The Day Before The 500

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I suppose it’s a function of my advanced age, but it took me several days to recover from last weekend at IMS. Of course, we didn’t quite follow the regular routine that we normally would on qualifying weekend. Fast Friday was probably may have been more stressful for me than it was for the drivers or teams – as we were running around like crazy, picking people up at the airport and taking care of last-minute details for our wedding at the track. When it was over, it came off practically without a hitch, but there were a few minor and comical flubs that probably made things more memorable. Still, the whole ordeal had us both exhausted throughout the rest of the weekend as well as this past week as we returned to jobs and reality for a few days.

Well, reality is in the rearview mirror for the next ten days and so is Nashville. Just as our tired old bodies recovered from last weekend, it’s time to do it all over again. But at least this time, we are following our normal race weekend schedule. My brother and his crew will meet us at the track around noon today. There we will take the obligatory tour of the museum (although John and I went there last Sunday).

We’ll also take in the gift shops, which were a little disappointing last weekend. There was nothing I saw last weekend that I had to have – except for this year’s program, of course. The historical books were very scarce and DVD’s were limited to the “Legends Series” that have been around for years and last year’s race. The new die-cast cars now cost $60 and the apparel was either very ordinary or extremely ugly. I did pick up a jacket that was tasteful enough, but when I saw the $100 price tag I quickly put it back.

We’ll also indulge in one of my favorite annual rituals, when we walk over to where our seats are in the Pit Road Terrace. What I like about this yearly event is that it is such a surreal moment. It is eerily quiet as we look out over the silent track. It’s such a far cry from what it will be like in about eighteen more hours, when it’ll be bustling with activity. The teams will be trying to line their cars up on the grid amid other team members, mechanics, media members, lowly bloggers and fans that were lucky enough to know someone to get them out there. Oh, did I mention that the stands will be humming with about a quarter of a million people? That doesn’t count the thousands more in the infield who may never see a car, but won’t really care.

There was not as much buzz last weekend as the previous year, but that’s understandable. The Speedway pulled out all the stops for the Centennial Celebration. I guess things are “back to normal” this year. But make no mistake; this is still the Indianapolis 500 – the world’s largest single-day sporting event. It’s estimated that close to 400,000 people will be packed into the historic oval at 16th and Georgetown tomorrow. And whenever it’s Race Day at this giant venue, something magical usually happens.

So that’s why I like taking it in on the Saturday afternoon before every race. It is so quiet that my mind can’t help but wander to races from past years. There was the glory of Dan Wheldon’s improbable victory last year. There was the anguish when Parnelli Jones coasted silently down pit lane three laps from what appeared to be a sure victory in 1967. Then there were the tragedies that occurred here, just in my lifetime – Jerry Unser, Bob Cortner, Tony Bettenhausen, Eddie Sachs, Dave McDonald, Chuck Rodee, Mike Spence, Jim Malloy, Art Pollard, Swede savage, Gordon Smiley, Jovy Marcelo, Scott Brayton and Tony Renna all lost their lives after I was born; not to mention all of those that perished here before my day. The loss of Dan Wheldon last October is a sobering reminder that this is still a very dangerous pursuit.

I usually have to be prodded to finally step away from this part of the day. From the quiet solitude of the main straightaway, we make our way back to the car and leave the friendly confines of the track to venture out into the abyss which is Georgetown Road. Here we will see the freak show that is a celebration of tattoos, piercings and body odor. The thing is, I don’t think these people ever sleep during the weekend and I know they never bathe. This is nothing new, however. I can remember these same sights as a wide-eyed six year-old when I first came in 1965. Only the faces and bad dental hygiene have changed.

After that trek through the Sodom and Gomorra, we’ll finally make our way back into civilization. I’d like to think a trip to the Mug-N-Bun will be in order, but it may not happen this year. Inexplicably, a friend of Susan’s is getting married in Bloomington on the night before the 500 – and we are going. I will not comment further, but you probably know my thoughts. Needless to say, I am engaging in my first act as a dutiful husband.

Regardless, it will be an early night tonight as it is every night before the race. To save cash, we stay a little further out. It’s great when we pay the bill, but not so much when we wake up at 3:30 am to leave at 4:30 am on race morning. That hurts even more when you realize that our bodies are set on central time. Susan has already served notice that this may be the last year that we stay outside of Marion County.

