Upon request I'm reposting this here from the Indy 500 thread.
So... here goes my recap. Brace yourselves, wall of text incoming. ) As a companion, here's my photo/video album from my phone: https://photos.app.g...I7WWstpd9kqLC63 It's taken me a while to write this.
Having watched for a decent amount of years beforehand, and having seen some CART on Eurosport in the mid-'90s, I knew I would have to see American open-wheelers in action, and Indy seemed the obvious spot to see them. But it was only since I caught the travel bug a couple of years ago that I actually started seriously entertaining the thought, and when the renderings of the 2018 aero kit were released last summer, I looked at my time and budget and immediately said... hang on, I can do this trip. So I did.
Wrangled a race ticket as soon as the online ticket office opened in November, as well as establishing contact here with the people I would end up meeting in real life during race week. Hotel, rental car and plane tickets soon followed, most of the trip was booked by the start of 2018. After looking for and listening to advice all over the place, all I needed to do was actually follow through with the trip.
Lufthansa's business class offering did its job of carrying me over to Frankfurt and across the Atlantic with an overnight break. The non-adjustable aircon on the 747-8 would prove to be the undoing of the start of my trip though. Quick breeze through immigration and customs at Chicago, I was soon in my rental car and on my way to Indy. And I am not joking, the roads, despite being wide and up to 6 lanes in some places, are actually marginally worse than in Romania. Certainly did its part in keeping me awake for the over 3h30m that it took to actually navigate the Tri-State Tollway and the I-65. Fun note, if the posted speed limit is 65, everyone that's in something smaller than a truck is driving at least at 75. Arrived at the hotel in the end safely; while waiting at the reception I met Paul/paulb (I'd exchanged recognition signals with him and Jp) and after checking in we had our introductory race week dinner close to the hotel.
Thursday morning - wake up with a sore throat, detour to a pharmacy on the way to the track, nothing works (my preferred cold medication was back home). Picked up my tickets, visited the museum and the memorabilia shop, but the cold, the sun and the jet lag combined into one perfect storm which just about destroyed the rest of my day. At least the tickets were in hand so that our parking for Carb Day would be in place, and the museum gave me a first taste of the best the Indy crowd has to offer: a long long chat through history and through my trip in front of Al Unser Jr's 1994-winning Penske PC23, and pleasantly shocked and amazed looks when I would tell people that I'd come all the way from Romania. The historic Gasoline Alley was also a nice treasure trove of history that rested under a log row of canopies reminiscent of the paddock at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, albeit on a much smaller scale (if you've never been to FoS, the paddock there is insane, the cars that go up the hill are probably only 50-60% of the cars that actually reside in that paddock through the weekend). After a slight recovery, Thursday late afternoon was also the point when I first actually met Jp.
So on to Carb Day. The first day I actually got to experience the Speedway for real. And boy, did it not disappoint.
I only ever got to experience about a quarter of the place. The scale of IMS is pretty epic to experience first-hand, but it's hard to compare to road racing venues precisely because of its nature; the height of the grandstands is on par with a regular stadium, but the expanse of the interior is the thing that really jumps into the eye. With the Bronze Badge I got to walk through Gasoline Alley and look into the garages, and thanks to the sneaking skills of a certain Jp I also managed to snag that picture that graced the thread a couple of weeks ago (yes, on the podium) and also walked through the pit box area, in front of the fence. Sadly, waaay too early to actually run into anyone important or who I'd wanted to sign my flag. So we went back to the stands, and after a few minutes of scurrying around we'd found Paul, who managed to snag the best seats in the house for the practice session (despite the blazing sunlight): turn 1, Penthouse B. Overlooking the pit exit and the turn-in point. So... when 11am hit, the engines fired and the goosebumps shot up my spine in the same way they do when watching the cars roll out of the pits at the start of practice at Le Mans.
