The Sensations Of Racing

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This weekend, I’m heading to Pocono Raceway for the ABC Supply 500. Unfortunately, I won’t have Susan with me on this trip. She is just about out of vacation time, so she is sitting this one out. This will be my first visit to The Tricky Triangle, but this will be the sixth Verizon IndyCar event weekend I’ve been to this season (counting Indianapolis 500 qualifying as an event).

For some, that’s nothing. I know some fans that are retired and go to ten or more races per season. But for someone like me who works a non-racing related job, has limited vacation time and an even more limited budget – it’s quite an accomplishment. If it weren’t for Susan’s accumulated hotel points from her work, we’d barely be able to attend the Indianapolis 500.

For years, that was the only race I attended. During the early IRL years, I didn’t even attend the “500”. The level of talent didn’t interest me and I was in the midst of going through a divorce that left me…less than flush with cash, we’ll say. The 1995 Indianapolis 500 was my last until 2003, although I did go to qualifying in 2002. I’ve been to every “500” since.

I did manage to attend every Firestone Indy 200 that ran at Nashville Superspeedway. In fact, attending those races in person is what rejuvenated my interest in returning to Indianapolis on a regular basis.

If you’ve never attended a race in person, you may not understand the gist of this post. But if you have, you already know how attending an IndyCar race at my local track in Nashville rekindled my love for open-wheel racing.

It is so hard to put into words what attending an IndyCar race is like. It’s probably even harder to comprehend, when you haven’t been there yourself. You don’t need to be a gearhead or a car freak to be mesmerized by the sensory overload that you experience when at the race track in person. I am not an engineer or a mechanic. I can’t tell you the difference between a turbocharger and a supercharger, nor can I explain why the Buick V-6 of the late eighties and early nineties was so fast at Indianapolis, yet so unreliable.

But I know that there was a huge difference in the sounds of a Buick V-6, the Chevy-Ilmor and the Ford-Cosworth of that era. The Buick had a deep throaty roar, the Chevy had a higher-pitched song and something about the sound frequency of the Ford made your eardrums feel like they were going to pop each time one went by.

The sensations of racing are indescribable to those that have never been to a race. They don’t understand what it’s like to have your entire body vibrate as a bunched-up field roars by to take the green flag for the start of a race. But if you’ve attended only one race in your life, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The smells, the sounds and the actual feel of racing are things everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. I firmly believe that if more people would go to one IndyCar race in person, many would be hooked for life.

That’s exactly what happened to me. I caught the bug after my very first race over fifty years ago. We were sitting very low in Stand J for the 1965 Indianapolis 500, when the field came around for the first time on the Parade Lap. To this day, I remember the explosion of color seeing the cars of AJ Foyt, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney on the front row, coming right at us coming out of Turn Four. As the field proceeded by slowly, the rumbling of the engines seemed to shake the entire earth. Then, just as the cars in Row Eleven were leaving our view – the unmistakable fumes of methanol wafted through the crowd.

The very next lap was the Pace Lap. The cars were gaining speed getting ready to be unleashed by Pat Vidan, in his white sport coat, crisp white shirt and jet black tie at his starter’s near the yard of bricks. When they came around to complete Lap One, the sounds and smells were only eclipsed by the sheer sense of speed as each car came screaming out of the final turn and appeared to be coming right at us as they set up to go down the massive main straightaway for every lap.

I had not yet had my seventh birthday at that time, but I knew that what I had just experienced was something that I would have to do again. Unfortunately, my father took my grandfather and uncle the next year, so it would be two more years before I could do it again – a lifetime for a kid.

I was six that day. Now I’m barely more than a couple of years from turning sixty, yet I still feel the same amount of excitement whenever I enter a racetrack as that exuberant kid did back in 1965. That’s because I know that for a weekend, I’ll be experiencing something that I could never get by sitting on my couch and watching on TV.

