A few years ago, I wrote a mostly tongue-in-cheek column for this same space comparing the Daytona 500 to the Indy 500 taking a few shots at Indy. I was born in Daytona and attended several Daytona races growing up. I had never been to an Indy race but had watched the 500 a few times on television. This past weekend I spent four days in the infield at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 500.
First let me say that the Daytona 500 has never been the event that is the Indy 500. I went with a friend and we did what is called Glamping in the infield. We arrived on Thursday and stayed through Monday morning. There was virtually always something going on somewhere on the track. There was “Carb Day” on Friday when the drivers get an hour on the track to make the final adjustments for Sunday. I think half of Indiana calls in sick on Carb Day. Every day there are old Indy cars doing parade laps around the track. We had pins that got us into the garages and most other areas. Watching them start and rev these powerful engines from a few feet away was fantastic as was strolling around the parking lot beside the museum checking out a hundred years of race cars up close and meeting the owners or the old guys who were beaming in proud at having just driven that old car on the track.
There were three concerts in the infield over the weekend that included Barenaked Ladies, Steve Miller and Keith Urban. I have renewed hope in America after seeing a lot more people at Steve Miller than Keith Urban. Although I was impressed with how well Urban played guitar. There is a section called the Snake Pit where concerts and DJs perform to a raucous crowd of mostly young people. The Snake Pit began as a wild party location for mostly bikers in the infield near turn one a few decades ago. As the party started getting more and more out of control that area was shut down and it moved to a new location in turn four. When that area was altered to make room for the road track, the Snake Pit moved to its currently location near turn three. It certainly appeared as if the vast majority of those in the Pit had zero interest in the race itself. But they looked as if they were having fun.
The Glamping campground, where we stayed, is well secured and only those with a Glamping armband were allowed through the gate. The tents were pretty nice and the facilities were even better. There were three extremely clean shower trailers with four men’s and four women’s showers in each as well as three bathroom trailers. The group managing the campground was good about transporting your belongings from the parking lot to your tent on a golf cart. The campground also included large gas grills and free ice. But the best part of the Glamping area was the neighbors. It was a party every night and I never saw any animosity between campers. After news spread through the area of the death of rock legend Gregg Allman, we did a two hour tribute to Gregg using an iPod and a Bluetooth speaker. A small crowd gathered and celebrated the passing of yet another of music’s greats. You cannot help but end up with new friends.
On race day, I was awakened at 5:30AM by the sound checks over at the Snake Pit. I think it was considered music but it sounded like something from Ren and Stimpy.  At 6:00AM a cannon is fired to announce the opening of the gates. You will not sleep through that canon. I hurried over to set up our chairs, swung by for coffee and a biscuit at the café near the garage and then snagged a Bloody Mary (strictly for the nutrition value of the celery and olives) for the walk back to the tent. By 9:00AM we were in our chairs watching various parades and events that led up to the actual race. These included marching bands, legends parade lap with the likes of AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. A Blackhawk helicopter lowering soldiers down a rope to deliver the checkered flag and the arrival and parade lap by United States Vice President Mike Pence. About a half hour before race time, I snagged one of those wonderful smoked turkey legs and a margarita and settled in for the green flag.
And then, of course, there is the race itself. Let me begin by stating that television does not come close to doing justice to this race, the cars. or the drivers involved. The speeds these cars hit is amazing. At times. they are moving at over 230 MPH. At one point, Helio Castroneves passed under an airborne Scott Dixon. Dixon’s car all but disintegrated, but he walked away virtually unharmed. This is racing at his highest level. One mistake could easily prove fatal. The Indy 500 itself has claimed 14 lives dating back to 1919 so this is not for wimps. There would end up being three wrecks in this race but thankfully everyone climbed out safely. The race ended with a ten-lap duel between Castroneves and eventual champion Takuma Sato, the first Japanese driver to ever win at Indy proving they can drive. Sato drank most of the bottle of milk and poured the rest over his head.
Unlike NASCAR, you do not get away with bumping each other in this race. Contact will almost certainly send you toward a wall. Also unlike NASCAR, which is a shadow of the sport it once was, there are no ridiculous gimmicks like competition yellows or “lucky dogs”. If you want your lap back at Indy, you actually have to drive your way back onto the lead lap. There is no “chase”. This race is all about speed and competition. I still love the Daytona 500 and I always will. But, having been to both now, honesty compels me to admit there is no comparison in the overall event. NASCAR should do more to make their signature race the entertainment that is Indy. There is a reason why this race is called the Greatest Spectacle in Motor Racing. I encourage everyone to make this a bucket list item. You will not regret that decision.