And out they came to run around the Speedway for the final hour of practice. And they kept turning into 1 about 5 meters below our feet at speeds that still defy the imagination in real life, with some people already trying to practice the moves that they hoped they'd use either on a restart or after running down the person in front for a number of laps. Plenty of people drafted down the main straight and tried dives down the inside into 1, a few who'd tried to go around the outside had mostly completed their passes by the time they were underneath our feet. It was hard to tell who looked fastest, but there were a few people audibly lifting after turn-in so it was easy to discount them as fastest. ) In the end we saw the timing pole saying TK had gone about as fast as anyone'd gone with a tow on race boost during the previous week's practice. And then onto Indy Lights - I'd hoped to watch from the pitlane side, but as it turns out - only the silver badge would officially get you in there during track time. So I would watch the first half of the race on screens around the place while trying to find a place, and the last 15 laps from one of the grandstands behind the pitlane. Even without a large entry, seeing 5 cars at it for lap after lap, and sometimes nearly 3- and 4-wide before getting into line for turn-in into 1 was an exciting sight. I was well-positioned as well to see Colton Herta's team celebrate as soon as the race ended. The less said about the pitstop competition, the better though: only one duel was won from the right-hand lane, so it was all pretty predictable in the end, and sadly for the entertainment of the crowd IMS must have skimped on the budget to hire a decent DJ. )
Once the day at the track was over, we took a break to regroup and then returned to somewhere west of the track in the evening to meet up with Brian (B Squared) at the Union Jack Pub (fun fact: while in O'Hare waiting to check into my flight home, I listened to the Dinner with Racers episode with Paul Page and they'd done their interview at that exact same pub). The place is insanely packed with memorabilia from all kinds of series, besides Indycar, Nascar and drag racing stuff they also had a few F1 diecast models, a giant photo of Graham Hill hanging over the bar and a signed photo of Damon on the podium at Silverstone in '94. Probably the best pub I've seen so far as a motorsport fan. Because of the fact that we were at the actual bar (as it was pretty crowded) and the resulting noise, it was pretty hard to follow discussions, but it was still clear enough to follow and I also moved between the others to slyly insert myself into discussions (as you probably do while right at the bar). It's always interesting to hear the stories of people with a wider motorsport (and life, while we're at it) experience than you, and it was good to be the youngster of the group again for once: I was able to just soak the stories in and listen with all my interest.
After a Saturday to recharge and resupply for the race, marked by an evening visit to the nearby Drake's and meeting up with Ross (RaceNerd from the Indycar fantasy competition) and Jp's friend, it was time to look forward to the Sunday. And the combination of looking-forward-ness and some leftover jet lag made me wake up around 5am on race morning... so after a thorough morning prep and a big mug of coffee, it was time to proceed to the Speedway. And this is where the advantage of hanging out with an experienced race-goer like Jp came into it: after wading for a while through the traffic jam on Crawfordsville off I-465, we took a few back roads and turn-arounds and we managed to escape the pocket of traffic before parking at the main gate before 9am. And it was actually when sitting in the topmost rows of the SW Vista that I actually saw how big the place actually is: I could see the stands at the north end of the track but far far away, and the people in them were simply reduced to specks of colour in the blazing sunshine of Race Day. I took the guys' recommendation and grabbed a pork tenderloin from one of the concession stands, turned out to just be an Americanized name for a giant pork schnitzel with large breadcrumbs. )
So on to the ceremonies. As a foreigner, you try to kind of prepare yourself for the in-the-face-ness of the "America, fuck yeah" tonality of the pre-race celebrations, but from trackside it's even more in-your-face than we can see even when watching a full race recording. After a few of these you learn to kind of take it in stride, follow the crowd and nod politely while respecting the traditions. Also, during the driver intros, I was one of the very few to cheer for Bourdais and Pagenaud.
That is... until Back Home Again in Indiana. This song is so inextricably linked to the 500 now in most of our heads, but until you actually hear it from the stands, it's still one of the traditions that I mentioned above. Even after hearing it in race recordings going back to the early 1990s, it still takes on a whole new meaning when hearing it at the track. And, again, the goosebumps tell their own story. Hearing it and knowing that the "start your engines" command is only seconds away gave me a thrill that, in motorsport terms, has only been surpassed by the sound of thousands of Frenchpeople booming out La Marseillaise minutes before Le Mans is supposed to start. Very hard to come down from that, even if the next moment is booing Tony George as he gives the command. Yes, people still hate him.