For all of the advancements that have been made in covering motorsports on television, there is nothing that conveys the actual speed of the cars like being there. As much as they try to show the speed through creative camera angles, it’s always a shock the first time you see a car at speed when you are at the track. It reminds you of just how much slower the cars appear on television. Once again, it’s tough to describe it to someone who has never been to a track.

For whatever reason, television doesn’t grab the color of racing either. When the Marlboro Team Penske cars were so prominent for a couple of decades, you would never know that the chevrons on those cars were actually a retina-burning day-glow orange, had you never been to a race in person. Those cars appeared on television as simply a boring red color. If you thought Simon Pagenaud’s Menard’s car looked bright on television, you should see it in person. It literally brightened up an overcast day for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis this past May.

Over the years, methanol has given way to ethanol. The smells are different, but just as intoxicating. When I’m walking through the paddock and a team fires up an engine for a moment, I’ll make my way over to it just to listen and to take in the aroma of the exhaust. A non-racing fan might think that sounds absurd, but if you’ve done the same thing – you know what I’m talking about.

Non-racing fans just don’t get it. I have many friends here in town who will think nothing of plunking down thousands of dollars for season tickets to watch a bad Titans team play in cold weather. Those same people think I’m nuts for making three trips to Indianapolis each May, just to watch cars “go around in a circle” – which is an analogy I detest. Aside from all of the tradition of the Month of May, they don’t understand how a race weekend is an assault on the senses.

They don’t get the allure of the smell of tires as a car is racing out of the pits, or the joy we feel when the ethanol fumes are making our eyes water. They don’t understand what it is like to be sitting near the outside wall and have the hair on the back of your neck stand on end as a car goes by at 230 mph. They don’t see the beauty of a colorful winged car hanging onto the edge as it navigates a seemingly impossible corner. They have no idea how much gets lost in translation from attending a race in person and watching it on television. But we do.

If you are reading this right now, it is a safe assumption that you are a racing fan. I’m quite certain that some of you reading this have never been to a race in your entire life. Perhaps you’ve only been to the Indianapolis 500, but not to any other race. If you fall into one of these two categories, I’m not admonishing you, but encouraging you to get to a track soon.

As much as I love going to the Indianapolis 500 each year, I’ll acknowledge it can be a bit overwhelming on Race Day for some fans. I would encourage all IndyCar fans to get out and attend at least one other IndyCar race away from 16th and Georgetown. You will find things a lot more relaxed than what you see on the morning of the “500”. You’ll find access to the drivers to be much easier and you can get much closer to the pits and other parts of the track. You’ll be able to see, hear, smell and feel all of the sensations of racing from a much closer vantage point.

But most of all, this sensory experience will make anyone more of a fan. If you’ve never been to a race, you owe it to yourself to peruse the 2017 schedule whenever it’s released and pick at least one race to go to. Once you do, you’ll know what I was talking about. You’ll thank me for it later. Oh, and by the way…take a friend with you.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “The Sensations Of Racing”

  1. Great post George. Are you driving to Pocono? I just skimmed your post before rushing out the door. I have never been to Pocono either, and living here in Louisville is my best chance. It is still 9 hours for me to drive so it has to be over 10 from Nashville. During my 20’s lived near Philadelphia for a couple years but I never made it to Pocono because IndyCar did not go there at that time. It was just NASCAR events. I am willing to guess Pocono is much more impressive in person than what shows on t.v. Like you said, television does not convey the experience like being there. For those who have never seen a live event have no idea.

    • I am driving, but taking an even longer route than normal. I am meeting my friend and former fellow blogger Paul Dalbey in Indianapolis. From there, we are riding together in my car (better fuel mileage). We’ll split the driving and expenses so it shouldn’t be too bad. The part I dread is Monday, when I have to drive the last four hours alone, from Indianapolis back to Nashville. – GP

  2. Wonderful post. I completely agree with you that people should attend any IndyCar race if possible. My wife and I have been lucky enough to attend 4 races this year (Indy GP, Indy, Road America & Mid-Ohio). I was SHOCKED at how fast the cars went through turn 1 at Mid-Ohio. It was literally a split second how fast they went through it. When we got home & I watched the TV broadcast of it, I swear something was wrong because they looked so much slower through the same turn.

