Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Greatest Spectacle In Racing – 3 of 3

During my formative years automobiles were a big part of life and still are. Friends owned sport roadsters and muscle cars, most of them used. I had my ’67 Pontiac Tempest, which was a whisker short of a GTO. A few friends were good with a wrench and owned real performance machines that they would run at "Smokin" US30 Drag Raceway.

In the late 60's and early 70's all week long commercials like this would air on local top 40 radio and television during summer months.

On hot summer Wednesday nights US30 would hold “Run What Ya’ Brung” events before the pros took the track. This is where anyone could pay a fee and run the quarter mile in your own hot rod or dad’s Buick, if you wanted. They would qualify your car, enter it in an elapsed time slot and later you could run in elimination heats. Later on in the evening pro-stock, rail and funny cars ran the quarter mile under the lights. I still recall the sweet aroma of nitro methane from those top fuel monsters. The big names in NHRA history would show up like "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, Kelly Chadwick, Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick, Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney, Bill "Maverick" Golden with his "Little Red Wagon" and others.

Fast cars fascinated me then as they do today.

My first Indy Car event was at Road America in Elkhart Lake WI. It had to be almost 20 years ago when CART was the sanctioning body for the upper echelon of open wheel racing. I was hooked.

Then came the CART/IRL split. This happened coincide with the rising popularity of NASCAR. The results weren’t good. My bro and Harold said it would ruin open wheel racing and claimed CART would win out. They were partially correct but I said no. The IRL is THE premier racing venue in the world and it wouldn’t be long before CART caves because the owners and drivers live for racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even NASCAR drivers want to run at the IMS and now they do. I was right.

They still argue that it’s not the same since all engines must be normally aspirated (no turos) and the choice of chassis and engines are limited the cars aren’t as fast. Fast? Qualifying times were 226 mph+. I think that’s fast. And loud.

Another thing about motorsports is you can usually get up close to the drivers and owners. During qualifying it’s not hard to hang out in the pit area and stand feet from the cars and crew. Drivers and owners are friendly and will sign autographs and talk to you. On race day you need a paddock pass to do so and I have had them. I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with Paul Neuman, Mario Andretti, Roger Penske, etc. Try that with the NFL, NBA or MLB. Get too close to an NBA player and you risk getting spit on. Motorsports professionals are way more fan friendly.

I have no problem with NASCAR but it’s not as exciting as open wheel cars to me. IRL cars look like hybrid race cars while NASCAR cars look like dad’s Buick. When they go three wide on a super speedway it looks like the Dan Ryan expressway. When two NASCAR machines touch they usually motor on. When IRL cars touch it could mean instant disaster. You don’t see many IRL cars with fender scrapes and dents. If you do they’re on the back end of a hook. To me there’s a lot more skill, finesse, and danger in open wheel racing. Besides, they just look sexier…and faster.

I’ve been to major sporting events including a Super Bowl and nothing, I mean nothing beats the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day.

This year the weather was perfect. It was a bit humid but by the start clouds set in keeping my skin from becoming charred.

Our tradition begins with tailgating at a church parking lot about six blocks west of the track. Bloody Mary’s, top shelf tequila, chips and salsa and huevos rancheros on the menu. We do our best to turn tailgating into an art form. Only the best.

No grills necessary for a breakfast tailgate.

Our seats are in the sunset terrace which allows us a great view west as the drivers come into turn one, turn two and down the back straightaway. Did I mention it is loud? We all wear ear protection.

This year’s race had too many yellows for me beginning in the first lap right in front of us. All in all we probably saw four incidents within our range including Vitor Miera in the A.J. Foyt ABC Supply car. Later it was reported he fractured two vertebrae even though he was able to walk away.

My last two entries on Indy focused on the odd behavior to be seen around the event. On race day, in the stands, most spectators are focused on the cars. These are serious motorsports fans. One in our group was keeping a scorecard, similar to baseball.

Unruly behavior in the stands is rare. The track holds 250,000+ and in my observation the IMS is more orderly than other pro sports events especially considering alcohol is much more abundant here. Think 5 Soldier Fields worth of inebriated fans. This is looking south down Georgetown Avenue after the race.

We’ll be back next year and I can’t wait.


Dan from Madison said...

For the first time in several decades my dad and I are going to the drags at Great Lakes Dragaway just outside of Racine, WI on Fathers Day weekend. Can't wait for that.

I also like open wheeled cars, but am much more interested in F1 than the round and round circuits.

Carl from Chicago said...

This year dan and I were at the Madison marathon... next year we ought to go to the indy 500 instead!

Gerry from Valpo said...

While the IRL began as an oval track series after the CART split they since have included F1 style road races.

St. Petersburg and Long Beach were two so far this year with Watkins Glen, Streets of Toronto, Edmonton, Mid Ohio and Infineon at Sonoma scheduled as road course events this season.

Too bad there isn't an IRL race scheduled at Road America, I love that place.

F1 has zero interest in the USA and vice versa. The IMS built an F1 course within the famous oval but F1 couldn’t cut it. More here:

Dan from Madison said...

Road America is awesome, I was there for the first time last year, and I went back for more.