Thursday, June 14, 2007

Indy At Last

I had waited a long time to see the Indy 500. I had listened to it on the radio and watched it on television as long as I could remember, and I can remember hearing Johnnie Parsons win in 1950. I knew about drivers who won before that, but Parsons is the first one I can actually remember for sure. You can imagine the excitement I felt when I climbed on the plane to Houston on Friday morning. I hadn’t thought about it but I was about to get the first of several bonuses on this trip.

The last project I had worked on before I retired was the remodelling of Hobby Airport in Houston. The central concourse was close to completion when I packed it in. I was now about to fly into it as a passenger for the first time. It lived up to expectations. I saw it with fresh eyes and all the problems encountered in the construction faded away. It was a nice feeling.
Bruce met me at the airport in Saint Louis. With the exception of having grown a head of grey hair he looked just about the same. Tall, and damn him, skinny. He could have, at least had the good grace to get fat like the rest of us.

We got back to the Hunninhake’s charming house and I got hugs from Karen and met their two young men. I couldn’t call them boys. It was great seeing them and meeting the additions to the family I had known for twenty years.

We went out to dinner and then to a gallery where Karen was showing some of her pieces. It was a pleasant excursion and something that I miss. Where I live, galleries don’t exist unless I drive forty miles into the crazyness of New Orleans.

Late the next day, Bruce and I loaded up, picked up Ken Eberhart, and we were on the way to Indianapolis. There I was introduced to Greg and Mary Ann Hebel and their son Hank, our host for the night. Wonderful people.

Greg is an architect with whom I share many interest and Mary Ann is nurse and as cute as a bug. We spent a wonderful evening chatting and getting to know each other. Hank was busy with a graduation party and we didn’t really see him until the next day.

In the morning sandwiches got built and coolers packed in preparation for the race. John, the final member of the party arrived and we were off.

Getting in to the speedway is like attending two big homecoming games going on at the same time. The crowds are immense. The best bet is to park in some ones yard a couple of miles away and walk in. As you get closer to the track the crowds get packed tighter. Once in side the tracks gates you hit the usual set of vendors for every thing from food to shirts, hats, programs, pictures of the drivers and some truly amazing souvenirs.

We found our section and climbed up into the grand stands where you get the first view of the track. After finding our seats we settled into the very cramped seating. As you might imagine every one had a cooler, stadium seats, umbrellas, packs of rain gear and bags of sandwiches. You come prepared for this race. Once you get in it is difficult to get out.

As we arrived they were going through the usual pre-race ceremonies. Jim Nabobs was not there this year, but sent his regards. After the national Anthem, the flyover and Taps, everyone waited for the call for "ladies and gentlemen, start your engines."
They meant it this year because for the first time, almost ten percent of the thirty three-car field was made up of female drivers. Danica Patrick was the best known and positioned highest. Sarah Fisher was set in mid pack and expected to do a nice but not exciting race. Milka Duno, a sharp, good-looking lady from Venezuela, was this year’s female rookie. I had been following her career in sports cars for a couple of years. She had driven in the twenty four-hour races at both Daytona and Le Mans as well as the twelve hours of Sebring, and done a good job. She has won three times in the Rolex endurance series, and finished second at Daytona. As far as I know she was also the only Indy driver, ever, who holds four masters’ degrees.

We were seated about a quarter of the way around turn four and had a great view of the short shute between the exit of three to the exit of four.

You don’t get to look very long but you do get to look often. The cars are going over two hundred and twenty miles an hour and are by you before you can blink. At that speed they are covering the length of a football field in less than one second. That also means they are lapping the track about every forty seconds so you don’t have to wait long for them to come around again.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that you have to tell which car is which by its paint scheme because you don't have tome to look for the numbers. It takes a few laps before you can stop referring to your car chart. Sponsors logos help too. They are easy to spot in most cases.

The wall of sound that hits you when they go by the first time makes it obvious why the vendors all sell earplugs. For motorheads, it’s like music. Even up there on the threshold of pain it’s beautiful. After a lifetime of watching races this was the loudest thing I had ever encountered.
The other thing I noticed right away was the smell of the burnt fuel. All of the cars in the race were using ethanol. It has a distinctive odor. Not bad, just different. I sort of missed the old days of Castrol. You could smell it too after the cars had gone by.

We settled in to watch the race. There were the usual cautions and resulting slowdowns (to a sedate one hundred twenty miles an hour) caused by debris on the track or crashes. This year all the crashes happened in turn two so we had to watch them on the infield screen. Other than these the pace was astronomical.

Formula One cars are faster but they do not make the same kind of sustained speed the Indy cars maintain. They can’t because of the type of course they run.

When the automotive industry was in its infancy, car racing began. At first, both here in the US and in Europe, the first races were city to city events. The first recorded race was from Paris to Rouen in 1894. The first race here was the following year and ran from Chicago to Evanston, Illinios and back. It took ten hours and posted an average speed of seven miles per hour.

It soon became evident that such races were extremely dangerous not only for the drivers (who could not practice on a course) but for the crowds as well. Additionally, you had no control over spectators or any way to collect money from them.

Horse racing had gone through this same evolution. By setting up courses where you ran in circles you could control the course, the crowds and the gate. Not only that the spectators could actually see the whole race., rather than just one little bit of straight or a corner. It took no great leap of imagination to see that the same could hold true with automobiles. And almost every county had a fairground where horse races were held. Bingo. You didn’t even have to build a new track. Oval track racing quickly became the tradition in the states.

Oval track racing has one great advantage for the racers. Speed. You don’t have that troublesome business of slowing down for corners, and then speeding up to get to the next corner. On courses like Indy and the super-speedways of NASCAR it is full throttle the whole way. The result is blinding speed and an emphasis on controlling the cars at the incredible speeds they maintain. It is exciting to see and spectacular when they crash.
Until it rains. They don’t race in the rain.

We made it through the first one hundred and fifteen laps before the bottom fell out of the sky.
The grandstands errupted in umbrellas and rain suits. People ducked under the stands or went souvineer shopping, and we waited……..and drank beer…….and waited. What else was there to do. Watch people.

While we sat we had time to observe some very creative methods of keeping dry. and in some cases that attempts to moist romance
Eventually the rain began to let up and we could see lighter sky behind the clouds. There was hope. The speedways fleet of red trucks went out on the track supposedly to help dry it out, but just maybe to give the spectators something to look at.

They announced that they would try to get the racing going again by Six PM.

We still had to drive back to St Louis to do so we called it a day and began the long walk back to the car. We timed it just right I guess because we did not have to fight the crowds this way. We did.get to see some interesting sights however. You’d be surprised at what happens when you ask for things.
We heard the rest of the race on the radio.

If you really want to see the race, the best place is at home on your television. As a racecourse for seeing an event Indianapolis rates about a three on a scale of one to ten. As a place to enjoy an event with good friends it’s a ten. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

But I’ll have someone make me a tape.


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