What Makes A Lifelong Fan?

By Susan Scruggs

In 2003, one of the vendors I do business with gave me two skybox tickets to a Nashville Predators game. It was my first hockey game and since it was last minute, I decided that my obvious “date” would be my son, Eric. After the game was over, his eyes shining with excitement, Eric turned to me and said, “I want to play hockey.” A lifelong fan was born–and I began a life of poverty, while driving to one of Nashville’s four sheets of ice at either 6 am or 10 pm until he got his driver’s license.

He had only been ice-skating three or four times in his life, so his learning curve from being an “ankle bender” (a skating novice) to being the second leading scorer on his team was long and filled with lessons and determination. It was his first love—the thing he would live and die for—the first thing that truly showed his work ethic. As a parent, it is the moment you hope for–the moment that makes you realize that your child is not just a person that sits around like a slug and does the bare minimum to get by. I don’t know what it was about that game–was it the skybox seats, the fast action of hockey, or the fact that for the first time he was allowed to say a marginal cuss word in front of his mother (a hockey tradition shouted as the opposing players are announced), or what, but it left a lasting impression on Eric. The lessons he learned from hockey carry him through to this day. I would not trade a penny of the thousands of dollars I spent for anything. It was the same for IndyCar, just at a different pace.

Also in 2003, I took Eric to his first IndyCar race. It was the Nashville race—it was the “test” race to see if he was interested enough for me to pay the money to go to the Indy 500 the following year. We had pit passes, but I think he didn’t know enough about the sport to realize what was going on. He didn’t know the drivers, but I remember he got mad when the fans booed the winner, Gil de Ferran because he was not the American, Sam Hornish (this was Nashville, after all). When it was over, it seemed like it didn’t leave a lasting impression on him. I asked him if he wanted to go to the Indy 500 the following year. He was slow to respond, but said he would like to go.

What a race that was! Rain delay after rain delay and Buddy Rice was finally declared the winner. Once again, I thought, this will be Eric’s last race. That year there was a tornado as we left the track. He was in elementary school when the massive tornadoes hit Nashville in 1998. Whatever happened at that elementary school that day, left him with a terror of tornadoes. The minute they started talking tornado warnings, he couldn’t get to the car quick enough. It was a race destined to turn off even a seasoned fan.

Later that summer, we tried the Nashville race again. By this time I was determined to show him the good side of IndyCar. We had pit passes and George walked around the pits with us and pointed out different drivers. Some were more approachable than others and Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan were probably the most fan-friendly—always stopping to give autographs and take pictures with fans. He had his eye on Kanaan’s #11 throughout the entire race. Sure enough, he had picked a winner, and a fan was born. We couldn’t get to the winner’s circle fast enough. I saw that shine in his eyes once again.

The Indy 500 was different in May of 2005–he knew who the drivers were and, I could tell, he loved the speed and the danger (as evidenced by the number of speeding tickets he got as a beginning driver on the roads of Nashville). Thankfully, he was still playing hockey and didn’t turn to me and say, “I want to drive an IndyCar.” Dan Wheldon won that year and he was almost as happy as he would have been if Kanaan had won. The hat/die-cast car collection began.

For me, it was sharing the experience with Eric and George. I like to people-watch and IndyCar certainly has more than it’s cross-section of humanity to watch. My first race in Nashville was the year before Eric went—I also picked a winner—Alex Barron, because I thought he was cute. I was not really a life-long fan—yet. My first Indy 500 was the year Buddy Rice won. When George told me that Gomer Pyle sang some song I had never heard, before the race, I was a bit skeptical, but thought “whatever.” When Jim Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana,” goose bumps went up my arms. I realized that I was experiencing something that would eventually change my life.

So what is it about IndyCar that creates life-long fans? It certainly took my son a few races to come around. I think I was hopelessly lost when I asked Ryan Briscoe during a DownForce pre-race event in Nashville if he was married (he wasn’t then), he put his arm around me and asked me “What did you have in mind?” I’m sure he doesn’t remember some middle-aged woman asking him that question, but I sure do. I will forever be a Briscoe fan. What a great guy. I think the drivers have a lot to do with it. The face they present to the fans as ambassadors of the sport is key to bringing life-long fans to the sport.

Last year at Indy, meeting Pippa Mann was one of the highlights of the race for me. She was so friendly and unassuming. You would never know that she was about to step into a car and hurtle around the track in a car that she had only driven a few times. That takes guts. I proudly wear my Pippa shirt whenever I can.

What is that magical combination? Is it the pageantry of the Indy 500? The traditions? The speed and the sound of the engines starting after hearing “Ladies and gentlemen start your engines?” For us it was the accessibility of the drivers and the rest followed. What was it for you? What made you a life-long fan?


11 Responses to “What Makes A Lifelong Fan?”

  1. JIm in Wilmington Says:

    My first race was in 1964. We had just gotten inside the infield and I heard someone warming up one of the Ford v-8s and blipping the throttle wiht a sound like a hundred bed sheets being ripped at once. I was hooked immediately and that sound has never left me. A little later, I heard an Offy being warmed and it sounded just like thunder. I was really hooked then and it has lasted a lifetime.


  2. Nice article! For me the hook was definitely the open friendliness exhibited by both the drivers and the teams. Seeing most of the drivers being willing to stop and sign autographs at the drop of a hat was what clinched it for me, tho the roar of the engines helped…

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I’m a lifelong race fan because I have family who were and are lifelong fans.

