I’m not a race car fan. In fact, the first I knew of what exactly a race car looked like was at the Hall of Fame Museum at the Indy 500 racetrack. It was there I sat in one of those low, long vehicles and had my picture taken. It had a long nose and tall, adjacent wheels in the front and back secured to a metal frame of what looked like piping. Back home, I think my mother had not been familiar with what race cars looked like either before seeing the photo. Like mother like daughter, except I decided I ought to see the Indy 500 in Indianapolis at least once. It just sounded like the quintessential all-American experience.
After the Indy 500 Museum, a wonderful parade, including the Indy 500 competitors atop their race cars, lured even a neophyte like me to a state of excited anticipation. I was staying at the Indy Hostel. At the hostel’s Friday night cookout, the crowd seemed to be from all over and very familiar with racing cars and the racing scene. I was so glad I had come. For two dollars, you could pull a driver’s name out of the hat, and you won the collection if your driver won the Indy 500. Having someone to root for was a step in the right direction. The race would be the next day. This was the 89th Indianapolis 500 Race on May 29, 2005.
I joined the early morning carpool. The German driver set the tone as he didn’t brake until he reached a stop sign. I mentioned that in the USA, most people start to brake 500 feet in advance. He didn’t seem to find that at all smart. I let my carpool companions take over the conversation from there.
Arriving at 7am, I walked past the pancake breakfast and through the gates. Immediately, I was riveted by a loud debate between a man and his young son about who was going to win; even one of the security guards chimed in. I watched the people gather and the carnival booths set up. By 9am there was a country band playing and an exhibit in full swing that let you sit in the latest sports cars on the market.
I watched the men in colorful mechanic jumpsuits mill around fancy race cars. I got a free hand cloth with some race car brand’s name on it. I was in the midst of race car fans, totally out of my element, but trying to go along with the fevered excitement. With the carnival-like atmosphere, the morning flew by.
To watch the Indy 500, you could purchase a general admissions ticket and sit in a huge field watching the race on video screens or you could purchase a seat in the stands overlooking the track. After much research about where to best view the race, I had purchased the best seat I could find with a view of the overall track. (There is no seat from which you can see the whole track so it was a bit tricky.)
That morning I found my seat happened to be in the midst of Indiana University alumni. I was thinking it must have been a good seat choice if the local university chose seats there too. With the camaraderie, I felt like I was at a college sports game amongst old fans. The race was a fairly long affair so I was glad I had a seat with back support. That was another reason it was a good seat choice.
I was in my seat by 11:30 a.m. so I wouldn’t miss anything. The race started at 12 noon. The colorful race cars zoomed around the track. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as it is called, is a 2.5 mile, paved, oval track. The competitors needed to race around that track for 500 miles (or 200 laps) and the first to do so would win.
In no particular order, cars would pull over to re-fuel and change tires. It would look like the car was being attacked by a crew in matching uniforms as the crew carried out their precision maneuvers very quickly so as not to impede the car’s race performance. Out of the 30 or so competitors, one driver, Sam Hornish, stood out. In the first hour, he led the pack for what seemed like ages making me think the winner was obvious. But what did I know?
In 2005, not for the first time, one of the drivers was a woman. Can a woman drive a race car like a man? Obviously, in Indianapolis that year, the verdict was still out. In my seating section, a group of older men repeatedly guffawed that a woman couldn’t drive a race car because it needed a man’s strength to handle the wheel. Then the only woman driver in this race, Danica Patrick, took the lead for at least a few rounds around the track. I and everyone around me, stood and applauded wildly, I think to finally vent our irritation with the bunch of guffawing men. Danica ultimately dropped out of the lead, and then they started in on her again. Now they were saying it was unfair to let a woman race with men because her lighter body weight gave her an undue advantage over the male competitors. Like the Salada tea bag tag says, “Some people’s minds are like cement: all mixed up and permanently set.”
Dan Wheldon won the race and drank the traditional winner’s glass of milk. Danica Patrick came in fourth. It was an exciting race with very little down time. I was later told that in many races, there were long bouts of yellow flags (no passing) while the track was being cleared of accident debris. But the 89th Indy 500 was action-packed.
In the parking lot, there were crowds of people milling around the parked cars so I could tell it would be a while until we could even think about moving out. I found my ride where we had parked that morning. My carpool companions were ecstatic, especially the two English women who travelled the world over to cheer on their favorites at race tracks. By their frenzy, I came to understand that the winner, Dan Wheldon, was from England. They had unfurled a huge British flag and were standing on the car roof, screaming and waving the flag.
As our car finally crawled out, they were only half out of the car, screaming and flying the flag high enough so it didn’t obstruct the driver’s view. (That was good.) I sat inside laughing. I was exhausted and this was the last thing I had expected. While driving home in the bumper-to-bumper traffic that had been re-routed onto single lane roads lined with houses flying American flags, I remembered my initial impression that the Indy 500 was an all-American event.
People lounging in their yards in that warm twilight were getting all hot and bothered at seeing a British flag paraded on their street. At times, they even ran up to the slow moving car and got after those flag bearers, loudly admonishing that they needed to be waving American flags if they were going to wave a flag. I was appalled. Somehow, I don’t think that would have happened in New England. As the traffic started to flow a bit more, I remember feeling almost relieved as I felt a bit of a foreigner in those parts as well. But Indianapolis is in the USA heartland. And I thought the reveling fans waving the British flags should have expected as much. Even the Indy 500 program book said Mr. Wheldon lived in the USA. But I wasn’t about to mention it.
“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”~ Mario Andretti