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!
I’m told one of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s creative campaigns for 2013 is called #Indy500orBust. Shoot, “Indy 500 or bust” is the story of three-quarters of my life.
I discovered cars when I was growing up in central Pennsylvania. Every autumn, my Grandpa Zechman would take me to Becker Volkswagen in Selinsgrove to see the new Beetles as a treat if I was a good boy during back-to-school shopping.
My parents noticed my fascination with cars, so they got me a subscription to Road & Track magazine when I was 9. At about the same time, our family moved to West Lafayette, Ind., and soon enough, in the spring of 1975, I made my first visit to IMS as part of a fifth-grade field trip. In 1977, at age 12, I finally got to see and hear race cars on the track for the first time. There have been many historically significant days in the 100-plus year history of the Speedway, and this was one of them … but not because of my presence. No, on my first day at IMS, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 – quite a milestone day, indeed!
My parents had no interest in cars or racing, but I’m thankful that they recognized and encouraged mine. Any time they heard one of their friends was going to Indianapolis, they tried to arrange for me to go along. My first 500 came in 1978, and my main memory is how much cooler the Cosworth-powered cars (like those driven by winner Al Unser and Penske team members Tom Sneva, Rick Mears and Mario Andretti) sounded compared to the ancient, tractor-like Offenhausers.
Mears quickly became my favorite driver, and I remember being disappointed in 1979 as I listened to the race while playing Frisbee on the lawn of the Purdue Memorial Union that I was not at the Speedway when Rick won his first 500. I wasn’t able to return to the 500 until I got my driver’s license a few years later, but I began to follow Indy car racing through the Indianapolis Star and News and whatever magazines I could find. And, of course, I listened to the race every year on the IMS Radio Network; I recall experiencing the classic finish of the 1982 race on the radio while frying chicken in the kitchen of the MCL Cafeteria in West Lafayette.
The most fun era of my lifetime of Indianapolis 500 experiences came between 1983 and 1992 – the “party years.” We would drive down from Lafayette to Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon to hang out with friends, then head out to the west side in the evening, hoping to be parked in a good position on 16th Street when they stopped traffic for the night.
In those days, they’d fire off the cannon at 5 or 6 in the morning and allow cars to fill the infield. The golf course back then was a $13 muni instead of today’s perfectly manicured Pete Dye showcase, so there was much more ample parking and a great atmosphere for setting up to grill out and drink beer.
In 1992 – the last year I attended the 500 as a fan – my friends TJ and Debbie Rodeghier lived in a house on 14th Street, about three blocks from Turn 1, so we hung out there to ward off the cold. We watched the race from the inside of the short chute between Turns 3 and 4, exactly where Michael Andretti rolled to a stop with barely 10 laps to go after dominating the race. I remember nearly getting into a fistfight with my friend Andy Renie because he was heckling Michael.
Nearly 20 years later, I moved to a home in Speedway, just nine houses down the street from the Rodeghiers. You could argue that I didn’t make it very far, but in many ways, the move to Speedway was a comfortable homecoming for me. I celebrated my 20th season of working in the sport this year, and it’s a little-known fact that my lucky break came from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when it hired me as a Media Staff intern for the month of May 1993.
And what a month of May to break in! Media attention in 1993 was much greater than normal due to the presence of Nigel Mansell, the reigning Formula One World Champion. As a lifelong F1 fan, I really liked the way the PPG IndyCar World Series developed in the 1980s and early 90s into a series that combined the best of both worlds. You had oval tracks like Indianapolis and American stars like Mears, the Andrettis, Rahal, Foyt and the Unsers, and also an international flavor, with road and street courses, high-tech cars and worldwide stars like Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi. Crowned, of course, by the Indianapolis 500.
The unexpected twist to my own story is that once I “made” it to Indy and gained access to the inner sanctum – the garage area, the media center etc. – the enjoyment I derived from going to the Speedway diminished. Some of the letdown was natural – after all, I was now going to the track to work, rather than purely for my own amusement. But some was colored by the politics of the era.
I covered the first Indianapolis 500 run under the Indy Racing League banner for Autosport magazine in 1996, but I didn’t attend the race for the next three years. I’ve been back every year since 2000, meaning that the 2013 race will be my 30th Indianapolis 500. That might qualify me for the old-timers club!
In fact, when you add up all the practice and qualifying days, Race Days and media events I’ve attended – not to mention the number of times I’ve just walked through the Hall of Fame Museum with family or friends – I’ve spent at least a year of my life on the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Indy car racing unified into one series in 2008, and I’m happy the Indy 500 is now once again the indisputable No. 1 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Attendance has swelled on Race Day, spurred on by a rejigged “Snake Pit” party zone. And if Pole Day doesn’t produce the track-record speeds and massive crowds of decades gone by, Carb Day has grown into the second-biggest day of the month of May and established itself as a key part of the 21st century Indianapolis 500 experience.
My first experiences at Indianapolis Motor Speedway nearly four decades ago sparked a lifelong passion for Indy car racing. I spent the last 20 years of my life chasing the Indy car circus around the world, but the place I choose to call home is Speedway, Ind.
After all, “Indy 500 or Bust” is a lot easier when the journey to Turn 1 is only three blocks long.