Thoughts from the Indianapolis 500, part 1

We’ve now had a few days to digest the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500, so I figured it was now time to put my thoughts about this past weekend down and take a look back at what turned out to be a fantastic race weekend.  Instead of dumping all my thoughts into a crazy-long post, I’ll divide it into two posts with the non-racing thoughts covered here and a separate post for the on-track activity itself.

As always, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did a fantastic job of putting on the event and executing those aspects of the race weekend that are under its control (as opposed to the operations and competition aspects that are controlled by INDYCAR).  With only one issue that I can recall from the weekend (that I’ll address a bit later), IMS handled all aspects under their control as well as anyone could expect.

Thank you, kind Lot 2 yellow shirt!

My race morning at the track started around 6:45 AM (after breakfast at Charlie Brown’s) when I entered Lot 2 via 20th Street.  The media parking lot was full already (which I assumed it would be as it tends to fill well before the opening bomb sounds), so I knew I’d be parking a bit further from the gate than I had hoped.  Although the short walk to the gate was no bother for me, it would have been tougher for my dad, so I asked the yellow shirts in the area if I could just drop him off closer to the gate to wait for me and I’d return to the parking area immediately.  They allowed me to do so, whereupon I dropped Dad off near the entrance to the American Legion building on Georgetown Road.  Once I parked and returned to where I dropped Dad off, another friendly yellow shirt offered us a ride on a golf cart right to Gate 6.  She certainly didn’t have to offer us such an amenity, but we took her up on the offer and the small token of kindness was greatly appreciated.

As I wrote about last week, this was likely to be Dad’s 65th and final time to attend the Indianapolis 500.  As such, I felt it better to spend time with him in our Paddock seats making final memories before the race than to wander through the garages and down on the track.  Around 8:00, I decided to run down to the Racing Electronics trailer near the Main Entrance to retrieve my scanner rental for the day.  It was probably my most negative experience of the weekend.

A Racing Electronics headache

When I arrived at the Racing Electronics trailer, there were probably 30 other people also waiting, divided among three lines.  Given that I had already reserved my scanner and paid online, I got into the line with the sign over it that read “ONLINE RENTAL PICK UP.”  One would have assumed this would have been the line for people who rented and paid online and just needed to pick up their rental.  Apparently those people would have been wrong.

While I expected this line to move quickly, it seemed to take an absolute eternity for people to get through their process.  I could see quite lengthy conversations going on between the people at the front of the line and the guy in the trailer, which I just assumed was him explaining the features of the system to the customer.  As I got closer, I could tell the people at the head of the line were not in fact just picking up online purchases but were using the pick-up line for a regular rental line.  After a while, I became “that guy” and questioned why this line was being used for non-pick-up purposes.  The guy in the RE trailer looked at me like I had three heads, and when I pointed to the sign above his head, he leaned out of the trailer to read it then just shrugged his shoulders at me and went about his business.

Finally, after about a half hour in line, I finally got my rental and hurried back to my seat.  Once I arrived, I took out the scanner and quickly realized that instead of the RE3000 model I had received as a rental the last many times I had rented from Racing Electronics (and was pictured on their website), I had gotten a lower model RE1000.  Unfortunately, this low-end model had a very slow scanning feature that took the better part of 30 seconds to scan through the entire 33-car field.  Obviously with scanning that slow, you miss most of the chatter between drivers and crews.

Furthermore, all of the Indy Lights drivers’ frequencies were programmed into the system, so it had to scan through those too.  For whatever reason, nearly all of them were broadcasting static, but because the RE1000 has no way to lock-out a specific channel, I couldn’t turn those channels off or remove them from the scanning.  Eventually, I quit trying to scan the driver communications altogether and used my $40 rental solely as a way to listen to the radio and TV broadcasts during the race.  It was a very disappointing experience.

After the race, I headed to the Racing Electronics garage immediately south of the Pagoda to return the scanner and voice my displeasure.  Even though the rental agreement said the scanner had to be returned within one hour of the end of the race, this location was already closed and locked down 20 minutes after the race completed.  Grrrr!!!!  Thankfully there was another rental trailer a bit east of the Pagoda at the intersection of 6th Street and Hulman Boulevard.  The poor lady that was accepting returns got a piece of my mind about the entire experience and told me that all the RE3000s had been sent to Charlotte for their corporate customers and she only had the RE1000s and Uniden SC230s for rent.  (As a side note, I own a SC230, and it is a wonderful scanner.  Unfortunately the audio jack broke several years ago, and I’ve just never paid to have it fixed.)  That just made me more irritated by the entire experience, but there was nothing to be done about it then.

