I am not a race fan. You will not find me waking up at the crack of dawn to watch a Formula 1 race, cheering in the stands with a 12-pack at an oval circuit, or traveling to far-flung forests to watch the World Rally Car Championship. So what on earth was I doing at the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500?
As part of the launch of the 2014 Cruze Diesel, Chevrolet invited journalists to drive its new oil-burning compact to Indianapolis (about a 250- to 300-mile drive) to test out the diesel’s stellar fuel economy. Joining for the Indy 500 was just icing on the cake of a fun and entertaining vehicle launch, and would give me actual plans for the Memorial Day holiday weekend. And, my oh my, what plans they were – even with only recognizing a couple names on the starting grid and knowing that Chevrolet was one of the Indy 500′s main sponsors, I still knew I was in for a treat.
Reading through the weekend’s agenda should have tipped me off to the kind of fun that was in store, but it wasn’t until we made our way through the credentialing office not long after sunrise on Saturday morning — and I had the four different types of badges and pins explained to me — that it began to sink in. If my un-caffeinated brain didn’t understand the credentials hanging around my neck, it fully understood once I slipped into the passenger seat of a bright-blue Camaro ZL1 pace car for a few 100-mph-plus laps of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We finished our first day at the track by watching the public drivers’ meeting – which was staged at the finish line, mere feet from the 33 racers who would be competing for the checkered flag the following day.
Despite the 6:45 a.m. meeting time the next day, our entire group was in the hotel lobby early, thanks to the cacophony of police-escort sirens that began at four a.m. Luckily, the early alarm was just a reminder that we were receiving a police escort to IMS, which easily halved our trip time from downtown Indy to the speedway. We were ensconced in Chevrolet’s suite located just above the end of pit lane well before the majority of spectators had climbed the bleachers to their seats.
As the Speedway filled up, I walked with two friends through the garages and the rest of Gasoline Alley on the west side of the track. The crowds were beginning to swell around the garages as teams began wheeling out their cars for the grid, so we followed to the track and perused the brightly colored open-wheeled racers as they were lined up for the start. My cohorts and I were amazed that we could just walk the track and walk right up to the actual race cars that were about to duke it out at the famed Indianapolis 500.
Once the race was underway, I truly realized what a special event this was. Not only are the Indy 500 and IMS steeped in racing history (and, of course, I made sure to kiss the bricks), this year’s race was one for the history books. Tony Kanaan took home the top spot for the first time after 12 starts at Indy with a record-breaking 187.433-mph average speed. There were also a total of 68 lead changes between 15(!) drivers over the course of the race, another statistic for the history books. I watched much of this action from the edge of track, just ahead of the pit for the #12 car (driven by Team Penske’s Will Power). Every sense was engaged: I watched the cars raced by, heard their engines cackle and shriek, smelled their hot tires on the asphalt, felt the fence I leaned on reverberate at the pack came down the front straight, and tasted exhaust fumes in the air.
Despite my somewhat-arbitrary prediction of James Hinchcliffe winning the race (you’ve got to love that electric-green car) actually having a pretty poor showing, I had a blast. As our group departed the track on Sunday, there was much chatter and excitement about the following weekend – the next stop for IndyCar was the Detroit Grand Prix, right in our backyard. I lamented: a wedding in my hometown of New York City would keep me from attending the race in Detroit and I couldn’t be sadder. It turns out that I am a race fan after all.