I have one of the greatest jobs for a motorhead/camera nerd like me: I work for the IndyCar Series as a photographer. I get to travel all over and photograph/shoot the best racing in the world. It also means that for quite a few years I have enjoyed almost unlimited access to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the most amazing places in the world.
I want to talk about one of my favorite places at the Speedway. But first let me get to the “nerd” thing. I grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., just 60 miles north of the Speedway. I’m nearly 61, so I can remember my family’s Memorial Day backyard picnics as far back as the late ‘50s. My dad was a huge Parnelli Jones fan. We always had the radio tuned to the IMS Radio Network. I was one of those kids who could name the make, model and year of any car on the road. I loved the novelty of the turbine Novi. I cheered with my dad when Parnelli won in 1963, though I secretly was rooting for Jimmy Clark in the tiny green rear-engine Lotus.
I went to my first Indy 500 in 1969. My buddy Jim, who was a year older, had a beat-up, old Plymouth. We drove up the day before the race and “camped” in the Coke Lot. The word “camped” is in quotes because I don’t remember ever getting to sleep. I remember playing Frisbee and doing all … well … most of the things kids did in the Coke Lot back then. When the gates opened Race Day morning, our Plymouth was near the front of the line, and we parked right against the infield fence in Turn 4. Mario Andretti won his only Indy 500 that year, which was very cool for me as a Mario fan. But what I remember most was the whole spectacle of the day. I was 16 years old, and I was with my friends in the middle of the biggest crowd at any sporting event in the whole world. I have been to a lot of Indy 500s since then, but I will never forget that first year.
The following year, the same group of us went again, but this time it was in my old Dodge pickup. We went to the same place inside Turn 4 and put up scaffolding in the bed of the truck. Rain delayed the start of that race but didn’t dampen our spirits at all. I missed the race in 1975 while studying in Italy, but I did go to the Italian GP in Monza. As a homesick student, Monza was the next-best thing to Speedway. It cured my homesickness for a while and made me realize how lucky I was to have grown up so near the Racing Capital of the World.
So, I am a Speedway nerd. I am not like some of my nerd friends who collect memorabilia or recite statistics. I am the kind of nerd for whom it is close to a religious experience to be inside the gates of IMS. I tell people that I feel the presence of ghosts at the track. People who don’t get it think I am nuts. I shoot most of the races in the IndyCar Series. I love them all, but they are really just a really fun job. Shooting Indy is way more than a job. It is an honor and a privilege.
Let’s get back to my favorite place at IMS on Race Day. Without a doubt, the most amazing thing about Race Day is the number of people in this huge place. Everybody I know who goes to an Indy 500 for the first time is blown away by the size of the venue and the crowd. It still amazes me, but what astounds me more is the place I go every Race Day where I feel almost completely alone while surrounded by the throng.
This alone – but not lonely – place is where I have shot the start of the race for the last several years.
Every Race Day morning, a couple of hours before the green flag drops, I head down to the outside of turn 1. Right where the B Stand turns into the E Stand, there is a staircase that ascends four flights to the seats in the upper deck. I trudge up these steps with a couple of cameras, four or five big lenses and a small cooler of water. At the top of the steps is a refreshment stand, and a ladder is locked to a rail on the roof of the stand. I climb up the ladder to the roof of the stand … the roof of the world that day.
After pulling up the ladder, I make my way to the edge of the roof, where there is a small, waist-high metal cage. From this little cage, there is a clear view right down the middle of the main straight toward the Yard of Bricks and into Turn 4. The money shot from my perch is the grid of cars taking the green flag to start the race and roaring into Turn 1.
But I just shoot the spectacle for two hours before the race starts. I shoot the crowd crossing the track at pit out. I shoot the bands, the balloons, the fly-over and the stands full of fans.
I am alone in the middle of a quarter of a million people. This is my favorite place in the whole world!
– John Cote
See John’s work at www.johncotephotography.com.