Memorial Day Weekend is never about the cookouts, the cold ones or the lake trips but rather the remembrance of the brave soldiers that lost their lives so that we can enjoy all of the previously mentioned freedoms on the long weekend.
Choosing to celebrate the freedoms that were hard-earned in one of the most American way possible, I ventured up to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 101st running of the Indy 500.
It’s easy to get lost in the mix of tailgating and enjoying the race, but the amount of American pageantry leading up to the race prepares you for the pinnacle of remembrance and the most chilling and surreal moment of the day.
When ‘Taps’ echoes throughout the 560 acres, the 300,000 people in attendance have no other choice but to remember that this is the land of the free because of the brave and that we owe them this weekend.
Chills City, population: Hank and the other 299,999 people in attendance.
Alongside remembering those who sacrificed their lives, the weekend is also about making the most of your freedom, which the group I traveled with certainly made sure to do. My friend Erik Dunn has been going to the race with his brothers since he was six years old. His dad, Tim Dunn, has been attending the race for 42 years, the 101st was his 43rd trip. Needless to say, I was in the company of a savvy and experienced group.
I hadn’t decided to go until Erik texted me a simple “Indy 500?” message while I was playing EA Sports’ Real Racing 3 iPhone game. At the exact moment the text popped up on my phone, I entered the back stretch of turn four in the NASCAR mode on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was meant to be. I had no other option but to say yes.
So here I was, waking up at 6 a.m. on my buddies couch Friday morning, piling into a Dodge Caravan rental for a nine-hour car ride up to Indiana. The car ride was filled with some of Mr. Dunn’s stories from yesteryear. When we finally got there, it was time to turn left and go fast. I had Sunday’s race in my sights.
Tailgating & the Infield
We established a tailgating spot in a lawn near the track. What our spot lacked in an RV, it made up for true tailgating enthusiasm, full-to-empty coolers, beer-soaked bratwursts, pulled pork and vigorous cornhole matchups.
Visiting the infield and exploring all of the timeless monuments that make the track so unique is a must for first timers. While catching a glimpse of the bricks, we managed to snap a selfie in front of the famous Pagoda that overlooks the track.
All of it is worth seeing for first visitors. Exploring the track from the inside makes you believe that you have some perspective on how big the venue is, but nothing can prepare you for the first glance across the track that you get from the bleachers.
Next on the Saturday to-do list was wait for the sun to go down and visit “The Strip” outside the track. When we finally got there, it felt like the Indiana State Fair combined with a Panama City Spring Break. Highlighted with the holy rollers yelling at you that Jesus Christ judges you for your sins combined with all the ‘people watching’ you could ever hope for, it makes for an interesting evening stroll.
Plus, being the large fried-food-loving man that I am, it was an opportune time for me to do my fair share of scouting reports on all of the food stands that line the Strip. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Saturday had concluded and it was time to prepare for race day. When you’re around the track you see a number of signs and banners saying “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” I usually get skeptical of titles to events that say their the greatest, especially when there are so many racing spectacles. Living in the south the automatic qualifiers are Daytona and Talladega, Indianapolis seemed like another world away from down here. But when you realize that the Indianapolis 500 is one of the three legs in the coveted open-wheel racing Triple Crown with Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix, you start to realize what you’ve gotten yourself into.
Knowing nothing more than four or five names that have scrolled across the ESPN ticker in years past as winners of the Indy 500, I hopped on their odds in the week leading up to the race. Spreading $10 on the four favorites – Scott Dixon (the pole winner), Helio Castronevas (three-time winner), Juan Pablo Montaya and Tony Kanaan.
But when I woke up Sunday, after learning that last year’s winner was an 80-to-1 underdog, I wanted to bank on history repeating itself. So I put a $20 bet on Jack Harvey, the 100-to-1 underdog in his first Indy 500 race, to win $2,000.
My aspirations were lofty with the odds against me, but my rationale was based on rooting for the underdog and hoping for a nice reward at the end of it. And I might even land on one of the favorites to push the other wagers.
