Monday, June 18, 2012

A Journey of Mullets and Jorts: An Afternoon at the Indy 500


Ron and Joel in their Indy 500 attire. Sadly, I lost my camera at the track, and this is the sole surviving picture from the trip.

More than 400,000 people can attend a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's the largest sports stadium in the world. On May 26, two friends and I joined the 300,000-plus fans in attendance and the 100,000-plus partiers in the infield of the track at the 96th running of the great American race. Roughly half of those folks--including the three of us--wore jorts.

I arrived in West Lafayette, Indiana, around mid-afternoon Saturday. My friend Joel is a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue, and our other friend Ron was in town for a one-day class, or a seminar, or a symposium, or some other prestigious-sounding five-hour chemistry freak-talking session. I decided to spend the first long-weekend featuring a paid holiday of my life on a road trip to accompany these two, pictured above, on an adventure to the greatest yearly spectacle on American soil.

Joel told me how they had just returned from the local Wal-Mart wearing exactly what they wore in the above photo. Joel may have been wearing a red Kevin Harvick T-shirt as well, but he also may have not. They looked like extras from the set of "Trailer Park Boys"--which, probably not coincidentally, they were watching when I arrived.

"Guess how many double-takes we got at Wal-Mart!" Joel asked. I had no idea.

"Zero. Zero double-takes, Spence!" Ron said excitedly. "This is a completely normal look here. Get your jorts on."
--
We took a late afternoon trip to the Lafayette Pay Less--which, in Indiana, is a supermarket, not a low-end shoe store--and stocked up on supplies for the next day. Copious amounts of dogs and brats, ham and egg beaters for morning griddle omelet-type things, about eight bags of chips. And, of course, several cases of Budweiser. In the special edition America cans. 

I asked why the King of Beers should be our brew of choice on Race Day. Joel replied, "Because if you drink Miller anywhere outside of Milwaukee, people look at you and go, 'Why the hell are you drinking a Miller?' And they're right."

The final item Joel made sure to grab were two large jugs of Pedialyte from the infant food section. This seemed like an odd choice until Joel told me to read the back of the label. "Used to fight dehydration and cut down on diarrhea." Well, sold.
--
The Sunday alarm clock chimed at 3:30 am. We stayed at a colleague of Joel's place that night just west of the race track for easier Sunday morning speedway access. On the road by 4 am, we arrived near the interstate exits that led to the track around 4:30, a full hour before the traditional cannon blast that signaled the opening of the gates at 5:33 am.

Our plan was to get to the front gates as close to the cannon blast as possible. With our $30 general admission tickets, we could drive our SUV right under the track and onto the infield, stake a claim to a piece of grassy real estate on Turn 3 or 4, and party the day away.

From the state of the blocks surrounding the gates, we were already a couple hours late. All kinds of vehicles clogged the streets and intersections in the residential neighborhoods that surrounded the main gates to the raceway. It was unclear from the groggy, glassy-eyed onlookers of the stationary petrol parade if the parties that seemed to be going on in three out of every four front yards had started the night before or just prior to our arrival on the scene. I felt a small tinge of sympathy for the residents of that fourth out of every four houses.

Scene from the streets outside Indy 500. That is a snake. Courtesy of deadspin.com

Hundreds of shirtless bros and tank-topped ladies in cowboy hats and all kinds of race apparel--and, of course, the jorts--dotted the driveways and sidewalks as we creeped closer to the gates, still two hours prior to sunrise. The occasional scraggly-haired older gentleman, counting as part of his person more fingers than teeth, sat parked on his Rascal scooter, small cardboard sign in hand that said something like "Park Here" or "Beer $2.00."

Traffic controllers directed the endless line of headlights in a large tri-oval prior to the opening of the gates, into and then back out of a large grassy parking lot just outside the track, and then back onto the street outside the gate. On our second trip through Gate 10, we were lucky enough to be the fifth vehicle to be waved onto the road that led into the raceway a few minutes before 5:33 struck. A kind older raceway volunteer named Doug checked to make sure we all had our general admission tickets and told us to "just follow the traffic on in once you hear the boom."

