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This must be the place: Ode to the Indy 500, ode to organized chaos

The Indy 500 is the largest single-day spectator sports event. The Indy 500 is the largest single-day spectator sports event. Garret K. Woodward photo.

I awoke to the sounds of numerous police sirens. It was 6:30 a.m. Sunday. Looking out the eighth-floor window of the hotel onto downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, it was a police escort of numerous official looking vehicles en route to the nearby Indy 500. Within minutes, another police escort, then another. 

Jumping into the shower, it was a mad rush to get dressed and head down to the parking garage to hop into the truck and make my way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On assignment for Rolling Stone, I was now standing in the Midwest with press credentials to cover “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” 

Pulling onto 16th Street, the traffic was at a standstill. Taillights and a hot sun slowly emerging from the early morning cloud cover. Sidewalks consumed with pedestrians heading to the track like ants to the anthill. Cruising along Auburn Street, every residential home was a front yard covered in parked cars. 

Driveway after driveway packed with jovial folks. Manic faces sipping on cold suds. Toss more hot dogs and burgers on the grill. Farmer tan shoulders and beer bellies adorned with t-shirts of whatever driver cheered on with a reckless abandon. Early 1990s country music blaring from car stereos, the sounds of John Anderson and George Strait echoing across the landscape like battle cries in the Heartland of America. 

Putting the truck into park at Lot 2, it was a sea of humanity in seemingly every direction. Camping chairs. Beer coolers. Tailgates down. Crack open a Bud heavy and let the swirling energy of the moment envelope you. Surrender to the unknowns of “The Brickyard.” Inhale the smells of gasoline and burning rubber. Stick the ear plugs in when entering the track. 

Approaching the Romanesque coliseum of auto racing, it was a scene of hysteria, tens of thousands milling about. Barely any security checks of beer coolers and backpacks. Too many faces to keep tabs on. Keep the line moving efficiently through Gate 6. Reach for another Bud heavy and pop it in gratitude for finally making it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Head down the tunnel underneath the track and emerge onto the frenzied infield. 

Over 300,000 souls wandering the massive property. The largest single-day spectator sporting event on the planet. The stands along the 2.5-mile track slowly filled to capacity. Beyond the grassy knoll on the infield of Turn 3 was a full-on EDM festival showcase, the likes of DJ juggernaut Kaskade and Subtronics bulldozing the tens of thousands of younger attendees finding themselves at “The Indy 500 Snake Pit.”

Standing on the grassy knoll, I did a 360-degree scan of the insanity consuming any within sight. The pyrotechnics of the Snake Pit stage exploded into the late morning blue sky. It wasn’t even noon, and yet most of the crowd was inebriated and exuberant. Fist pumps and swaying arms. Bass drops and head banging. Sunburns and cutoff jean shorts. Lukewarm domestic beer from backpacks and bottles of vodka snuck in through the lackadaisical security. 

In an effort to see just how far the press credentials would take me, I found myself in front of the Pagoda Suites, a large glass-enclosed multi-story building where the uber-rich, racing elite and celebrities congregate. At one point, I noticed famed actor Adam Driver ducking into the building. He’d later wave the green flag as the honorary starter of the Indy 500. 

Thereafter, singer-songwriter Jewel appeared to sing the national anthem, many in the audience or standing in the long lines for chicken tenders and cheeseburgers finding themselves commenting “Is that Jewel?” and “Oh, I remember her” while watching the gigantic LED screens broadcasting the race. 

Eventually, I landed on Pit Road. Arm’s length of pit crews, tire stacks, tool boxes and racing action in real time. Just past the concrete pit road barrier were 33 drivers and high-octane racing machines, speeds over 220 mph. You could barely distinguish the color of the cars, let alone which driver was positioned where. 

The race itself is a mindboggling blur of whiplash laps, fiery crashes and subsequent cautions, pit stops to refuel and get new tires. Unless you’re way up in the stands to get a birds-eye-view of the madness, you’re either wandering around in search of another drink or you’re glued to the LED screens, with the majority of faces bouncing between the former and the latter. 

In a finish for the ages, Josef Newgarden was victorious in his 12th attempt at claiming his first Indy 500 win. With his helmet still on, Newgarden emerged from the racecar, ran over to the safety fence and squeezed through a small hole, only to disappear into the stands, soon swarmed by the jubilant crowd. Returning to Victory Lane, Newgarden sipped from the traditional glass bottle of milk, ultimately pouring the rest of the contents on top of his head. 

Back under the tunnel to Gate 6 and Lot 2. Start the truck engine. Merge onto 16th Street and into normal society. Gazing into the rearview mirror, “The Brickyard” fading in the distance. Ears still ringing in the now silence of an otherwise mundane late Sunday afternoon in the Midwest. Wipe the sweat from your forehead. Crank the air-conditioning. A deep sigh of what was and what will be. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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