I’ve had many good experiences renting scanners from Racing Electronics, but this was not one of them.  I posted about my weekend on RE’s Facebook page, and to their credit, they reached out to me the following day to apologize.  They also clarified that I had been given inaccurate information regarding the RE3000 scanners being sent to Charlotte.  They said that was not the case, and that they have been simply phasing them out over the last couple years because the other scanners have better durability.  That’s disappointing to hear, but that’s their call.  Hopefully they will remove the image of the RE3000 from the rental pages if they are no longer planning to offer them for race weekend rentals.  I’m sure my next interaction with RE will be more positive, but this one certainly left a bad taste in my mouth.

Pre-race ceremonies

When NBC Sports first started talking about their ramp up for televising the Indianapolis 500, one of their talking points was their desire to clean up the pre-race ceremonies and allow them to flow more consistently again.  For decades, the ceremonies had been regimented, swift, and continuous.  In order, they went “God Bless America”, the National Anthem, the invocation, the “Homage Speech” or another address (often by a high-ranking member of the armed forces), “Taps”, “(Back Home Again in) Indiana”, and finally “Gentleman, start your engines.”

About 15 years ago – maybe more, maybe less – ABC decided the pre-race ceremonies needed a shake up.  At their request, long breaks were inserted into the festivities so they could show viewers at home long, pre-produced video montages between different parts of the ceremonies while some aspects of the ceremonies (typically the invocation) were often not shown at all in lieu of commercials.  While these long breaks in the build-up may have gone unnoticed to viewers at home, they destroyed the atmosphere of the ceremonies for those at the track.

Previously, once the ceremonies started, they were like a freight train of emotion that built and built and built until climaxing with the call to start engines.  By the time ABC ended their 54-year run of broadcasting the race in 2018, the pre-race ceremonies were individual pieces of disjointed action that sputtered along without the feeling and emotional build-up of years gone by.

This past weekend, much of the fluidity of the pre-race ceremonies returned.  Once the driver introductions were completed (which I could honestly do without) and things got rolling a short time later with “America, the Beautiful,” they mostly went uninterrupted until the start of the race.

One aspect that remains changed and that I still don’t like is the move of “Taps” from just before “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” to much earlier in the program, between the invocation and “God Bless America.”  “Taps” is undoubtedly the emotional peak in the pre-race military salute and the time when even the drunkest of fans stand in quiet reverence to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day weekend.  Until you experience it, it is impossible to understand the pall that falls over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when 300,000 people go completely silent – eerily silent, really – within the solo trumpeter’s first three notes.  By the end of the song, the emotional rubber band is sprung as tightly as can be.  When “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” followed “Taps,” it was like the rubber band snapped and it made Jim Nabors’ introduction a raucous, festival, emotional release that somehow made both songs even that much more impactful.  Putting it directly before Chevel Shephard (who??) singing “God Bless America” actually makes the rest of the ceremonies feel post-climatic and less emotional.  I really wish IMS would put “Taps” back to its rightful place and let it again be the “Calm Before the Storm” that Jim Cornelison brings.

Speaking of Mr. Cornelison, he was once again the highlight of the pre-race ceremonies.  Though he has the nearly-impossible task of following in the legendary footsteps of Jim Nabors, Cornelison once again belted out a rendition of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” that was respectful to Nabors’ version but enough of his own to make it a “new standard” for the Indianapolis 500.  I had long advocated for Cornelison to sing the National Anthem before the 500, but after three years in his current role, I think it is much better than he sing this traditional song for many, many years to come rather than being a one-time performer of the National Anthem before the race.

Speaking of the National Anthem, I thought Kelly Clarkson, once again, did an excellent job with her performance.  Clarkson was both musically superb and patriotically respectful to the song.  Unlike many singers who chose this song to be a “performer,” Clarkson sang a wonderful rendition that highlighted her naturally-talented voice without the overly dramatic, self-indulgent, distracting runs and wobbles that so often invade the National Anthem.  There are few songs that are more difficult to sing, especially a cappella, but for the second consecutive year, Clarkson put on a nearly flawless performance.

It wasn’t all perfect during the pre-race ceremonies, however, as those of us at the track missed way more audio than we should have.  Nearly every time a new singer, speaker, or band started, the crowd at IMS missed large periods of their act.  For instance, when Lee Greenwood took to the microphone to sing his famous song, “God Bless the USA,” the crowd missed the entire first verse and chorus.  It wasn’t until well into the second verse that we began to hear the words, and even then, it sounded like someone put the microphone next to their phone and simply streamed the song from Apple Music.  It was a disappointing moment.  The same thing happened when the Purdue University All-American Band started playing “On the Banks of the Wabash.”

