Those Annual Signs Of Spring
During this time of year, it’s easy to get all caught up in the negativity that surrounds the sport of open-wheel racing. The long offseason just got longer. The sanctioning body continues to make fans scratch their collective heads with decisions and indecisions that cause one to wonder who’s minding the store. And drivers like Conor Daly continue to sit on the sidelines, while drivers that many of us have barely heard of seem to be the front-runners for the few remaining seats. Then there is a winter that seems to drag on at a slow pace. It’s not near as cold as last winter, but warm weather sure seems a long way away.
Yes, it sometimes takes a strong will to be a fan of the Verizon IndyCar Series. Every now and then, it’ll make the most optimistic fan turn gloomy. I know. I’ve been sort of mired in it myself, at times.
But just when you thought the calendar’s gearbox was stuck in neutral, we’re suddenly seeing several signs that the month of May is not that far off. Best of all, there will be more signs to come in the coming weeks.
Bronze Badges go on sale: I’ve said it before, that the IMS Bronze Badge is the best deal in sports. Imagine being able to buy an NFL pass that allowed you locker room access as well as the ability to be on the sidelines for every NFL practice and home game of your favorite team. With that, you’d get the ability to interact with players, coaches, former legendary players and even famous members of the press.
First of all, such a pass doesn’t exist for football fans like you and me. Even if it did, the NFL could probably charge thousands of dollars and sell every one that was available.
In a sense, that’s what the Bronze Badge is. For $125, you get gate admission for every practice and qualifying day. You also get free roam of the garage area for each day of the month of May except for the two race days for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500. For the final practice on the Monday after qualifying, you also get pit access.
If you want to get up close and personal with a driver, this is where you do it. You can stand in line for an autograph on Legend’s Day; or you can grab Rick Mears or Will Power for a quick selfie. Fans roaming the grounds might get a quick glimpse of Mario Andretti zooming by on a golf cart, but in the garage area – he’ll stop, sign autographs and pose for pictures.
Perhaps there’s less of a chance they’ll get mobbed if they stop, or maybe they just feel more at home in the garage area. Whatever the case, the drivers seem to be much more accessible to fans inside the garage area.
You’ll also be close to the cars, sometimes too close, when you’re in the garage area. Keep your head on a swivel, because you can be hit by an approaching race car under tow, or one that they are silently turning around in front of a garage.
I know, because I helplessly watched my ex-wife back into Raul Boesel’s car in 1993. I’m not sure why she was walking backwards in the garage area on the morning of Pole Day that year; but they were pushing Boesel’s Duracell Battery Lola out of the Dick Simon garages and she backed right into the nose of the car – despite crew members yelling at her to get out of the way. I feared she would snap off one of the brittle carbon-fiber wings, but the car survived unscathed. By the way, she was undamaged as well; but that helps explain one of the many reasons why she became my "ex" three years later.
Try finding another major sport that allows that type of access and freedom among the athletes and equipment. You can’t. Even if you’re like me and don’t live in Indiana, the Bronze Badge is tough to pass up among hard-core fans.
Month of May schedule announcements: Although it’s not ideal for those of us that travel a ways to get to the Speedway, there’s a lot to like about the 2015 schedule that was announced last week. Most importantly, there are now four straight weekends that feature IndyCars on track in the Month of May.
Just reading about the different times that things would take place at IMS in May had me visualizing being there. Suddenly, the cold February air didn’t quite have the chill that it once did, as I started thinking about all of my May rituals.
Details of Legend’s Day emerge: This is quickly becoming the fastest growing new tradition at the Speedway. The Saturday between Carb Day and Race Day was once considered Dud Day. There was nothing going on at the track, mainly because of the 500 Festival Parade taking place a few miles to the east in downtown Indianapolis.
I am an old-school traditionalist in every sense of the word; but even as a kid – I was always bored by parades. Is there anything more cheesy than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade? Watching trailers covered with tissue paper carrying bodies that wave, is not my idea of fun. I’d rather sit at home and hit myself in the head with a hammer. So what, if the drivers go by in convertibles? I’d rather buy the Bronze Badge (see above) and see them up close and personal in Gasoline Alley.
We always made our annual journey to IMS the day before the race. Ten years ago, there was nothing more to do than go to the museum and the gift shops. That was our day to buy souvenirs, so that we didn’t have to lug them around on Race Day. My annual highlight was to pick out a spot where I could look out onto the track and lose myself for a few minutes. I savored the quiet that had engulfed the track, thinking how different it would be in less than twenty-four hours. I would contemplate all the great names that had driven over that very spot over the decades. That was always a great time for me, but I’m sure no one else in my group was into the moment quite like I was.
But recently, the powers-that-be have done a great job mixing the history of the event with what many track visitors of today want to see. Each year, IMS celebrates various legends at the track on the day before the race. Last year’s honoree was Mario Andretti. In 2013, Parnelli Jones got the nod. This year, it is four-time winner Al Unser. All of those three certainly qualify as legends in my book. They recognize the honoree at the driver’s meeting and have one or more of their iconic cars drive around. Two years ago, Parnelli took laps himself behind the wheel of his 1963 winner – Ol’ Calhoun.
The last couple of years have seen a plethora of roadsters taking laps, giving younger fans the chance to hear what an Offenhauser sounded like. Seeing those cars lumbering down the straightaway gives me goosebumps to think about as I type. Imagine what it does for me to sit in the stands and watch them go by. To top it off, Donald Davidson is on the PA giving the histories of each car.
Beginning last year, IMS began hosting concerts the late afternoon of Legend’s Day. Last year, country superstar Jason Aldean was the attraction. He’s not my cup of tea, but my wife likes him. Even if you don’t like country music, there’s no denying that IMS finally secured an A-lister in Aldean. Susan went to the concert with her son Eric and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. I instead went to Dawson’s with my brother and his family. But Susan had a good time and plans to go again this year to see Florida-Georgia Line. Again, they don’t do much for me, but Susan was excited. I rank concerts just ahead of parades.
But give IMS credit. They’ve turned a very dead day into a celebration of the vast history of the place. Junkies of history will thoroughly enjoy many parts of Legend’s Day, but there’s plenty for younger fans also – topped off with the Turn Four concert.
That’s what we’ve experienced, so far, in the past week or so. Soon there will be the unveiling of the 2015 ticket featuring Ryan Hunter-Reay as last year’s champion. A couple of weeks later, one of the best reminders that May is near will be when we open the mailbox to find that nondescript blue envelope from Speedway, Indiana. Inside will be what we’ve waited almost a year for – our tickets to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
If you’re like me, you’ll carefully open the envelope with an actual letter-opener rather than the usual ripping it open with my fingers. Then I’ll look at each one to make sure that they are all in the correct seating location. Lately, I’ve taken a picture of all four fanned out and posted them on Twitter and Facebook. Not many are that envious however, because many that I follow are doing the same thing.
That gets us to early to mid-March. By that time, we will have surely seen the new aero kits and most of the seats for St. Petersburg will be filled, except for Dale Coyne of course – he’ll wait until the week of the first race to announce his driver lineup. Shortly after the season-opener, Susan and I will start traveling to our races at NOLA and Barber; before starting our weekly treks to Indianapolis in May. Then on May 25th, it’ll all be over with.
But getting there is half the fun and the journey has already begun with these annual signs of the coming spring. Racing fans sure have a different way of looking at the calendar to ease the sting of winter.