The Best Deal In Sports
This past week, we’ve read and heard a lot about what the good folks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can do to draw in more fans. Well, on a more positive note; there is one program that was brought to my attention last week that needs no fixing – the Bronze Badge.
When the postman delivered an envelope last week with the wings & wheel logo on it, I wondered if the tickets had been sent out early and were no longer packaged in the familiar plain blue envelope. Instead, it was the second best thing to come in the mail in mid-winter. It was the application for the Bronze Badge – and the first sign of Spring.
This is, and has been, the best deal in sports for some time. In case you aren’t familiar with the Bronze Badges, they are your ticket to Gasoline Alley for the entire Month of May – excluding Race Day. Of course the Month of May now only covers two weeks, but it does include three weekends; Opening Weekend, Qualifying Weekend and Race Weekend excluding Race Day.
I’ve been attending the Indianapolis 500 off and on now since 1965. As a kid in the sixties, we would spend Pole Days (many times freezing) sitting in our usual Race Day seats in Stand A – just across from the entrance to Gasoline Alley. I can recall gazing through binoculars trying to catch a glimpse at what was going on back there. You could always see a flurry of activity in the old garages, but it was hard to tell exactly what was happening. At least we were the first to see the next car that was making its way onto pit lane. It didn’t take long for an impatient kid like me to determine that the garage area was forbidden to us commoners.
Fast-forward to 1992. After a twenty-year absence, I returned to the Indianapolis 500 as an adult. We had tickets up high in the old Tower Terrace, which has since been razed. Once again, we froze. We were north of Gasoline Alley, but south of the Yard of Bricks. At least we were able to go to the top of the stands and look out over the garage area and get a teasing glimpse at the activity back there. It was just enough to whet my appetite.
That fall, a friend of a friend bragged that he knew someone that lived in Phoenix, but worked for USAC in the Month of May. He assured me he could get us into the garage area when we came up for qualifying. Seeing as how my friend was a bit of a blowhard, I didn’t put much stock in it happening.
Then lo and behold, the following April, I got a call from the guy in Phoenix – an older gentleman by the name of CJ Alexander. We talked racing for an hour over the phone. As it turned out, he and his brother, Joe, had long-term ties to the race all the way back to the fifties. In fact in 1958, Joe worked as mechanic on Lee Elkins’ McNamara team with pole-sitter Dick Rathmann as the driver.
Joe and CJ both became USAC officials in the seventies. By the time I met CJ in 1993, he was in charge of the giant fuel rigs for Race Day. He was responsible for preparing them and moving them to the appropriate pits during the days leading up to the race after qualifying was complete and the field was set. As you can imagine; prior to that week, his days were fairly free and he was usually engaged in serious bench-racing for most of the month. If you have any old videos of qualifying in the nineties, Joe is the one you would see that always drove the golf cart with the car owners to and from the north end of pit lane for qualifying runs.
When he called that night in April, CJ told me about how he would take my wife and me to do this and to do that. It sounded too good to be true. I kept wondering what the catch was. There wasn’t one. He got us in the garage area and gave us both something I had never heard of – Bronze Badges, which gave us the access to come and go into the garage area as we pleased. All he asked was to have them back at the end of the weekend. Needless to say, I was in heaven.
CJ and I hit it off immediately. He took us into the Old-Timers Club, where he personally introduced me to old cronies of his like Duke Nalon, Johnny Boyd and Emil Andres – names that don’t roll off the tongue of the casual fan, but they certainly held my fascination.
By the time the 1993 Indianapolis was completed, I had already decided to order my own Bronze Badges for 1994. The cost was $100 apiece, but I considered it a bargain. We got them again the following year, as well. When the IRL era began, I made the decision to stay away for a few years. I returned for qualifying in 2002, but with no Bronze Badges. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. For the past few years, I’ve again enjoyed the access that the Bronze Badge affords me. And you know what? Twenty years later – they’re still $100.
So what exactly DOES a Bronze Badge get you? From opening day at the track (May 12, this year) through the Saturday before the race, you have complete access to the garage area. You can wander as slowly as you wish and take it all in, or keep a fast clip in search of another autograph or driver photo. You will quickly learn to keep eyes in the back of your head as golf carts and towed race cars seemingly appear out of nowhere behind you.
Just this past May, I was able to walk up to Alex Tagliani’s pole-winning car only minutes after he had won it while it sat in line for technical inspection. The display lights were still shining on his steering wheel and I could peer in and read what they said. How close do you think average fans like me were able to get to Eli Manning just moments after winning the Super Bowl MVP? Of course, Eli isn’t an object but you get my drift.
I don’t claim to know drivers, but I’ve had many conversations with a lot of them over the years. Many of those conversations took place in the garage area at Indianapolis simply because I had a Bronze Badge. As usual, some drivers are more accessible than others. Throughout the past twenty years, I’ve noticed that the Penske drivers are kept under wraps from the fans and only come out to chat with the media at scheduled times. Other drivers will chat freely with you while they walk through the garage area. Some of the more accessible drivers I’ve come across have been John Andretti, Raul Boesel, Arie Luyendyk, Roberto Guerrero and Al Unser, Jr. Some of the more recent names that stand out for being free with their time are Scott Sharp, Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta, Pippa Mann, Vitor Meira, Simona de Silvestro and Dan Wheldon.
And if you’re a gearhead, you’ll be ecstatic at some of the things you’ll see and learn. I am not mechanically inclined, but both of my brothers are. My oldest brother was salivating in 1995, when he and I spent the second qualifying weekend together hanging in the garage area. We would be wandering aimlessly and suddenly come across an engine being fired up. The sound would shake you and the smell of methanol was intoxicating. I don’t find the smell of ethanol to be quite as inviting as methanol, but times change.
Sadly, time also catches up to all of us and the Alexander brothers are no longer with us. CJ passed away in 2003 at the age of eighty-three. Joe died in 2007 at the ripe age of ninety-three. I’ll always be grateful to CJ for giving me my first inside look behind the scenes at the Indianapolis 500 and introducing me to the world of the Bronze Badge.
So if you live close enough to take advantage of qualifying weekend, do yourself a favor and spend the $100 for a Bronze Badge. For more information on the Bronze Badge program, click here. It’s worth it. It’s the best deal in sports.