  3. Frank Roales Says:

    You nailed it George, unless you’ve been there you just can’t get the full experience. I’ve been going since my first race in 46 and the in person immersion can’t be conveyed by any other means. As you states the smells, alcohol, (both kinds) gasoline, nitro even sweat fill your senses along wit the sounds of the Chevy, Honda, Buick, Ford, Pontiac, Porsche, and even an AMC. But unless you’ve heard 30 or so offys filling the air with song and being related to background noise by a couple of the mighty Noiv’s you ain’t heard nothing. First person Participation is the key to building and keeping a fan.

  4. I was able to fulfill a long held wish 3 or 4 years go when my family treated me to the Indy Car race in Milwaukee on fathers day. That track is like no other and if it ever gets back on the schedule, it should be a must for every Indy car fan.

    Attended all but one of the Indycar races at Kentucky and have been to Mid-Ohio once. As boring as Kentucky is for NASCAR, it always had great indycar racing.

    Attended the first two Indy Grand Prix. This year was my 20th Indy 500.

    We are strongly considering a road trip next year to either Iowa or Pocono.

  5. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    If you arrive to Pocono for Saturday’s practice and qualifying, I suggest at some point while the cars are running to go to Turn three and walk the entire front straight in the front row of the bleachers. Not only will you be as close as you can to the cars at their fastest speeds, but you will get a feel for just how LOOONNNG that front straight is.

    Then sit at the Turn 1 endmost section and watch them go into 1. The view you have makes it look almost like a 180 deg. corner. We know it isn’t but it IS amazing how they get through that corner at the speeds they will be running. The lateral Gs there must be incredible.

    Some of the most amazing sensations I’ve had was sitting by the fence in MIL before the first turn appx 10′ away from the cars. Watching them approach that closely at 190mph, then make a 180 deg, flat turn in 4 seconds is amazing.

  6. Bruce Waine Says:

    For those contemplating attending Pocono, you will be sold when you read from their web site how fan friendly Pocono is with regards to low ticket prices, access to the garage & pit lane.

    We attended Pocono last year for the first time and were pleasantly surprised by how receptive the whole Pocono organization and their staff is towards fans.

    Then there is the more relaxed feeling of the drivers in comparison to their intense focus when at INDY.

    Do not pass up the opportunity to attend Pocono.

    Oh, Pocono also offers ticket discounts to all military members present, veterans, reserve, retired ! !

  7. I love attending the races. The best advice I ever got, and the one I always give to someone when I take them to an oval track for the first time, is to stand by the middle of the straightaway. Now, fix your eyes on a point directly across the straightaway from you and allow the cars to flash thru without turning your head. This gives you the best perception of just how fast they are going.

    Newbies are always amazed when they do this because it emphasizes the speed of the cars in a way that turning your head as they go by cannot.

    Enjoy your trip, George, I’m officially jealous!

  8. billytheskink Says:

    The benefits of attending a race live and in-person cannot be overstated. I cannot think of another sport where the experience changes so drastically from televised to live viewing. For whatever reason, television can’t totally convey the precision of a Formula 1 car attacking a set of esses as if it was a straightaway, the jarring of a pair of stock cars trading paint as they battle wheel-to-wheel out of the final turn, the ferocity of a nitro-class dragster registering a 9.0 on your personal Richter scale, the wildness of a sprint car sliding through a corner at the very edge of control, the grace of a dirtbike appearing to float through a whoops section that would twist both of your ankles if you tried to walk through it, the insanity of a superbike rider dipping to a sub-45 degree angle through a hairpin turn, and, especially, the velocity of an Indycar at top speed.

