The Indianapolis 500: The Ultimate Inside Look

coverThe Indianapolis 500 has long been the biggest event in auto racing – a Memorial Day weekend tradition that cannot truly be appreciated unless you’re there in person.  TV coverage of the event has evolved considerably since it first aired back in 1949, though it’s not the same without all the sights and sounds.

Last weekend marked the 98th running of the Indy 500 and I was lucky enough to get an invitation from the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team to follow the crew around for the weekend.  Having never attended an IndyCar race, I knew little about the sport’s intricacies as well as its raceway operations – but by the end of the race, the second closest Indy 500 in history, I had learned and seen it all.

It all kicked off early Saturday morning when we got to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and immediately made our way to the Target Chip Ganassi Racing hospitality tent.  With all the luxuries of home, there was everything that owner, Chip Ganassi, his employees and his closest family needed to pass the time or just refuel in between activities throughout the weekend.  After getting the lay of the land and acquiring the appropriate credentials, we headed over to the Target Chip Ganassi Racing garage for our first look.

There I watched Good Morning America’s Sara Haines as she worked with the pit crew for a segment, testing her luck putting a tire on one of the Tony Kanaan – last year’s Indy 500 winner – vehicles.  The average pit stop takes six to nine seconds, more than three seconds quicker than NASCAR, so after a handful of attempts, Haines pulled it off, much to the pleasure of Kanaan and several of the crew.

gma reporter

After, I was introduced to the No. 10 driver, where he explained the finer points of both pre-race preparation and the car’s precision, when all of the sudden he realized he was pressed for time and needed to get to the finish line for the traditional media ceremony and drivers press conference.  Immediately, he was presented with an electric cart and he sat behind the wheel, alongside three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who was co-piloting Kanaan from the passenger seat.  And that’s when I snapped this:

selfie

Suddenly, I found myself being escorted by two past winners, one of whom is among the greatest to ever get behind an IndyCar wheel.  Though it was a short ride, Kanaan’s driving skills were certainly evident, weaving in and out of obstacles, while avoiding fans looking for autographs and pictures.

The ceremony introduced the race participants and honored Indiana native Jim Nabors, among other things, and within 20 minutes it was over and everyone quickly disbanded.  This allowed me some time to check out the finer areas of the raceway – and first up, the bricks.

Perhaps the most legendary quality of the speedway, the 36-inch strip of the original bricks represents the start and finish line.  Every winner kisses the bricks after the race, a tradition – I learned – that began in 1996 with NASCAR champion Dale Jarrett.  So, I figured I would take part in the tradition because, when in Rome…

Before I knew it, it was time to make my way back to the tent – at which point we left.  But that was not the end of the day, by any means.  I then followed the crew to the Target Chip Ganassi Racing warehouse and offices, for a private look at the facility – including the production of vehicles, several classic vehicles and more.  The science behind much of what the group does is astonishing, making it abundantly clear to me that these were more than just motor vehicles – these, in their own way, were works of art.

It was near the end of the event that I got the chance to speak with the No. 9 driver, Scott Dixon.  After speaking to both Kanaan and Dixon, it was obvious that these drivers not only knew the most minute details about their car, but their passion for the sport was unrivaled.  Dixon was a bit of a jokester and even promised me he’d, “lick the entire row of bricks” if he got the win.

kissing bricks

After finishing the interview, I noticed it began to get unusually quiet in the lobby where I was standing.  Suddenly, I noticed all eyes were fixated on the TV.  It was the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Charlotte and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team had a driver in the race, No. 42 Kyle Larson, who just so happened to be winning.  Everyone watched with bated breath, when suddenly he won.  The place erupted with cheers – which many hoped was a sign of good things to come.

With the event coming to an end, I made my way out and headed back to the hotel for an early night’s sleep – and with the race tomorrow, I definitely needed my sleep.  Before I knew it, my alarm was sounding and it was time to once again meet up with everyone.

At about 6 a.m. we made our way by caravan to the speedway.  Given the anticipated attendance of anywhere from 200,000 to 350,000, it was clear driving there wouldn’t be easy – or so I thought.  As our two vans started up, flashing lights began in front of us – we were given a police escort through the streets of Indianapolis, saving us time and perhaps several headaches.

Once at the speedway, it was the calm before the storm.

There weren’t too many people around that early in the morning, with a few bodies scattered throughout the stands.  Most were either outside or in transit, so we knew it was only a matter of time before it was packed.  After hours of preparing ourselves for what lay ahead, a group of several important members were treated to an official tour of the facility – from the garage, to the pit, to the finish line and more.  A Target Chip Ganassi Racing representative was happy to answer any questions we had and after a close up with the Borg-Warner Trophy, signifying the winner of the race, we made our way back to the tent – but only for a few minutes.

