The Best Deal In Sports

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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.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “The Best Deal In Sports”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Great stuff George, thanks….

  2. I sent my order back in the same day as the letter arrived and can’t wait for that little package to arrive in the mail soon. This is a very good deal. Kind of like a “secret” we keep to ourselves and close friends to keep the garage area from being shoulder to shoulder. I wonder if there is an actual limit to the number of bronze badges that are sold? The silver badges are another deal if you can ever get one. What I have been told, they are not sold to the public and only obtainable from sponsors and teams. I think the one big extra you get with those is pit access. Anybody know more about the silver badges? Thanks again George.

  3. wearing a Bronze Badge is a wonderful way to spend the month of and I recommend them to anyone who plans a Pole Day visit incorporated with their 500 ticket. Also, garage passes are also very much recommended at the other tracks. INDYCAR is very inviting to the fans in that regard.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      I agree John, going to any race and not going for the garage/paddock pass leaves out a major element of the IC racing experience.

  4. Very cool story, George, and yes, the Bronze Badge is the best deal in sports! I can’t imagine going to IMS and NOT having a Bronze Badge.

  5. Don’t forget, Bronze Badges get you on the grounds as well as the garage. You don’t have to pay the daily $5 or Qual day $10, or carb day $20 at the gate either. Nothing else comes close to that deal.

  6. Mike (15daysinmay) Says:

    Great story, George. Memories like that are what make the Speedway so special.

  7. Mike Silver Says:

    I am buying one for the first time this year. I’m very excited. I will be at the track every weekend this year and will make good use of it.

  8. You are 100% correct George. Best deal in sports. I buy two every year and have worn out many pairs of shoes walking the Garage Area all day long.

  9. Very timely George. Thanks. I got on the phone and ordered my badge right after reading your column. I am one who enjoys wandering around the pit area and garages as much as I enjoy the race. This is also easy to do at the Milwaukee Mile. You can buy a pit and paddock pass and go back and forth between your seats and the pits, or you can park in the infield and access the pits there. I enjoy the various opportunities for photos, not only of people but equipment as well. The engine sounds……..the smell of racing fuels………….intoxicating! The mechanics work quickly and precisely, hardly speaking to each other, but absolutely in sync.
    The haulers and other equipment are polished until they gleam with nary a speck of dust, particularly Mr. Penske’s operation. Roger has about 6 scooters at each race. When not in use they are parked in a straight line so precise it appears they were lined up with a transit.

    Sheesh, I am getting carried away here. Is it May yet?!

  10. james t suel Says:

    I HAVE HAD THE BRONZE FOR MANY YEARS. BACK IN THE 70S
    I USED TO GET THE OLD CARDS ADMISSION TO THE GROUNDS ONE FOR THE GARAGE AREA. I HAVE BEEN LUCKEY HAVE HAD A SILVER BADGE THE LAST 10 YEARS. THAT BRONZE BADGE AS YOU STATED A GREAT DEAL. IVE HAD SO MANY GREAT DAYS WANDERING AROUND THE GARAGE AND PITS!!

  11. One thing nobody else has mentioned….. If you are a local, and it rains, the badge lets you back in without paying. It’s like having a pass-out Many times I’ve gone home while they were drying the track and cut the grass or gotten other stuff done, then gone back to the track for the rest of the day. It’s a fantastic deal, even with the neutered “Month” of May that we have now. Figure out how many days, and which ones, you plan to spend at the track. Add up the cost of regular admission and subtract that from $100. The difference is the cost of a garage pass that is good every day but Race Day. You can’t beat it.

  12. I probably shouldn’t tell this but……..Back in the early 90’s (I think) my brother and I discovered that the Bronze badge and Silver badge were the same only different colors. We took our bronze badges and a silver paint pen and a lot of detail work and shazam we had Silver badges. We were never questioned as we entered the pits at will. We did this for 2 years. Some of my best pictures from my 25 years at Indy were from those 2 years in the pits.

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