    At Texas every year, I always make a point to get out of the shade, brave the heat, and go down to the first few rows to watch the last half of the first practice. That’s when the teams typically try simulated qualifying runs. The cars are plenty fast when viewed from up high in the grandstands, but down low they appear to be on the verge of breaking the sound barrier. The “tri-oval” configuration on the front stretch at Texas, with the dogleg coming out of turn four, makes it seem as if the cars are heading straight toward you at 220 MPH, veering away from the wall with millimeters to spare before they barrel into turn 1. There’s nothing quite like it. Nothing.

  9. Regarding the poll question, I’ve actually never been to an IndyCar race. That is mainly due to distance, since this series runs on another continent. However, I’ve attended 3 Grand Prix of F1 in the past and 1 DTM event way back when I was a child.
    All I can say is an IndyCar event here in Germany would be the easiest for me to visit. At the time though, this does not seem to be economically viable for neither the series itself nor for any racetracks here in Germany. Back when I was a student, that used to be different…

  10. Ah yes, sensory overload. That is what I love about being at the track. I seldom missed a Milwaukee race since about 1950 and I spent most of my time in the pits. At Road America and other tracks there are also the enticing aromas of food on the grill and beer. I tend to favor the solid color cars of yellow, orange, red with a bit of orange in it, Petty blue, and so forth.

    Of course, those of us here are preaching to the choir when we say that it is the sensory overload of being at a track that gets new fans to return, You don’t get that on TV. Nice to read that Pocono is giving discounts to veterans. At Road America they let kids get in free and offer a $10 ticket discount to students. More tracks could benefit from such promotions.

  11. James Thomas Says:

    George, have to tell you my Nashville race story. My brother his first race not big race fan rather be on the golf course bought tickets for the race. He was all fired up bought tickets on start finish line on row 11. We get to the race first 10 rows are covered up with tarp. He ask the usher why they are covered while we have our feet hanging over seats covered by the tarp. Tell him that’s for safety those seats too dangerous. After telling him don’t worry were fine wait till you see the speed of the cars. He loved every minute and speed of the cars just blew him away! I’ve been to every Indy 500 since 2003 and all the Kentucky speedway races. Bought tickets to Boston race this year now taking my wife to vacation trip to New England thankfully got my ticket money refunded.

  12. Chris Lukens Says:

    “I was six that day…. yet I still feel the same amount of excitement whenever I enter a racetrack”
    Awesome sentence. That applies to me at a 2 mile superspeedway or the local 1/4 mile short track.
    The comment about the exhaust smells struck home too. I can remember walking through the pits and getting that occasional whiff of Nitro and thinking “Man, somebody is GOING for it.”

  13. Chris, I have often thought that nitro would make a great fragrance for a woman, possibly even better than bacon.

  14. I was quite content watching racing from my couch on television. However, I am so glad that I listen to all of you, Dave Despain, and Robin Miller and finally attended my first live race in Fontana. I have never been the same since. A complete sensory overload to say the least! I couldn’t believe how quickly an Indy car came back around me on an oval. So, for the last few years I have tried to go to an additional race besides Fontana. But now it is in addition to Long Beach. Last year it was Pocono, this year it was Phoenix for testing and the Glen over Labor Day. Listening to all of your stories I think I’m making up for lost time.

    Have a wonderful race weekend in Pocono, George!

  15. Mark Wick Says:

    George, this really brought back memories for me. I has almost forgotten the experience of going down to my photo position at the end of Turn One at IMS the first day of practice every year from 1975 through 1995, and again 2001-2003, and every year being amazed that those cars, going that fast actually made it around the corner and into the next turn (most of the time).
    TV truly just doesn’t show the speed.

  16. Being a long time fan I think that having attended races for damn near every year of my life has enhanced the television experience. Well, actually, it makes me go a bit crazy for not being there.

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