How Do You Teach A Neophyte?

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The Indianapolis 500, if nothing else, is a family affair. I grew up going to the race in the sixties with my whole family – my mother and father along with my two older brothers. After a few years, my mother finally decided that it wasn’t for her but the rest of us went every year – until my father inexplicably announced before the 1973 race that we would no longer be going. That began my twenty-year hiatus from the race, until I returned as an immature adult in 1992.

My son, who was born in 1989, had no choice but to be a fan in his early life. By the time the 1993 race rolled around, he could identify about two-thirds of the starting field by identifying the car or the driver or both. He attended a few races as an adolescent, but by that time – IndyCar racing was about the last thing on his mind. The last race he attended was in 2005 and I don’t think he cares if he ever goes back. But if he did, he still understands the sport and knows who most of the drivers are – so it wouldn’t be too hard to get him back up to speed.

Lately, it seems as if my group on Race Day has had at least one Indianapolis 500 neophyte each year. This year, that distinction belongs to my oldest brother’s son-in-law. He has never been to the race and as best I can tell, there is a distinct possibility that he has never seen it on television.

Yesterday, my brother sent me an e-mail asking about my experience in taking neophytes to the race. He wanted to know how much history to tell them. I pondered the question and basically said to loan him the program from last year’s race. It was a good one and is chocked full of information. I told him to have him read it over the next couple of nights and then he could hit him with questions in the car on the way up.

After I told him that, I wondered if I had given him bad advice. I tried to place myself in the newbie’s shoes (he’s married to my niece, does that make him a nephew-in-law?), but I couldn’t. He is attending his first Indianapolis 500 in his late twenties. I was six. He is going to his first in 2012, I went in 1965. There is absolutely no way to compare the two.

I’ve been successful in converting new fans to the IZOD IndyCar Series over the years, but they were impressionable young teenagers who would basically believe whatever I told them. A college graduate who has been in the family for close to four years now and already knows what a shallow superficial person I really am, is likely to be just a little more skeptical. The more I think about this task, the more insurmountable it seems.

I finally decided to tell my brother to just fill him in on the sacred traditions like the milk, the bricks and Back Home Again In Indiana, while filling him in on the current cars and drivers. Other than the unique traditions, I told him that most neophytes couldn’t care less about the history until they’ve learned all about the present. I also said to not play him any podcasts of Donald Davidson. It would be too intimidating.

Then it finally dawned on me that I’ve got the best resource for answers that anyone could ask for – the people that read this site regularly. So I’ll pose it to you and open it up for discussion: If you were in a car headed to the Indianapolis 500 and you were carrying a neophyte – someone who had never even seen the race – what would be the best way to explain everything that we’ve come to love over the years, in a matter of hours?

And don’t think in terms of just getting the guy to shut up and endure the weekend so that you can enjoy it – think how you would do it if you wanted this to be an unbelievable experience, for someone that you wanted to be hooked for life. What was the one thing that got you after your first trip to IMS that made you keep coming back year after year, decade after decade – and then make you want to pass it along to the next generation in your family so that the Indianapolis 500 would continue to be a family affair?

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “How Do You Teach A Neophyte?”

  1. I will be keeping my son, Jack, up to date with the current drivers and explain to him the history as we go along. A visit to the museum on Saturday will be a good start on the history. He does know some of it. Can’t wait!

  2. George, I would just tell him he is going to have an experience he will never forget, make sure he has hearing and sun protection, is prepared to protect valuables (billfold, cameras, etc.) from theft, and let him experience the day.
    He will like it or he won’t.
    Focus on having the experience you want to have and let him have whatever experience he has.
    You can’t make people like anything but, it you try too hard, you can make them dislike something.

  3. JHall14 Says:

    George, I would ask him/her to keep an open mind and to remember their thoughts.I would drive from North to South down Georgetown Road, then turn left onto 16th street, turn into the Speedway at the tunnel. Go directly to the museum, purchase a ticket for a ride around the track.Once they see the enormous size,see the size of those grandstands,look at the soft walls with indentations from crashes and see the skid marks,a pretty good picture should be evolving.

    Then introduce the traditions of race day, the past and present of today’s IZOD INDYCAR SERIES and I believe they their appetite will begin to grow.Race Day will sell itself. Good Luck!!