Settling in to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing
It was a lengthy hike from our tailgate near the turn one gate all the way to our spot on turn three with the coolers. After we got settled into your seats, the moment hit me. The engines hadn’t even started yet and I knew we were buckled into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Even mother nature knew she couldn’t afford to follow through on her forecasts of 80% thunderstorms. It was an absolutely beautiful day for racing.
The pageantry leading up to the race was top class. The goosebumps sank in during the Taps, carried over through the cars starting their engines and enhanced when they started taking their warm-up laps.
The Big Wreck
I’ve been to a NASCAR race before, ooo’d and awed at the speeds and sheer feats of engineering. But watching these guys prepare to go even faster in an open-wheeled car without a steel cage surrounding them was something you have to witness to understand just how crazy these guys are. Especially when you get a crash as epic as the one in the first 60 laps…
The crash happened on turn two, so we missed out on the Before that crash, the pace was fast and easy going. After the crash, the aggressive racing increased and it settled into one of the greatest Indy 500s ever.
The Greatest Indy 500 ever?
Three of the biggest storylines going into the race were Scott Dixon’s fastest pole running since 1996, Helio Castronevas trying to join the club of eternal glory in the capital of racing with his fourth Indy 500 title and Fernando Alonso venturing over from F1 to become the second driver to ever win the unofficial Triple Crown of auto racing.
The ‘fastest’ car was out of the race with Dixon’s crash, Castronevas’ penalty for jumping the restart set him back and Alonso flirted with the lead all afternoon.
But it wasn’t those storylines that captured the afternoon. It was a joint effort from all the drivers that combined to create a fantastic race day. 400+ passes, 35 lead changes and 15 different leaders (an Indy 500 record). I’m not a racing regular by any as an admirer of all things sports, those are striking numbers. The best competitions are the ones that anybody can win. The ones that keep you entertained because you have no idea who’s gonna pull it out in the end.
When fans purchase a ticket to an event, the only thing they want is a final second, late inning, last lap result. Attendees at the Indy 500 got that and more. Spectators even got a glimpse at five-wide into single file. Which has been explained to me as something you just don’t see unless all five drivers have a death wish.
The #BankOnHank picks making moves
Starting in 27th, Harvey seemed to be keeping pace with everyone, climbing a spot or three every now and then. The key to winning a race is finishing the race. Harvey had avoided the big wreck, but soon after ran over some debris from a crash right in front of us on turn three. The longshot’s day was over before it really started on lap 68.
But minutes before the start of the race I was convinced to take the second biggest underdog on the book Oriel Servia.
Servia made his moves into the top 10 by pushing the pace out of the caution flags. After every caution, Servia made a jump two or three spots up the leaderboard. In fifth place when the yellow flag hit on lap 180, Servia was in prime position to make his move.
On turn two within our view out of the caution, Servia made his move, but it caused the largest wreck of the day, knocking five cars out of the race. It was fun to count my chickens before the $900-payday-egg hatched while it lasted.
With Helio Castonevas came all the way back from his penalty to take the lead with less than 10 laps and it looked like we were going to witness history. Another one of the picks, Tony Kanaan, was also in the mix to win the race. Fernando Alonso’s quest to win the triple crown ended on lap 179 when his car ran out of power.
A storyline that developed as Takuma Sato overtook Helio Castronevas for a late lead. Back in 2012, Sato tried to make a pass on Dario Franchitti on turn two of the last lap, which spiraled out of control and sent him into the wall for a tough loss to swallow.
Now, Sato held the lead with one of the most successful drivers breathing down his neck right behind him. Holding on for victory, Sato earned his cold glass of milk in the winner’s circle and a chance to kiss the bricks.
Is it worth venturing to again?
If you’re wondering, “yeah it sounds like this guy had a good time, but would he go back? Or is this a one-and-done?”
My instantaneous reply is yes. The answer is in the in the corn dog pictured below and sold on the strip outside the track. I would do just about anything to put the joy on this first time visitor’s face again (here’s where the scouting report from Saturday night paid off)…