This story is the first in a series of posts from motorsports insiders who were kind enough to share their journey. Head to Indy500orBust.com today and share your journey!
My Indianapolis 500 journey didn’t start with tales of great drivers and races from my father or grandfather. It didn’t start with watching or listening to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” every Memorial Day weekend. It didn’t start with a magical, sun-baked Race Day in the Paddock Penthouse.
My Indianapolis 500 journey started inside a cardboard turkey box.
Johnny Rutherford earned his first Indianapolis 500 victory May 26, 1974 – four days before my ninth birthday. I remember watching highlights of the race on ABC and reading about Lone Star JR’s victory in both the Syracuse Post-Standard and my father’s copy of Sports Illustrated.
I was infatuated with JR. With his McLaren Offy. With the great race in the Midwest, which seemed tens of thousands of miles away from my childhood home in suburban Syracuse, N.Y.
But in 1974, there was no easy way to convert a boy’s fantasy into reality. There were no Xboxes. No iRacing. No karting facilities in cities or shopping centers.
So instead I acted as JR in the theater of my young mind, with a box from Plainville Turkey Farms as my prop.
My family would order 20-plus-pound turkeys from a local turkey farm for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those big birds were delivered in large cardboard boxes, which my mother stacked under the ping-pong table in the basement of our house.
I grabbed one of those boxes, a magic marker and turned that box into JR’s No. 3 McLaren. I drew the number 3 on both sides of the box. I drew tires and various sponsor decals on the side of the box and instruments and gauges on the inside of the box.
Then I squeezed my small frame into the “box car,” and my journey to Indianapolis began.
I did not grow up in Indiana. I did not grow up in a racing family. But I watched and paid attention to the “500” ever since I turned that cardboard turkey box into a McLaren in 1974. It was THE auto race to me, the only one I really knew and to which I felt any connection.
Through the next decade, I went to high school and college in my native New York and never got a chance to go to Indianapolis to see the “500” in person. That changed in 1990, when I was a sports reporter at the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin in New York. Motorsports was my main beat at the time.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 starter Davy Jones hailed from McGraw, on the edge of the circulation area of the paper. I proposed to my editor that I drive to Indy to cover the race and write a sidebar on Jones, providing a local angle for the paper that the wire services wouldn’t cover.
My editor bit on my pitch. I received notification of my credentials and two complimentary media tickets in an envelope from IMS.
Then there was a hitch in my plan. Jones lost his ride – for reasons I can’t remember 22 years later. I thought my chance to cover the Indianapolis 500 was gone.
But then I tried another pitch. My editor already allocated the days on the schedule for me to cover the race. I had credentials. So why don’t I still attend the race – but as a fan using the complimentary tickets – and write a column or sidebar about the circus-like fan experience at the world’s largest single-day spectator sporting event? I reinforced my pitch by telling my editor this column could be moved on the Gannett wire service to compliment Gannett’s national coverage.
My editor bit on this pitch, too.
So my wife and I jumped into my 1989 Ford Explorer XLT pickup truck and headed west on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. We had race tickets, but we didn’t have a hotel room. So like many race fans, we slept in the bed of my truck, parked in the neighborhoods just west of Georgetown Road, serenaded all night by AC/DC tunes, Q95 and the crackle of fireworks coming from campers in the Coke Lot.
Race Day was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. A cacophony of sounds, sights and smells. Complete sensory overload. My face hurt from smiling so much.
But nothing compared to the electric shocks pulsing up and down the spines of my wife and me as we stood in the First Turn Terrace bleachers inside Turn 1 and saw the front row of pole sitter Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears and Arie Luyendyk pass by on the first pace lap.
And when the green flag flew and Emmo skimmed past us like a cruise missile, hearing 33 turbo-charged rockets for the first time? We were blown away. The impression was indelible. I still have goose bumps, almost 23 years later, while writing about it.
I was hooked. But that was the last time I attended the race as a fan.
In 1993, I left the newspaper business to take a public relations job with the National Hot Rod Association. It was a fun job, with a pit area and media center filled with unique characters. I immersed myself in the straight-line world but still paid attention to happenings at Indy during the Month of May.
I was amazed by the domination of the Penske Panzers in 1994. I wondered whether Scott Goodyear really jumped the Pace Car in 1995. I mourned the passing of Scotty Brayton from the media center at the dragstrip in Englishtown, N.J., in 1996.
Then, in November 1997, I received one of those fateful calls that hopefully happen to everyone at least once in their life.
I was working on NHRA media materials when the phone rang. It was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, inquiring whether I was interested in an open position in public relations. One of those incredible “you don’t know us, but we know you” phone calls, as I briefly had met members of the IMS Public Relations staff while giving them a tour of the NHRA media center operation during the U.S. Nationals earlier that year at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Was I dreaming? Was that really Indy on the line? It was. And when Indy calls, you listen.
I accepted the job as communications manager for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR and started in January 1998. My next journey to Indy came in May 1998, my first year as an employee of the media staff for the Indianapolis 500.
I’ve been there ever since. But unlike every other IMS employee, I’m not really there all the time.
I have worked as a telecommuter for IMS since I started with the company, working from my home office in suburban Syracuse. I had the same setup with NHRA from 1993-97, and the Speedway graciously granted me the same privilege.
Central New York is my home. Generations of our family are here. Our three kids were born here. But I like to joke that I have two homes: Central New York for 11 months per year and Indianapolis in May.
There’s nowhere I’d rather be than at 4790 W. 16th St. during the Month of May. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and since I’m only at the track for a few weeks per year to work the races, my affection for every part of the facility never wanes.
The Speedway crackles with an explosive energy on big event days, such as Race Day, Carb Day and Pole Day. I anticipate just how much that power makes me feel so damn alive every time I experience it.
I have a personal Race Morning tradition – started my very first year as an IMS employee, in 1998 – as I drive through the tunnel to the infield between Turns 3 and 4 before sunrise. I play loud rock music on the radio and wait for my hands to instinctively start banging the top of the steering wheel in eager anticipation for the marvels and unique work challenges of the Race Day ahead.
I’ve always said to myself and friends that if my hands don’t start playing drums on the wheel in the tunnel while a grin rips my face in half, then it’s time for me to find another job. Thankfully, my hands have pounded the steering wheel of my car every year since.
But perhaps my favorite time every year at IMS are the quiet moments leaving the media center at sundown after a long day of work. The Pagoda is achingly beautiful in the orange, purple and golden hues of dusk. The shadows of the steel girders and posts in the B and E Stands outside Turn 1 are majestic in the fading light.
At that quiet moment, you feel the ghosts of past glory and heartbreak at Indy. No question about it, and I’ve never been to another sporting facility on Earth that creates the same sensation.
And to think it all started with a cardboard turkey box.