The start of the race was another one of those moments that stick with you for a long time afterwards. 33 cars jostling for position at 200+ mph off the rolling start through the south chute, 2- and 3-wide at some points while trying to resolve merge conflicts into the line they would need to inhabit after the first lap. Sadly, the next 40-odd laps didn't follow through on that, and even ignoring the radio it was pretty easy to figure out that up until James Davison's rollbar packed up for good, not much actually happened. Then Sato ran into him, and we went into a pretty frenzied sequence of yellow-restart-yellow-restart, frustratingly with none of the incidents actually happening in my sight. The closest I would actually get to seeing broken cars in front of me was Danica and TK's tire smoke when they spun off of 2, and Sage Karam's car on a flatbed being trucked back to the paddock.
The crowd was pretty much cheering for Ed, especially as he ran close to the front for most of the day. Most of the action in my line of sight happened on the restarts; we gasped when we saw Rossi remove Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud from his sights as he just drove around both of them through 1 and 2. And on another restart the whole crowd was in raptures as we saw the screen showing us cars nearly going 7-wide out of our sight and into turn 3.
Radio still rules for these events. The IMS Radio crew managed to paint a great picture even muddling through their regular ad breaks (why do US ad breaks have to always and EVERYWHERE be so frustratingly long and frequent???) One of the guys behind had commented positively on my Aston Martin Racing T-shirt before the race (we carried on a discussion for a bit after that), and had obviously remarked my cheering for the French guys; and since he also listened to the radio, we discussed Bourdais' crash right after it happened (and agreed that it had to have been from the setup change at the previous pitstop, way too much front wing added at one time).
Towards the end, I think many of us were following the disparate strategies that had come into play. There was a bit of a sense that we might see an upset happen... until the final restart. I think we all felt that even if the guys in front had enough fuel, Power just had a lot more in hand. He may have ended up passing Stefan Wilson on the last lap, but he would have found a way around him. In the end, it became a moot point (even though there was a massive collective groan when both Wilson and Harvey peeled off for fuel with 3 to go). However, this crowd knows how to celebrate a worthy winner, and Power most definitely was one. Even as he started the 200th lap the applause from the standing crowd started building up in our section of the track, and it erupted as he crossed the line and once again flashed through our sight, yet this time at half-speed and undoubtedly disbelievingly shouting like a maniac into his helmet. So Power celebrated, and we cheered him along as the podium ceremonies and the lap of honour around the track proceeded at their own pace.
Finally, we were pretty much ready to set off. Yet we waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. Due to the traffic and the amount of cars that all wanted to leave together, we ended up spending more time in the car in the parking lot than we actually spent driving from the Speedway back to our hotel (through downtown instead of the I-465). We shared a bit of dinner at the Drake's again to chill out after the race while watching the 600 and the start of the traditional evening race replay on a couple of the TVs in the pub. EDIT: Oh yes, and on the way back from the track we went past a Taco Bell. THAT Taco Bell. Dixon and Dario's.
We concluded on Monday evening, after a dreadfully hot day that was mostly spent packing and getting ready for the long journeys home, with a couple of Sato-branded beers and watching the victory banquet together in the hotel room. A relatively quiet way to wrap things up, but somewhat fitting to end calmly and quietly after a few extreme bouts of excitement.
A big big big big thank you to everyone I've met on this trip. Without the enjoyable company of the people from this forum that I met there, and without the hospitality and good nature of Hoosiers which manifests at its peak during the week of the 500, it would most likely have been a very different experience. As it was, it's been one to file away under "great stories to tell your kids" at some point. Sadly the bug that bites you to try to determine you to return didn't manage to bite through the very heavy issues of practicality, time and budget needed to do this again, so for the next few years I will once again be watching from home. But it's been an experience that I can heartily recommend to anyone with a taste for motorsport, and I fully get why this event has built up all this history and why it still attracts people through both tradition and modernity after all these years.
Now on to Le Mans.