  4. Last year’s special edition Sports Illustrated would be good for a quick history of the race. Then just have him mess around on YouTube for awhile, lots of highlights on there.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    No matter what you say in advance, there is only one moment that will determine if the newbie is going to become a fan for life – when the 33 cars take the green flag for the first time. There’s no way to describe it, so just tell them “just wait”. Obviously the size of the place and massive crowd are great, not feeling bad about opening your first beer before 9AM is lovely, and the electricity of the build up to the race is visceral. But when they start the engines, your newbie will think that it is cool, you say “just wait”. They come around on the parade and warm-up laps and the newbie thinks it cool, you say “just wait”. They come by on the pace lap and the newbie thinks they are loud and going fast, you say “just wait”. When they roll off of Turn 4 in formation and roar down the front straight for the green, you’ll know. If your newbie totally loses his shit, you have a fan for life. If your newbie doesn’t, then he/she is hopeless.

    Depending on the kind of person you are bringing, I wouldn’t bore them too much with the history, other than to explain why you have to get there early and explain the traditions of the opening ceremonies (especially taps and Back Home Again in Indiana). Tell them about who the good teams and the favorites are, and who are the little guys that you should really be rooting for.

    Don’t give them reading homework in advance of the race. Just buy the Indy Star and give him/her the Indy 500 Special Edition when you get into town. Tell your newbie to bring the page that has pictures of all of the cars. Tell them they have to memorize the paint schemes because they are going so fast they won’t be able to read the numbers or any of the writing on the cars as they go past.

    We took two of my brothers-in-law to the race for the first time a couple of years ago. Both are from the Northeast, born and bred, and neither had any interest in racing of any kind. We totally overdid the buildup to the race equally for both of them. When the field took the green, one totally lost his shit and the other didn’t. One can’t wait to go back, the other not so much. Ultimately, it no matter what you do, it depends on the person. Don’t ruin your day or weekend catering to the newbie. No matter what you do, it is still going to come down to that one moment.

    • Jim Gallo Says:

      Spot On Brother. The hair on my arms and back of the neck are standing up as I think about Sunday morning for the 40th time. I have told the same story about the same way every year that we bring a newbie with us. Can’t wait!!

  6. billytheskink Says:

    If you can’t get them to the track and museum before race day, Youtube is a particularly good suggestion.
    Even if pressed for time, anyone ought to be able to find 10-15 minutes to watch a few of Paul Page’s Delta Force intros and get a feel for what 500 is all about. They are all good, but the 1990 and 1991 intros probably do the best job explaining why Indy is a big deal and the 1995 intro has a nice summary of the great races of the ABC era.

  7. Don’t really know how to answer the question, but I will have my own interesting experiment going on Sunday. In addition to the nephew who has attended the past two 500’s with us we will have the nephew who has attended the past two Kentucky races with us. Neither has ever seen any other IndyCar race in person. I am somewhat looking forward to hearing what gets said in the car afterwards when they compare notes…

  8. By the way, growing up in Indianapolis I received my “500” education practically every night in May with historic broadcasts of the race. It seemed that every night had something about the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and I hated to miss it. Also, there was plenty of daily recaps and live broadcasts from the track.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    I would not recommend going on and on about any one aspect of the race because untimately they will either get it or they won’t. If you don’t get an adrenalin rush when those 33 gleaming, roaring cars come screaming into turn one after the green flag, well, this is not for you.

    I would, however, try to impart some sense of the intense passion that everyone involved in this race in any way has for it. These drivers are racers. If there was no money in the sport and you put two of them on skateboards or tractors, they would still try and beat the other. As Mario Andretti said recently about his family: “We are racers, we like to go fast” As fans, we love to see them go fast.

    Some talk about the ever present element of danger would be in order also.

    As for YouTube, there are so many good ones. My two favorites are when Sam Hornish just barely edged out Marco Andretti, Dan Wheldon’s unexpected last-second win last year, and the short video of the crowd reaction when Danica Patrick led the race for the first time in 2005. That is was and still is truly electrifying!

    If after all that they still don’t get it, you might point out that there is a golf course there also.

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