    My great-grandfather raced and built midgets and sprint cars and he and his son-in-law, my grandfather, made the trek to Indy in 1965. My father was an amateur motocross racer and attended the 500 in 1991 and 1993 (and 2011 with me!). I was a fan via television until I saw a race live at age 12 because they were fans, with two of my earliest memories being watching Derrick Cope win the Daytona 500 and Arie Luyendyk win Indy in 1990.

  4. Great read Susan!

    As a parent of an 11 and 8 year-old who’ve been allowed to try most any activity outside of school, I am just beginning to see that ‘light in their eyes’ moment as well. For sporting events, I’ve hesitated taking them to Indy for anything but practice thus far but they are both ‘champing at the bit’ to get there (much as I was until I was finally allowed to go).

    That first race of mine with my family and best friend’s family was one of the most memorable days of my life for most all of the reasons you recount.

    I should maybe check “other” in the poll, since for me it wasn’t one specific thing, but the combination of several elements in my life all at once.

    One thing going to the 500 also taught me was that there is a reason there are only a handful of truly grand events of sport in this country. Those need to be early on the bucket list to see. No amount of Texas Twin 275s or mid-major college basketball or average day at the horse races or minor PGA events can produce the magic that the most premier events of those sports give.

    Good on you for recognizing those moments and reminding us all how sports can and should be a place to bond and unite.

  5. Growing up in Indianapolis as a 3rd generation fan, it is in my DNA. As a matter of fact, my mother took me along to the 1955 race while she was pregnant with me and my twin brother.

  6. Some mighty fine scriblin’ Susan. Thanks.

    While I began watching midgets and sprints at the old Milwaukee Mile dirt track in the early 50’s, I soon had an opportunity to go to the Indy 500. My uncles and grandparents were Indiana farmers and avid racing fans. (They would race tractors into Rossville)

    One of my uncles attached a plywood platform to the top of an old Ford station wagon and would put it in line about three weeks before the race. My dad and I and the other relatives would join him the night before the race. As I recall, at 5 AM a loud cannon would go off and the gates to the infield would open. With everyone careening every which way to get to their favorite spot, that was almost better than the race itself. Keep in mind that most fans had been drinking all night.

    In those days you could literally bring almost anything into the infield to watch the race from. One year two guys parked next to us with a front-end loader. They put a couch and a beer cooler in the bucket and had us raise them up.

    So for me, it was family tradition, and the sounds, speed and danger that hooked me for life. Vukovich, Bettenhausen, Foyt…….those were men to be in awe of for a young boy. (or girl)

    Sheesh! Is it May yet??!!

  7. Great stuff!

    I think what makes someone a lifelong fan of anything is that no matter how many times you go to the track, stadium, arena, whatever, the thrill is the same as the first time you went.

    I feel that way anytime I walk into a ballpark (especially Wrigley Field) and I certainly feel that way when I go to Indy. I first went in 1979 when I was 10 and what I felt that day is the same feelings I have when I go in the gates now. I lived in Indy from 1990-94 and at one time was just a mile from the track and drove by it ever day. I remember driving down Georgetown and looking through all of the openings, tunnels, etc just to get a glimpse inside the track. Sometimes I drove into the museum parking lot, turned around and drove back out. Just to be there even for a minute.

    While I am a big fan of IndyCar, it all begins and ends with the Speedway for me. It grabbed a hold of me as a little boy and never let go.

    Now I am trying to pass that along to my sons, and they are really warming up to it. My 16-year-old will make his second trip to the 500 this year and I am taking my 11-year-old to Milwaukee for his first race. It’s just something that gets in your blood, I guess.

    • Mike – I’m 47 years old and a lifelong resident of Indianapolis. Sometimes on a weekend I’ll drive over to the track and just sit in the museum lot for a minute basking in the history, the personal memories, and the promise of things to come. I’ve been to IMS hundreds of times but I still get a chill every time I go through the tunnel.

    • Wrigley Field smells like piss and is the home of losers.

  8. I can’t remember NOT being a fan of Indycar racing. My great-uncle was Chief TImer at IMS from just after WW2 until at least the late 80’s and I remember going up in the old master control tower as a kid to get (pilfer, actually) lunch in the timing booth during qualifying. If we were quiet they would let us stay in there for a while.

    My first trip to the track was in 1968 but my first race was 1973, after years of begging to go. We didn’t have a ton of money but my dad got tickets from a friend after the race was postponed twice. Paddock Penthouse. Front row at start/finish. Heaven for an eight-year old kid. That is literally the only time I ever skipped school for anything other than being sick. Despite all the negativity from that year I haven’t missed an Indy 500 since, between going with friends, scrounging freebies, and having my own tix since ’83. I also haven’t missed a qualifying day since 1980 either, much to my wife’s annoyance since 1995 🙂 .

    My son will see his fourth 500 in a little over two months and he can’t wait either. Like father, like son!

  9. Almost brought a tear to my eye. George’s writing doesn’t do that. I applaud your support of your son’s hockey habit. I was also a rink rat in my teenage years and know the challenges of the sport in both time and money. But my parents helped and I kept summer jobs to pay for ice time. Football, baseball and basketball players don’t know how good they’ve got it!

    My grandfather and my Dad took me to The Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1980 when I was seven years old. I was facinated! Every year that I return to the track in May I have a moment that gives me a lump in my throat. I am so happy to be a part of the biggest and most historic race in the world every May.

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