There was still plenty that hadn’t been seen and so much that was going on and although fatigue was trying to set in, the excitement of it all wouldn’t give it the opportunity.  Once our batteries were recharged, it was time to head back out and I made sure to stay close to my guides, for I had little idea who, or what, I’d see next.  It was then that we decided to head onto the track.  For me, it was the first time on the actual track, as opposed to just the pits – and it was impressive.  With all the vehicles lined up in a row, we saw them all – from the pink Susan G. Koman vehicle of Pippa Mann, to the yellow Snapple vehicle of Marco Andretti, but the most impressive might have just been the two Target Chip Ganassi Racing rides.

Kanaan and Dixon were set to drive something a little different than usual.  The team had decided to go against the usual red scheme and although it was an accent color, silver was the look this year.  It was a unique choice as it marked 25 years of a winning tradition in IndyCar for the team.  Listening to the engines thunderous roars as the various crews performed the necessary tests was awesome.  As thousands riddled the track to get a glimpse of these machines, for us, it was time to get set.

High atop the Target Chip Ganassi Racing suite, we prepared for the race – and although I had been at the speedway all weekend, I had still yet to see what these vehicles were capable of.  After a number of traditions including God Bless America, the Star-Spangled Banner and Nabors’ final rendition, after 42 years, of Back Home Again in Indiana, it was time to see the greatest spectacle in racing – but there was another surprise that awaited me.

At the start of the race I was given a pair of large headphones and a walkie-talkie-like device.  This yellow transmitter allowed me to listen in on the pit crew of any team, at any time.  With the simple push of a couple buttons, I could listen in on Ryan Hunter-Reay, Juan Pablo Montoya – all of them.  While I mostly listened to Kannan, I would flip-flop between him and Dixon, since I had a substantial rooting interest, having met the two the day before, plus I wanted to keep track of their pit stops.

At around Lap 80, we made our way down from the suite, past the crowds, and onto pit row.  People were scattered about, but it was clear only a select few had this kind of access.  As we walked down to the Target Chip Ganassi Racing pit for Kanaan, we watch as tires were being carted out at a steady rate.  After a few minutes of waiting, Kanaan’s crew began to move with urgency.  The pit crew wasn’t small by any stretch, towering over all 5-foot-6 of me, though I’m told many were significant athletes in college.

Suddenly, Kanaan comes barreling in.  One second, two seconds – I started to count to myself, as I took a flurry of photos.  Six seconds later, he was gone – re-fueled and re-tired.  I snapped seven photos in that time span, though only one turned out good, yet somehow these guys managed to perform maintenance on this automobile.  It still boggles my mind when I think back on it.

pit crewSoon after, I got out of the way and headed back, in the hopes of enjoying the rest of the race and snapping some more photos – but – there was just one problem with the latter.  When I looked up, I noticed that the average lap speed was 217 m.p.h., leaving more blurs than vehicles on my high-end camera, so I knew that it wasn’t going to happen.  It was time to focus on Kanaan and Dixon.

Kanaan suffered a mechanical issue near the beginning of the race, setting him back tremendously, into a hole he simply could not dig himself out of.  Meanwhile, Dixon was sitting pretty in fourth place.  That came to an unexpected end in the last 30 laps though when he crashed, spewing car parts across the track.  Suddenly, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing suite held its breath.  It wasn’t about racing anymore, it was about family – and everyone worried for his safety, praying that he’d emerge unscathed.

Seconds later he did, at which point everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  It just reaffirmed what I had witnessed all weekend.  Winning is great but it’s not everything.  The Target Chip Ganassi Racing team cares as much about who is behind the wheel as its winning tradition, which is part of the reason for its success.

With exhaustion getting the best of me, we made our way back to the hospitality tent after witnessing the exciting finish.  It was time to call it a day, with the escort back for round two.  As I sat in the van, taking in the sights around me, I looked back on the day, which now seemed as much of a blur as the photos I tried to take, all while listening to Hunter-Reay and his team kiss the bricks, take a victory lap and drink the milk – another tradition spawned from the early days.  It was a lot to take in throughout the weekend, but having been my first time, it was that much more special.

The Indy 500 is something I’ll never forget, with stories that I’m sure I’ll tell at nausea – oh, and you can bet I slept like a baby that night.  Both Target Chip Ganassi Racing and IndyCar gained an admirer on Sunday.

Ed Miller is a contributor for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillyEdMiller or “like” CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.