I climbed the concrete stairs and stepped into the sun - a tenderloin sandwich and fries in one hand, a gigantic can of Foster’s Lager in the other. It was practice day, and the grandstand was nearly empty. I was momentarily disoriented, this place is so huge. Blinking and squinting in the sun, I looked for something familiar from the pictures.
And then the atmosphere tore itself in two. A flash of black and silver with a roar, a shriek, a howl in stereo from right to left. It felt more like it was passing through me than by me and I ducked my head, spilled the beer, and said some words you don’t say in church. It was gone as quickly as it came. When I opened my eyes, all was tranquil again. I could hear it now in the distance - a mile away and out of sight. Like a wasp that came too close, it was dangerous and I knew it would be back. It was my first encounter with a living, breathing Formula 1 race car. (Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren Mercedes)
I’ve been a race fan of one sort or another for most of my life. As a kid, I’d watch NASCAR on TV - not really understanding racing very well, but the wrecks were spectacular and there was always the chance that Bobby Allison would get into a fistfight with someone. The names of that era are still legends: Waltrip, Yarborough, Petty.
In high school, somehow, I became a Formula 1 fan. It wasn’t easy. They raced all over the world and TV coverage was sporadic in the US. The internet didn’t exist yet. Most of my information came from reading reports in Road & Track magazine - two months after the fact. But even in print, the venues and the names were romantic, colorful, larger than life: Ferrari, Lotus, Cosworth, Piquet, Villeneuve, Lauda.
Coverage is much improved these days. Among the news sources I visit every day are several websites devoted to the sport. Social media shares other fans’ opinions right now. During practice and qualifying, I get real-time lap times and speed trap data on my phone from venues on the other side of the world. I follow the news from the teams and the drivers and it’s my soap opera. I don’t read fiction or watch reality shows on TV, but I follow Formula 1 and there’s plenty of drama, real and manufactured - personalities to like and dislike, drivers and teams to cheer for and against.
Digital recorders mean we can watch when we want, and my sister’s family, MSL, and I have a tradition of watching every race together, usually trying to share a meal of food that’s somehow related to the location of the race: Indian take-out, Canadian bacon, etc. For the British Grand Prix we have an Americanized version of that oh-so-English dessert, Spotted Dick.
For seven years in the early 2000’s, Formula 1 brought its global circus to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I went every year. Those who don’t follow auto racing sometimes think Formula 1 and IndyCars are the same thing, but they’re not. IndyCars - the ones that race the famous 500 - compete in a North American series on street circuits and oval tracks. F1 is the glossy, glamorous pinnacle of motorsport, racing in such historic and exotic places as Monza, Singapore, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Monaco, and, at the time, Indiana. Each series has it’s snobs who poo-poo the other which is too bad, because both are full of personalities and color and drama - the highest technology, amazingly skilled drivers and unbelievable speed.
There’s nothing like being there: the atmosphere is like college football on a big rivalry weekend. It’s an international crowd with Italians and Brits and Germans and Russians and Spaniards all wearing their team colors, painting their faces and waving their flags. The cars are incredibly loud, fast, and colorful. There’s the sound of the engines and the sweet-sour smell of the fuel and the exhaust.
For the race, we always had seats in the main grandstand directly across from the pit exit and the winner’s podium. We could see straight up the pit road and even directly into a few of the garages. But the best day was the day before the race - qualifying day. We’d get general admission tickets that would let us move around to try different vantage points: up high overlooking a corner, the front straight, and my favorite, a grassy berm in the infield where we could sit in the sun with an ice-cold beer and some chicken tenders while guys named Raikkonen, Hakkinen, Schumacher and Montoya blasted past on their qualifying runs.
But if you’re going to try different vantage points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you’d better plan your moves and be systematic about it. It’s not a football stadium. You don’t just say, “I think I’ll wander over to the other side and see what it looks like from there”, because the other side is fully a mile away. The place is huge. The infield is big enough to include all of the garages and pit facilities, giant parking lots, a museum, grandstands, a five-story media center and race control tower, a heliport, a medical building, VIP hospitality area, a road racing track and a golf course.
The Formula 1 crew has now moved their American race to a track in Texas, and I miss those annual treks to Indy. Like Monza, Silverstone, the Nurburgring and LeMans, Indianapolis is one of the world capitals of racing. History gets made there and it's thrilling to be there when it happens.
I’m sharing all of this because it’s Memorial Day weekend. In addition to the remembrance that we’ll do on Monday, Sunday is a huge day in the racing world: the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, and the Coca Cola 600, all in one day! If you’re a race fan, it’s like having the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Tour de France at the same time and I look forward to it the way baseball fans look forward to opening day.
There’s no other real point to this post this week - I’m just really excited about the racing! Whatever sport you’re tuned into tomorrow: golf, baseball, soccer or racing, cheer for the good guys, and stay safe around the barbecue.
(if you want our recipe for American Spotted Dick, send me an email)