Kissing the bricks

One thing that you cannot escape in Indiana is its automotive history and love of racing, particularly in central Indiana, which is home to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Over the last several years, I have made the rounds of automobile museums throughout the state and seen umpteen early cars in various venues. I’ve heard the tales of titans in the US automotive industry and often walk by “Crazy” Carl Fisher‘s mausoleum in Crown Hill Cemetery. While I haven’t been to a running of the Indianapolis 500, I have enjoyed some events such as practice and the legendary Carb Day at the track.

Before The Greatest Month in Racing commenced this year, I decided to take a behind the scenes tour of the track and peruse their museum. The tour and the museum were well worth it.

The tour is quite a production. I made a reservation but lots of people just showed up and clamored on one of two buses. (On scheduled days, the ninety-minute tour runs several times a day. They seem to expand or contract the number of buses based on how many people show up.)

We started by being driven around the track, listening to a tour guide and a tape by Derek Daley. It was super cool to really feel the effect of the 9-degree banking of the corners as we slowly puttered around the track. To the race car drivers, this banking has the effect of 3 Gs on their bodies.

We stopped midway through what feels like a “canyon”. This is where the race starts and ends, with the media center, control tower, corporate suites, and victory podium consolidated in one area. As race car drivers approach this area, they are greeted by stands on either side of the track; they are kind of encapsulated by fans as they race through.

In contrast, we came to a slow halt and tumbled out of the bus at the famous Yard of Bricks, where the race starts and ends. The track was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, along with a few other automotive industry bigwigs. When the IMS opened in 1909, the track was composed of crushed stone sprayed with tar. It did not work out well. The third race (and first auto race) at the track had to be cut short due to fatalities and wrecks resulting from the road conditions. Fisher immediately had the track repaved with bricks. In 1961, the track was repaved again and all the bricks but a yard at the start/finish line were buried underneath the track as it exists today.

We had the opportunity to see the Yard of Bricks up close and personal—and to participate in the newish tradition of kissing them. (NASCAR winner Dale Jarrett initiated this tradition in 1996, which winners since have emulated.) It was a bit surreal to be standing on the track, in the canyon, looking over at victory podium. (I was struck by how compact the space was. Victory podium seems so large and the area so spacious on TV.)

After a few minutes of taking in the sites, snapping some photos, and, er, kissing the bricks, we got back in the bus and continued on around the track to access the media center and the control tower from the back.

The media center was built in 2000. As we waited for the elevator to take us up to the fourth floor, I poked my head inside an open doorway right off of the lobby. And I found myself looking into the room where press conferences are held—the surrealness of seeing places in person that I had only seen on TV continued.

No time to dally as we were going to the fourth floor where the media hangs out. And I do not mean a few media personnel but several hundred. The room is the size of a football field, the guide said, as I turned to look. The room, with rows of chairs and tables, can hold more than 300 people. A cafeteria in the same building feeds them all several meals a day.

Our next stop was to walk out the doors to the victory podium. Now I was seeing the canyon from the perspective of a Grand Prix winner. (Grand Prix winners gather at the top of the podium, Indianapolis 500 winners below.)

We sauntered into the adjacent building, the control tower. On the second floor, we visited where timing and scoring occurs. Special cameras monitor the cars as they zoom across the Yard of Bricks with each lap. We learned how special transponders on the cars (that’s what those antenna on the cars are for!) communicate with instruments in this room.

One corner is where broadcasts from IMS take place—another location seen on TV. A special inner room with glass windows is where three people responsible for monitoring and calling the scores hole up for the race.

In the control tower, we also saw corporate suites, where the lucky few can shell out money to watch the race in enclosed rooms overlooking the track. The suites go for $75,000 for 80 people for 15 days of festivities. A real bargain when you think about it, we were told. One hundred and twenty suites exist, but they had to create extra ones in 2016 for the 100th running of the race.

I was stuck on the idea that $75,000 is a bargain and then stunned by the realization that 75,000 x 120 is a heck of a lot of money when our guide relayed a story about Andrew Luck, the QB of the Indianapolis Colts. Apparently in 2016 Luck called to reserve a suite, but as luck would have it—sorry, I couldn’t resist—all suites had already been reserved. That was how the IMS came to construct additional corporate suites. It wouldn’t do to NOT have a corporate suite for Andrew Luck. (Of course, there was also a lot of money to be made.)

We meandered up to the tenth floor of the control tower to a different viewing suite—one for the sponsors of the race. With money, it seems, come benefits…and creature comforts.

We then rejoined the bus to putter through Gasoline Alley and the garage area. Many manufacturers and suppliers already had their names above the single garages in anticipation of the month of May. Special drivers (like four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500 Al Unser and A.J. Foyt) have their own offices with their names etched in the glass windows.

Afterwards we were let out at the front of the museum. The ninety minutes went by quickly. All through the tour, the guide outside of the bus and the recording of Derek Daley inside the bus gave us lots of interesting tidbits. In 1935 warning lights around the track were installed. In 2002, protective walling (SAFER barriers), developed at the University of Nebraska, was installed. A golf course—which I met by chance as I was looking for the IMS entrance—was built in 1929. Currently four holes exist inside the track (!) and 14 holes outside. The IMS fits 400,000 spectators (in the stands, suites, and infield). It is the largest sporting venue in the world.

I am glad that I ventured out on a cold—and what was ultimately rainy—day to tour the historic IMS—it’s on the Nation Register of Historic Places. I learned a lot of interesting facts, saw things I hadn’t before (or only on TV), and experienced bits of the IMS such as the Yard of Bricks that mere mortals normally do not. Right in time before the madness that is May in central Indiana…and before my next trip to watch the cars practice for the next Indianapolis 500.

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