Monday, May 30, 2011
My Long-Ago Trip to the 500
I went to the Indianapolis 500 once when I was about eight years old, when we met Mom’s siblings and my older cousin Jay in Indianapolis for the race:
The traffic was bumper to bumper as it slowly crawled into the parking lot in the center of the track. Mom and I were in Jim and Brenda’s car, with John, Bill, and Jay behind us. It was early morning and the sun had just barely warmed the dew off the grass when we parked in the long line of cars.
Brenda quickly jumped out of the car and opened the trunk, pulling out a box of kitchen supplies. She then took out a metal garbage can lid and put it on the ground behind the car. “Where there’s necessity there’s a way,” she laughed and filled the upside-down lid with charcoal, placing a small metal grate above it all. Mom helped Brenda take the rest of the supplies from the trunk as Jim lit the charcoal and we all waited for the coals to get ready.
The inside of the Speedway was chaotic. I jumped up and down, trying to get high enough to see across the sea of people, and finally Bill picked me up and held me high. Cars and people stretched as far as I could see, all the way to the buildings at the far end. Setting me back on the ground, Bill said, “This track is 2 ½ miles long, so how many times do the cars have to go around to get to 500 miles?” He looked at me, and I desperately tried to do the math in my head, wanting to impress him. But it was too much to ask under pressure.
“Ummm, a lot.”
He laughed. “That’s right.”
Jay adjusted the baseball cap on his head and threw a baseball in the air and caught it in the mitt he always carried. “Two hundred.” I sighed and turned to Mom, disappointed that Jay had been smarter. By this time, she and Brenda were frying bacon on the makeshift grill, and smoke wafted across where Jim, Bill, and John were standing and surveying the mobs of race fans.
After eating bacon and eggs and realizing that Brenda’s grill had burned a perfect circle into the grass, we took a cooler and headed to our seats in the stands. I had thought we’d be sitting in the bleachers, but we were much closer to the action. As we stepped into the stands, Jim gestured below us, near the track. “Those are ours,” he said, and I looked down to see that instead of meager bleacher seats, we had a sectioned-off area right next to the track. The only thing that separated us from the racetrack was a concrete barrier and a high mesh fence. Jay immediately ran down and claimed one of the folding metal chairs closest to the fence. Jealous, I followed him and sat next to him so I could see, too.
And the race was exciting, so close. After we heard the singing of the National Anthem and Back Home Again in Indiana, we heard “Gentlemen, start your engines,” and the race soon began. We first saw all the cars drive by slowly during the warmup lap. Each car was jerking from side to side as they drove, as if they were avoiding speedbumps.
“Why are they driving like that?” I asked.
“They’re warming up their tires,” Jay said, rolling his eyes. Obviously it was a stupid question.
Finally the warmup lap was over and we heard the cars approaching as they began their first lap at actual race speed. The roar was deafening. And exciting. I looked at Jay, who was sitting with his arms folded, slumped in his seat, his baseball cap low over his eyes. How did he always look so cool? I wondered. I really wanted him to like me. “What names did you get?” I asked him. Brenda had written each driver's name on slips of paper and we each had drawn three contenders to watch in the race. The person with the winning driver would get a prize she had brought.
“Jnnnnnyprrrsunss,” Jay mumbled.
“What?” I asked, leaning in so I could hear him over the roar of the cars.
“Jonnyyyyprrrssnnns,” he mumbled again.
Not wanting to appear more annoying, I simply said, “Oh,” and sat back in my seat. I looked down at my slips of paper: Larry Rice, Jerry Karl, Larry Dickson. I looked up at the cars that passed and wondered where my drivers were. After watching them pass, I finally decided that I would root for the car that was prettiest. A fluorescent pink car raced by and I silently chose it as my favorite.
Soon the sun got hot and Brenda opened the cooler and handed out cans of Coke. Mom opened hers and then tapped me on the shoulder. “Come on, Shannon, let’s go look around,” she said, and I followed her outside the bleachers where there were booths of Indy 500 merchandise for sale. We saw t-shirts with the 500 logo and bags and buttons with drivers’ faces on them. I picked up a black and white checkered flag and waved it around. “Let’s get that!” Mom said, and she paid the man who stuffed the bills into his pocket. We walked further, enjoying the shade of the stands and stretching our legs. We could hear the race continuing on nearby as a constant drone. “How much longer will it go on?” I asked Mom. I felt like it had started hours ago. “Probably another couple of hours.”
We headed back up to our seats just in time to see a crash ahead of us on the track. Yellow pieces of car and black rubber flew in every direction, some landing on the pavement in front of us. I dug in my bag for my little 110 camera and snapped photos as the emergency vehicle drove out to help the driver out of the car. Shakily the driver stood and when we all applauded, he waved briefly to the crowd before being led off the track. “Who was it?” I asked, digging into my pocket for my crumpled slips of paper. “Was it one of these?” I shoved the slips in front of Bill for his inspection. “No, I don’t think so.” Smiling, I took my seat in front next to Jay, who was sitting with his baseball cap so low that I didn’t know how he could see anything. I waved my checkered flag in front of him. “See what I got?” I asked. I got a grunt in return, which was better than nothing.
Finally Bill told me that the end of the race was near, so I strained my ears to hear the announcer, silently urging my drivers to hurry. Cheers erupted from the stands behind us, and I asked, “Who is it? Who won?” as I gripped the papers in my hand. Suddenly John threw his hands in the air. “Woo hoo!” John had the winning driver’s name. I sat back in my chair with a thud, disappointed. And my favorite pink car didn’t finish anywhere near the front, either. John opened the gift that Brenda handed him, revealing a small frosted cake that she had topped with a plastic race car. “All right!” he laughed, hugging Brenda with one arm.
We got our belongings together and I snapped one more photo of the people in the stands as we joined the mass of people walking to their cars. As we waited in the long line of traffic, I waved my checkered flag out the back window. I could see the outline of Jay’s baseball cap in the car in front of us.