Once the gunpowder ignited and rung out a boom that cut through the thick morning air (high temperature on the day: 95 F), we followed our four lead vehicles as they dipped under a promenade and into the infield area of the racetrack. We could see the famous pagoda and scoreboards on our right, the few holes of the Pete Dye-designed golf course built inside the oval on our left.
We raced onto the grass and claimed a spot as close to the grassy bump that extended the length of Turn 3 that we could. Close to a bathroom facility, 40 feet away from the track, we could not have asked for a better spot for our $30. We set up our tent and little gas grill and toasted our luck in claiming the perfect infield position with the first Budweisers of the day right around 5:45 am.

Our rallying cry for the day was, "Hey, that 24's an a-hole!" The Southern-tinged accent we applied to the phrase grew stronger with repetition. Even though there was no number 24 among the cars in the field that day, we still got several laughs and howls of approval throughout the day, because apparently, Indiana is not Jeff Gordon Country.

After several hours of playing bags and beer pong, I headed to the little brick-and-tin-roof shack for my first bathroom break of the day around. The infield area was slowly and surely filling in, but the line at the shack had not grown to unbearable lengths yet. In fact, most in line were in great spirits. A wiry, mulleted man, about my age and further along in his consumption than I at that point, stepped up behind me and shouted, "Everybody who bought their clothes at Wal-Mart, say yeah!"

About eighty percent of the line's inhabitants started hooting and hollering. Immediately afterwards, the first (of many) "U.S.A!" chants of the day started spontaneously.

On my way back to our tent, I made a remark to a friendly looking dude that the infield might be the most patriotic place I'd ever visited. He replied, "Oh yeah! If Osama bin Laden had bombed the Indy 500, we woulda wiped out Afghanistan in a week!" I chuckled and chugged another Bud.
--
After several hours of morning bending, I was ready to take a little breather and soak in the 10:30 am atmosphere, so I had a sit on our blanket laid between our five chairs on our little piece of the Turn 3 grassy knoll. I woke up minutes before the National Anthem. Ron slapped me on the shoulder when he saw me stirring and exlaimed, "Hey! I turned you like a half hour ago. Didn't want you to burn or anything." Ron's a good friend.

After all the hoopla, pageantry, and anticipation leading up to the race, I really only remember about 20 of the 200 laps. I do remember the actual signing of the anthem, performed by Martina McBride and more than 300,000 red-blooded, red-faced race fans, and capped by a flyover of a squadron of military planes. Just an absolutely overwhelming experience, awesome in the purest sense of the word.

America in the infield. Courtesy of deadspin.com


But I have to say that television simply does not do the sport justice. It was difficult to even keep track of the 33 blurs of bright colors and buzzing motors as they zoomed by in the opening laps. I didn't realize how much of a modern marvel these state-of-the-art race cars were until I could barely see them passing me on our little strip of track, a spot where the machines were supposed to be slowing down.

The afternoon was mostly a blur of dogs and bags and Buds. We met dozens of passers-by as they ambled around the grounds in varying states of mind. John and Kelly were one such couple; John came decked out in a short-sleeved, button-down American flag shirt and matching flag shorts, and his fiancée Kelly toted around a blue plastic gallon jug of the strongest (and, I suppose, only) strawberry-tinged moonshine I've ever tasted. The dozen ladies and fellas who set up shop right next to us kept having issues with their flimsy tent during the windy afternoon, and we assisted in their propping and sturdying of their canopy, sharing beers and crazy college stories the whole time.

As the race wound down, we began to pack up, and I began to not feel the greatest. I remember listening to the final laps with my head hanging out the SUV window as the other guys stashed our styrofoam coolers and lawn chairs back in the trunk. I heard the PA guy announce Takuma Sato's Turn 1 crash on the final lap (and received a third "Did you see that!!!" text from my dad on the afternoon), as well as Dario Franchitti's victory shortly thereafter.

After an agonizing 45-minute post-race hold on traffic leaving the speedway enforced by racetrack workers, we finally exited the track and cruised back to West Lafayette. With that, the most American day of my life, and an experience that I'll likely never have the luck to duplicate, even if I go to another twenty Indy 500s, came to its hazy end.

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