Indy 500 regular laments loss of site’s quaint charms
Freshly sunburned and footsore, I’m back from my annual sojourn to the epicenter of auto racing: The magnificent Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And this year, a little heartsore as well.
Despite decades of visits — I’ve put in more Memorial Day weekends there than some of this year’s drivers have been alive on Planet Earth — I never tire of exploring that massive monument to velocity. Hallowed ground since 1911, most of the present infrastructure — including the massive front-straight grandstand — dates to the post-World War II era when major renovations started.
It’s a thrill, on a sweltering race day, to shelter under the cool, boomerang-shaped concrete pillars that support it, and know that they’ve absorbed the screaming Doppler shift of maybe a million high-speed laps.
The grandstand even stars in movies like the corny but compelling “Winning,” a 1969 Hollywood feature starring Paul Newman, who pensively tools around the track pre-race in a 1969 Ford Thunderbird. Other movies feature priceless footage of the IMS; a 1950s Clark Gable gem, “To Please a Lady,” shows excited fans on a real race day, stepping lively through the turnstiles in anticipation of “the greatest spectacle in racing.”
It’s really worth a look, this 2.5 mile oval — large enough to hold a couple of lying-down Eiffel Towers along the 3,300-foot front straightaway — and the more than 400 acres it encloses. In previous eras, when the month of May was sacred but little else took place at IMS, it would be slowly shutting down for a long rest from racing right about now, with maybe some tire tests or other industry activity. Then came the Brickyard 400, the occasional road race and other marquee events — and these days the track is bustling long past the end of May.
Sacrilege to some purists who long for the less-corporate, more carbon-cowboy era of auto racing, when camping out in Indy for the month of May was a rite of passage for would-be racers and the notion of the driver taking up a wrench to tune his own machine (as Newman does in “Winning”) wouldn’t get you laughed right out of Gasoline Alley. But economic practicalities dictate that these large facilities do more to earn their keep; tracks that fail at becoming multi-purpose venues are quickly fading away.
Even the mighty IMS isn’t immune from the need to keep up, and that made this year’s visit very bittersweet. Track management has some $100 million in changes underway, with some of the most drastic to come later this year — in time for next year’s 100th running of the 500.
That includes tearing out the grandstand benches (in favor of stadium seat with cupholders), changing the roofline and doing away with those iconic green folding chairs. The rudimentary concession stands below the grandstand and the bathrooms will be renovated, too, and many other alterations will be made facilitywide.
Maudlin as it sounds, I’m going to miss most of all those retro ladies’ rooms with vintage wood-framed mirrors tacked haphazardly above no-frills porcelain wall sinks. How many of us have ducked in there, with muffled engine noises bouncing off the dank concrete walls, to make futile attempts to fix our hair in those cheap little looking-glasses that some custodian likely hung 50 years ago?
Yes, the day is mostly about racing and what takes place between the green and checkered flags. But to diehard Indy fans, coming back each year to 16th Street is like visiting an older relative’s home, with all of its artifacts of a shared past. A favorite tree to lounge beneath in the infield, a beloved treasure in the track museum, a snack from the same food tent out on Georgetown or the glimpse of a landmark water tower just outside the raceway’s boundary — it is these small familiarities that prompt many of us to make the effort to return.
Like many other changing facets of the track, removing those little restroom mirrors, with their peeling paint and spotty reflections, will obliterate one more tangible link to an earlier, less show-biz era in auto racing. As seat-of-the-pants competition has morphed over the decades into an entertainment production with managed speeds, safety-first ethos and the ginned-up driver narratives, it’s to be expected that the facility itself will become less organic, more Disneyfied.
Fans will be more comfortable — those stadium seats sound like an improvement over hot aluminum — but will they be able to reach out and touch the past in quite the same way when more odds and ends of history are swept into trash bins.
I’m trying to stay upbeat — after all, the dreaded replacement of the old control tower a few years ago turned out to be pretty nice — but admit that next year’s walk to the track will be a wary one.
Anyway, if you’ve always wanted to see Indy as it existed for most of your lifetime, it’s now or never, before the demolition begins in late summer.
There’s still the NASCAR Brickyard 400 to be run on July 26, and the Rolling Stones concert at IMS on the Fourth of July. If you aren’t up for banging coolers with fellow fans, or blasting your eardrums, there are kinder, gentler ways to experience the speedway: Grounds tours at $30 per person are held through the end of July, and there is also next month’s Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational, a multi-day array of classic car shows and races, an auto auction, and more. Visit IndianapolisMotorSpeedway.com for information on these activities and more.
One way or the other, if you’re into speed or automotive nostalgia, you won’t regret the 300-mile journey to Speedway, Indiana, even on a day that no green flag flies.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com