Roughing it in little house on the Speedway

By Melissa Preddy
Special to The Detroit News

The 6 a.m. cannon fire, quickly followed by Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" blasting at about a zillion decibels, shattered the early dawn peace on a late May morning.

But no one minded.

Many were already out and dressed, tending to the first tasks of what promised to be a long, hot and arduous day. Others, like me, welcomed the wake-up boom and propped up on an elbow, gazing across asphalt and gravel expanses to the still-spotlit control tower.

It was a surreal sight, and hard to believe that I was simultaneously lying in bed and looking at one of motorsports’ most hallowed and imposing landmarks.

Welcome to "Glamptown" at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, about six hours before the start of the 500.

The speedway has rented out tents in the pastoral area of the infield for a few years now, near a pond and stately trees. This year, track officials upped the game with a "tiny house experience" — trucking in 15 of the little dwellings-on-wheels and parking them just inside the fence from Hulman Boulevard, the main north-south road in the 200-plus acre infield.

We read about it last winter and had to do it, despite a price tag that rivals those swanky European river cruises.  

Indy’s four-day tiny-house package for Memorial Day weekend (check in Thursday, check out Monday) included tickets for the Friday "Carb Day" and Saturday "Legends Day" events, plus general admission to the Sunday race. The houses were furnished with linens, toiletries, a small fridge and dishware. Helpful track workers provided concierge service, ferrying luggage and supplies to and fro for us on golf carts, and wrangling bags of ice.

Outdoor furniture, fire pits and heaters were provided for communal use, as were large propane grills, a picnic table and big portable showers and lavatories for the tenting crowd.

What a way to immerse ourselves in the full Indy 500 experience! As a four-decade attendee, I’m no stranger to the Brickyard — but aside from attending time trials about 20 years ago, had only showed up on race day. 

Turns out Friday and Saturday are nearly as festive — so much so that our plans for activities elsewhere in the city quickly were abandoned for a full-on four days at the speedway. Aside from one quick supermarket dash for grilling fare, we settled in for the duration.  

Despite 90-degree temps and high humidity, the fan midway was in full swing, with a go-kart track and exhibitor tents run by advertisers and manufacturers. From free airbrush tattoos and cardboard racing helmets at the Firestone expo to flying stuffed geckos at the Geico booth to free shots of Crown Royal scotch, there was plenty of swag and people-watching to pass the time.

Pagoda tours and autograph sessions were another surprise. We hastily joined the queue for Team Penske greets, scrabbling for something the drivers could scrawl on. More diehard signature hounds came prepared with accordion files filled with racers’ photos and other memorabilia, or sacks of merchandise we suspect were headed for eBay once signed. 

For the record, Helio Castroneves is just as incandescent close up as he is on the screen, grinning and posing for selfies with saintly patience. Other drivers were gracious with giddy fans, too, including Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti and the always-smiling Tony Kanaan.

Concerts by Blues Traveler and Train rounded out the day before we sizzled up some steaks and relaxed in camp chairs outside of our hut, watching a favorite old racing movie on a battery-operated DVD player.

Speaking of technology, the involuntary digital detox was a surprise: No TV hookups or Wi-Fi at the tiny houses. Other adjustments: Being mindful of water usage (tanks were topped off each evening), which was tough as the spacious tiny-house shower had great hot water and pressure. Quarters were close — we ended up stowing much of our gear outdoors under the house, but Glamptown security measures were up to the task of safeguarding us and our belongings. 

Seeing "how the sausage is made" took a bit of the edge off — the extensive announcer sound checks gave an air of déjà vu when the real driver intros and other rituals took place on Sunday — but these few hitches were offset by novelty and convenience.

Saturday was another round of driver greets, a stroll through the garage area and discovering cool things, like a giant board where commemorative pin collectors could swap under the watchful eye of a proctor. More time in the merchandise tents was mesmerizing; suddenly a silver Borg-Warner trophy pin, speedway Christmas ornament and $16 winged-wheel dog toy seemed like must-haves.

Another concert, parachuters bearing a giant checkered flag, and a ride on the in-track trolley — cold beverage in hand — were highlights. 

The leisure to commune with fellow fans was a key bonus of the stay. One gent in line behind me for a giveaway collector pin was musing about his 61 years of attending the race, while a younger bystander nodded understandingly, and told his own tale of attending “just once” in 1985 and not missing a race day since.

Believe it or not, several of our tiny house neighbors were Indianapolis natives — with homes 15 or 20 minutes from the track — who still felt the expense and logistics were justified by the thrill of living on-site. 

Among them were a mother-daughter pair, and further down the row, three 60-ish sisters, who set up an awning outside of their tiny house, adorned it with potted flowers and relaxed with Danielle Steele hardcovers while heavy metal tunes pounded from the raucous Snake Pit a few hundred yards away. 

The Indianapolis 500 is about more than gearheads. Yes, it’s a fossil-fueled frenzy of overconsumption. But it’s also family tradition, a party, history and for many of us, an unbroken chain reaching back to youth and happy memories. We each have our own inscrutable, often sentimental reason for needing to be within earshot of the inimitable scream of those engines on that Sunday late in May. 

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via