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‘Tradition’ keeps bringing fans back to the Indy 500

Published June 2, 2013

Two iconic motor races, the Grand Prix of Monaco and the Indianapolis 500, were held last weekend. The Toronto Star dispatched correspondents Stephanie Wallcraft and Mark Richardson to both, with instructions to tell Wheels readers what it’s like to go. Here are their reports.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — Ask any of the several hundred thousand people who make the annual pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway what drives them to be there year after year, and the answer will be nigh on universal: it’s tradition.

And where the Indianapolis 500 is concerned, tradition means very different things to different people.

The same Tower Terrace grandstand seats have been in one friend’s family for 62 years and he’s eaten at the same grotty strip mall cafeteria on Crawfordsville Road pretty well every May since he was born.

Others prefer to camp across the road from the track to be in the thick of the alcohol-fueled debauchery.

And then there are those who stay at swanky hotels in downtown Indianapolis and eat at St. Elmo Steak House every night.

That’s the beauty of Indianapolis. The thrill of speed, the human spirit of competition and the fascination with technology are the interests we all share. But I don’t have nearly the level of experience as some people I know. Last weekend marked only my fourth trip to the Brickyard.

My traditions have tended to be on the humbler side: stay on the north side of town, go to Charlie Brown’s in the Indianapolis suburb of Speedway (yes, that’s the name of the community where the track is located) for breakfast at least once, follow the Gordon Pipers pipe band around for awhile on race morning — that sort of thing.

But this year, I received a rare treat: my fiancé and I were shown around town as invited guests of Chevrolet.

We left Toronto at 10 a.m. on Friday and arrived at our downtown Indianapolis hotel at roughly 6:30 p.m. We made excellent time on a route that took us through Detroit and northwestern Ohio. Like any other city, Indy has its rough spots. But its downtown area is lovely and it’s definitely the place to be on race weekend for those who enjoy people-watching and celebrity spotting.

Shortly after our arrival at the track on Saturday morning, we were taken for two laps around the track in a Camaro driven by a professional race car driver. Nothing puts that speedway into perspective like flying through Turn Four and barreling down that iconic front stretch — and Indy cars average roughly twice the speed we were doing. It’s mind-blowing to even contemplate.

Afterward, we went back downtown to watch the 500 Festival Parade, which sees all 33 qualifiers taken through the streets amid marching bands, floats, gigantic balloons and varying displays of American patriotism to the delight of the huge crowds.

Where our weekend plans changed came on race morning.

Typically, a race fan is well-advised to arrive early since traffic headed into the track can be horrendous. (When there are 250,000 or so people converging on the largest stadium in the world at roughly the same time, there’s only so much that can be done to alleviate the crunch.)

We, on the other hand, were given the race attendee’s most coveted prize: a shuttle bus escorted by police directly to the main gate. (This, of course, was arranged by our hosts but anybody can purchase a police escort if they’re so inclined and can afford it.)

Once inside, we checked into Chevrolet’s suite on pit lane near Turn One, which offers one of the best available views of the on-track action. Let’s put it this way: the family that owns the Indianapolis Speedway reserves Suite 500; we were in Suite 501. It’s a rough life, I’ll tell ya.

We then went to take in the sights in Pagoda Plaza and Gasoline Alley. This walk has become one of my essential race morning traditions. Hearing the marching bands play, seeing the cars pulled onto pit lane, and watching the drivers make their preparations is a poignant reminder of how many hundreds of times those same things have been done at this same place by so many legends of motorsport.

At no other point am I reminded quite so well of the immense importance the Indianapolis Motor Speedway holds in automotive history. Race day evokes a mood in me somewhere between elation and reverence and that walk on race day morning is where I go to find it.

It was only after we had toured the starting grid and made our way to our seats above the suite that we really noticed how cold it was. Race fans typically have to arrive armed with hats and sunscreen to battle 30-plus degree heat, but on this Sunday in May people were putting on sweaters and drinking hot coffee.

But by the time the national anthem had been sung, Taps had been played (the 500 is held on the last Sunday in May, Memorial Day Weekend in the United States), and Jim Nabors had sung Back Home in Indiana, all was forgotten but the task immediately at hand.

Thirty-three car and driver combinations started the race, and various entries left it one by one after having mechanical problems, or hitting the wall, or hitting each other.

But the rest pushed on, all with the hope of being the first to complete the marathon 500-mile distance but many content simply to finish open-wheel racing’s greatest test of endurance.

The Canadian contingent, made up of two drivers this year, James Hinchcliffe of Oakville and Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., struggled all day long. Hinchcliffe complained of handling problems from the start; Tagliani had a late-race brush with the Turn One wall, damaging his car. A celebration of Canadian patriotic pride would have to wait for another year.

But it was impossible to stay disappointed for long. Rarely has the Indianapolis Speedway erupted with such joy as when the checkered flag waved for veteran racer Tony Kanaan and he finally took his place among the champions. I’ll never forget the sound of that crowd, or the pride I felt being a part of it.

For me, though, one of the most memorable moments of the day came earlier than that, about a third of the way through the race.

My fiancé has attended many of motorsport’s iconic events worldwide – the Bathurst 1000, the Dakar Rally – but this was his first time witnessing the spectacle of Indianapolis.

At one point he leaned over to me, unable to tear his eyes away from the Indy cars barreling toward Turn One at nearly 385 kilometres per hour, and said, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

He gets it, much to my relief. Looks like he’ll be joining me for many more month-of-May traditions at Indianapolis.

wheels@thestar.ca

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