seen. I know Indy diehards lament the loss of 100,000 people turning out on pole day, but when the action is available on TV and the Internet, who can blame today's fans for staying home? Something more must be done to get people to the track and it has to start at an earlier age. More school bus field trips to the Track, not just in May but year-round. Organized tours of the 500 Museum, the track and garages with "open house" style events for all comers, free of charge. Chances for average people to drive their cars on the track and kiss the bricks like the winners. Raffles for suite passes and bronze badges for garage area access when the Track is open for practice. Individual and group visits with drivers and team owners, not just for people associated with sponsors. More contests for tickets to other Indycar events. Chances to drive an Indy Lights car. Hot laps at other non-IRL race events to help people understand the sounds and smells of an ethanol fueled Indycar. Indianapolis racing has got to get personal again so that new fans can understand their fathers' passion for all things Indy and go to the racetrack in truckloads like we used to do.

The photos of the boy at Danica's car got me started on this post, but the clincher for me occurred a few minutes after taking the shots as I was about to leave the Convention Center. On the PA system, I heard an announcement that Firestone Indy Lights driver Martin Plowman was on hand to sign autographs. I walked over to the table where he sat preparing his hero cards to hand out. No one knew who he was and there was no one near him. There were no banners or anything denoting this was a racer on the ladder to the Indy 500. Not even a Firestone backdrop for his autograph session. So I went and talked to Martin for quite a few minutes and told him what a great show the Lights cars put on at the Speedway, where they can run three wide through Turn 1 with room to spare. We talked about the pictures I had of his crash in last year's Freedom 100 and the other race tracks the Indy Lights run as companion to the IZOD Indycar Series. He was very gracious and willing to talk, for as long as I wanted to it seemed, and while I was excited to have this one-on-one time with him, I walked away a bit angry that a good PR opportunity for Indy Lights and Indycars wasn't being maximized. The IRL had their fan trailer there near Danica's car, but Martin was sitting more than 50 yards away. With 40,000 runners coming to the Convention Center to get their Mini Marathon packets, I was surprised there wasn't more of a push to bring more focus to Martin's presence and the real reason there is a Mini Marathon in the first place: The Indy 500.

Today is Helio Castroneves 35th birthday and it only takes one conversation with him to know how passionate he is about Indy. We've got to share that fire with anyone who will listen. I know I do, at every chance I get, and just like this blog post, you get me started talking about Indycars and the 500 and I may never stop. It's still the greatest race in the world. If you don't believe me, put down the iPhone and satellite remote and go to the track next week. Experiencing Indy in person is nothing like television so pack a cooler, take grandma and the kids and find a spot on the Turn 3 mounds. Go smell the ethanol exhaust just once and you'll want to go back for more.

But that's just one Hoosier's opinion. I've got plenty more where that came from. Just ask me.

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