With all that goes on in every month of May, plus throw in a secret wedding at a non-traditional marriage venue – it’s been quite a month. Tomorrow, it will all be over and the countdown will begin for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500. But in three days, we get to go on our honeymoon…

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “The Day Before The 500”

  1. SkipinSC Says:

    Back in the 70’s and 80’s, when I used to live in Indiana, I used to spend as much of my day as I could sleeping on the Saturday iof the weekend. That way I could spend as much of the night before the 500 wandering the crowds on whichever end of the track we were pre-parking (in general) having some beers and people watching.

    Several years, we wound up parking in the old Speedway Shopping Center, pretty much across the street from the main gate. The sights that one could view from there would, quite frankly, scare the bejeezus out of the distaff members of our party on the few occaisions that we had distaff members of our party.

    That was the one night of the year that I actually ate White Castles of my own free will, usually much to my later disdain, choosing to save our bucket of chicken until we actually got to our seats. (In those days, we were partial to the Southeast and Southwest Vistas.)

    We generally packed three coolers, one very large Coleman model, which remained permanently ensconced in the trunk of the car, and two of the “legal” Playmate sizes to carry into the Speedway itself. For the night before, we made as large a dent in the Coleman as we could, and then just before the bomb would go off, we would load the Playmates with only the coldest of beverages, generally hiding at the bottom of the Coleman.

    There were sights, sounds and smells in that parking lot and along 16th St. that would (and do now) curl my hair (assuming I had any.) One year a friend of mine and i happened upon a group of highly inebriated gentlemen hanging about their open trunk. Bear in mind this was (I believe) 1975, and there was a distinct odor of cannabis coming from their general direction. Since that was one provision we lacked, we decided to wander on over to see if those gentlemen might be interested in negotiating a trade for some of our ample quantity of beer.

    Imagine our surpirse when we discovered that these seriously intoxicated individuals were peeing in their trunk. Now race day in 1975 was (before it rained) severely hot and humid. I can only imagine what the odor of that car must have been like on their trip back to wherever home was.

    Considering all that I have seen in the confines of the “Speedway Triangle,” this story is but a mild vignette. There were many years in my misspent youth where the party far exceeded my interest in the race. This was especially true once my hero and idol, A. J. Foyt was out of contention. That was usually time to pop open the liquid refreshment and get pleasantly buzzed, if not moreso.

    I can, however, say that I was there (and sober) in 1977 when Mr. Foyt won his fourth 500, and I was there ten years later when Al Unser repeated that feat.

    Those memories last forever.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Back in the day my dad and I would spend Saturday afternoon making our way to the line outside the track where my Uncle Scotty from Antioch, Indiana had his 1954 Ford station wagon parked. He had a plywood platform mounted on top of the station wagon. The inside was packed with folding chairs, a sun roof, fried chicken and potato salad, and of course, beer.

    Very early in the morning of the race a cannon blast would sound and the gates to the infield would be opened. Since most of the folks in line had been drinking all night, the race by everyone to get to their favorite spot was often at least as good as the race itself. As for the sights I witnessed as a young boy, suffice to say that all education in life does not take place in a classroom.

    Later that morning my grandparents and uncles from Broadripple would join us with more fried chicken. There was no time in the morning too early for my grandfather to have a beer and he often was contentedly asleep somewhere on the golf course shortly after the race started. After the race we would have to retrieve him and tell him who won.

    During those days (daze) one was allowed to bring almost anything into the infield. I recall one year when two men lumbered up next to us (at the exit to turn two) with a front-end loader. They had a couch and their beer cooler in the bucket and had us raise them up and down as needed.

    Now all these years later I prefer to go to a dirt track race somewhere in the area on Saturday night.

    George, since you are going on a honeymoon just three days after all you will have been through, perhaps Mr. Barfield will allow you a bit of extra “boost”.

  3. The Photo Shop on the second floor of the IMS Museum has a nice selection of historical 500 books

  4. Gurney Eagle Says:

    We never miss the parade. We took our children for years and now are taking our grandchildren. It is a good way for the youngsters to feel a part of the festivities until they are old enough to go to the race.

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