This is an occasional series spotlighting the men and women who work at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For more “People of IMS,” click here.
People from all over the world come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway year round to experience the tradition, history and majesty of the world’s most iconic sporting facility, and the gatekeeper who opens up the “Racing Capital of the World” to visitors for the extraordinary behind-the-scenes IMS Grounds Tour is Mary Geiss.
A Pennsylvania resident for most of her life, Geiss lived in the Reading area with her husband, Samuel, who introduced her to automobile racing in 1963. The two – who were married for 50 years before Samuel passed away in January — regularly went to races at Trenton, Reading, Langhorne and Williams Grove, and through the years her love for racing grew.
The couple eventually became fans of the Indianapolis 500 and for many years annually subscribed to the Indianapolis Star during the Month of May, and they watched the “500” on closed circuit broadcasts until ABC began televising the race in 1964. The Geisses had always wanted to come to Indianapolis to see the race, and in 1991 that finally happened.
“It was fantastic,” she said. “We had never come to the race before because that was not the time of the year when I could take some time off from my job in nurse’s education, so we never did. Then in 1991 — that was our son’s graduation present from high school — a six-day trip to Indianapolis.”
With Geiss and her husband being huge race fans, it seemed only natural that when her only child was born, he would be named for a racing icon.
“We named him A.J., Anthony Joseph,” Geiss said. “My husband was a huge Foyt fan, so when my son was born he wanted to name him A.J., so we did and he really likes it.”
Little did Geiss know then that her son’s future career path would provide the catalyst for Geiss and her husband to move to Indianapolis and eventually lead to her employment at IMS.
“Things sometimes work ironically and I would’ve never dreamt that I would be here, but A.J. went into the fire service and he applied and got into the Indianapolis Fire Department, so he moved out here,” Geiss said. “So we decided when we retired to move to Indianapolis and we happened to be here visiting him in Brickyard 400 time in 1997, and we went to the Brickyard Crossing Inn and there was a flyer that said they were looking for hosts and hostesses at the museum (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum). Since we already made our plans to move here in ’98, I was interviewed by Ellen Bireley (IMS Hall of Fame Museum Director) and she said, ‘When you move here, come and see us.’
“So I started working here in April 1998 selling tickets at the front desk. It’s kind of a surreal experience to be a race fan all those years and having visited here a number of times before coming to my first race. I was looking for a fun retirement job and 17 years later, here I am.”
Geiss was happy with her job at the front desk in the IMS Hall of Fame Museum, where she worked for nearly three years prior to her current role of directing a new initiative giving the fans the opportunity to tour the world famous 2.5-mile oval track, plus visit the media center, the Pagoda, victory platform, garage area, a Gasoline Alley suite, plus the opportunity to stand on the famous “Yard of Bricks” at the start/finish line. In addition, IMS Grounds Tour guests also tour the Hall of Fame Museum — all for just $25.
“Ellen asked me to move to the back office and at that time they had just come up with the idea of the Grounds Tours,” Geiss said. “When they started in 2001, they did less than about 100 or so, and then I took over the next year and we did 595 tours, and now we do anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 a year.”
Geiss says that people from all over the world who take the Grounds Tours at IMS really enjoy the experience, and many have taken the tour multiple times.
“There was one gentleman who was a lawyer in northern Indiana and his daughter wanted to look at colleges and one of them she wanted to see was Butler, which he suggested because he wanted to take the Grounds Tour,” Geiss said. “So the husband, wife and the daughter came down and he came to the Speedway and took a Grounds Tour while they went and looked at Butler. He kept coming back to take the tour while she was going to school at Butler, and then she graduated and met a young man at Butler and their wedding was in Indianapolis. He actually took the Grounds Tour again for like the fifth time on the weekend of the wedding, and he said to me ‘I feel that my daughter got a good education and she got a wonderful husband all because I wanted to take the Grounds Tour.’”
Geiss, who also operates tours for school groups and other organizations, says many people come to IMS to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other occasions by taking the Grounds Tour so they can participate in the tradition of kissing the world famous IMS Yard of Bricks.
“We had a young man who called me some years ago who worked at the New York Stock Exchange and he wanted to propose to his girlfriend on the Yard of Bricks,” Geiss said. He was told that the only way he can get on the Yard of Bricks was to take the Grounds Tour, so he called me and all the arrangements were made. So they came and my guide knew about it ahead of time and he slipped the guide a camera and he proposed to her on the Yard of Bricks — and these are the things that people never forget.”
While the majority of individuals taking the Grounds Tour are from the continental U.S., there are many tourists from around the world who also look forward to the experience.
“I get phone calls from Europe to register for the Grounds Tour and emails from all over the world,” Geiss said. “I was asked last summer to review an 11-day period and we had people take the tour from 38 countries and 47 of the 50 states. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my life where people will come in out of the rain to pay $25 to go right back out, and they don’t even think about the rain.”
Now in its 13th season, the IMS Grounds Tour enjoyed its biggest year when Indianapolis played host to a downtown sporting event that received considerable worldwide attention.
“Our top year was 2012 when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl and weather-wise it was a balmy week and we did tours during that time, and that was the year we did our top of over 30,000 tours,” Geiss said.
Being involved with IMS and sharing it with so many people from around the world has given Geiss a lifetime of cherished memories.
“Let’s just say it’s been a very rewarding experience,” she said. “I always say it’s a shame that everybody who works here does not have to spend a couple days working in the museum lobby. The people you meet, the stories you hear, they’re fantastic. It’s not only race fans who come here, it’s people who look at this as one of the most historical places in the world. The historical significance — I think — many times outweighs the racing itself. IMS is not only the greatest race track in the world, it’s also such a historical place steeped in tradition, and I love it.”