Other slow transitions followed.  It took a few notes of “Taps” before the microphone finally switched on completely.  Thankfully the microphones were hot right away for the National Anthem and “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” so the crowd didn’t miss any of those songs.  Nonetheless, these are issues that should have been vetted and sorted out well before pre-race ceremonies, especially considering the entire pre-race is rehearsed the day before the race.

It seems there is significantly more jumping around of locations during pre-race now than there was previously.  Driver introductions, “God Bless the USA,” and the National Anthem were all done on a stage at the Yard of Bricks.  The Purdue Band plays in the area near Victory Lane.  “Taps” is performed from the starter’s stand.  “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” is performed on a stage set up between Rows 1 and 2 near pit out.  Tony George delivered the command to start engines from the platform overlooking Victory Lane.  (I honestly have no idea where “America, the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” were performed.)  And of course, Dave Calabro and Bob Jenkins lead the ceremonies from a booth located in the second floor of the Pagoda.  With all these microphones in all these locations, it’s no wonder switching can be slow and delayed.  Perhaps IMS should consider making the ceremonies originate from a more consolidated location.

One last positive note… it was truly fantastic to hear Bob Jenkins recite the “Homage” speech made famous by the late Jim Phillippe.  The speech has been recited a few times in the past by Jerry Baker and Dave Calabro, but I thought Jenkins was the best rendition since Phillippe himself last gave the speech before his passing in 2003.  Traditionally this speech immediately preceded “Taps” but with the introduction of the three-volley salute several years ago, the salute should come immediately before “Taps.”  The “Homage Speech,” if hopefully continued in the future, should come immediately before the three-volley salute.

Post-race eggress

A funny thing happens when 300,000 people all try to leave a facility at the same time.  Nobody moves.

Getting people into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the race is a relatively easy exercise.  Anyone with a bit of common sense would know not to show up within an hour of the race starting, so people start to trickle into the giant facility several hours beforehand.  It’s a fairly orderly process that, for the most part, doesn’t cause too much consternation.  Sometimes lines will back up, but in general, it’s not too difficult for people to get into the facility over the course of four, five, or even six hours before the green flag falls.

Exiting the track afterwards is another story.  Instead of people leaving over the course of several hours, 80-90% of the spectators head immediately for the exits once the race is over.  This leads to congested pedestrian paths and grid-lock in the parking lots.

My experience, however, suggests that after 103 years, those in charge of moving people out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Town of Speedway mostly have it figured out.

After the checkered flag flew, I headed to the infield to get my traditional picture of the winner on the Yard of Bricks post race.  By the time I finished that, I returned my scanner, and made my way back to the Paddock seating area to reunite with Dad, it was probably 45 minutes after the checkered flag flew.  Our grandstand was pretty much empty by that point, and those who remained were asked to leave by a yellow shirt telling us they were going to start cleaning the grandstands already.

We made the short walk to our car and arrived there about 20 minutes later.  During that time, I hadn’t noticed any cars moving and figured we would have to wait an eternity to get out of the lot.  Though I was prepared for the worst, once we got to the car, it only took us a few minutes of waiting to reach the main road exiting Lot 2 and onto 20th Street.  From there, State Police directed us west to Lynhurst Drive, south to 10th Street and west again to I-465.  From the time I first got to my car until I was in free-flow traffic on I-465 was probably about 20 minutes.  Given the massive crowd flowing out of the Town of Speedway, I thought that was very reasonable and about as good as could ever be expected.  I’m sure those who got to their cars quite a bit earlier than me had frustrating experiences, but those who were patient should have had a pretty easy time getting out.

To the credit of those driving around me, I don’t recall any idiots honking horns for no reason, swerving between lanes, or doing anything else stupid.  They simply followed the car in front of them and got us all where we were heading quickly.

So to all the IMS yellow shirts and officers from the Indiana State Police, Town of Speedway, and Marion County, kudos to a job well done!

I’ll be back with Part 2 of my look back on the 103rd Indianapolis 500 shortly, including my thoughts on what we saw on track leading to Simon Pagenaud’s first victory.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts from the Indianapolis 500, part 1

  1. Garrett

    The flyover was my favorite free-race moment. People in the SE Vista were losing their minds, it was awesome. A “USA” chant broke out throughout the whole stand as the F-16 shot to the sky after his lap.


  2. Talón de Brea

    I hope Dad enjoyed the race and the entire day.

    Your frustrating scanner rental experience sounds like something that would happen to a first-time attendee who didn’t know how things were supposed to work — or at the first race ever held at a particular venue. Sorry it had to happen to an experienced 500-goer who has worked out a “system” over the years. I know I hate it when people or entities *think* or simply assume they are communicating clearly when they aren’t.


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