Friday, May 27, 2011

Historic Indianapolis 500 weekend

When you live in Indiana, the month of May features one very big event: the Indianapolis 500. Life during this time of the year revolves around the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It's so big, road construction calendars all around Indianapolis are structured around the incoming traffic for the race.

It's an incredible event, and the 500 Festival plans dozens of activities with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to celebrate it and get fans involved. It really kicks off with the Mini-Marathon on the first Saturday in May -- the largest Mini in the U.S. -- which deserves attention all by itself.

Six years ago, I earned the opportunity to be involved with the festivities as a 500 Festival Princess. Thirty-three of us (the same number of cars in the starting lineup of the race) represented Indianapolis and Indiana at all of the events leading up to the race, and it was an unforgettable experience!

Today officially kicks off both Memorial Day Weekend and Race Weekend. This year's race is especially worth paying attention to, because it's the 100th anniversary of the very first Indianapolis 500-mile Race. The Indy 500 is often listed as one of those things you MUST do before you die, and I agree!

If you're new to the festivities, you can fill your long weekend with race activities. Here's what you can expect to find (with some of my photos from 2005 to help illustrate!).

On the Friday morning before Sunday's race, a memorial service is held on the Circle in downtown Indianapolis. It concludes with a ceremonial flyover that is sure to leave goosebumps on everyone's arms.
Usually, Saturday's main event is the 500 Festival Parade. All 33 drivers can be seen in the parade, in starting order, and it's bigger than ever this year, with 300,000 people expected to come and see it. (Can you picture what 300,000 people looks like?) Anderson Cooper is this year's Grand Marshall, and local mascot-celebrity Butler Blue II will be a featured honoree in the parade.

As I said above, usually Saturday's main event is the parade. But I actually think a special event at the track this year looks really cool: To celebrate the centennial, more than 100 veterans of the Indianapolis 500 will be on hand for one big autograph event. Activities at the track on Saturday aren't often publicized, so this is really a cool opportunity.

Race day morning on Sunday starts bright and early for anyone going to the race. The race itself starts at noon ET this year, but if you want to park anywhere near the track, it means hitting the road by 9:00 a.m. -- and that may be pushing it.

My experience as a Princess -- the one time I've been to the race -- probably spoiled me for life. We met early at the Festival House and had the luxury of being chauffeured to the race in buses with a police escort.

Yeah, that's not the normal experience.

Each member of the 500 Festival's Board of Directors gets to drive a special car during the month of May, which in 2005 were yellow convertible Chevrolet SSRs.

The Princesses arrived at the track around 9:30, and we got to take a couple quick laps around the track to wave to the crowds already claiming their seats. The track is a 2.5-mile oval, and it takes a trip around it (which the public can do on Community Day the Wednesday before the race) for the sheer size to really sink in.

 The glass building in the center of this photo is the Pagoda. This current building was finished in 2000, but there have been several iterations of this building during the history of the Speedway. It was from the 500 Festival's third-floor suite in the Pagoda that I got to watch the race. Again, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Even if you're not a race fan, you can't help but get swept up in awe during the race. The sound is incomparable. In 2005, I was there to see Danica Patrick lead some laps of the race -- the first time a woman has ever led in the Indy 500. Each time she came around the track, the cheers from the crowd outdid the roar of the engines. Goosebumps again.

As a photographer, I found this especially interesting: when the race is nearing its conclusion, a metal stand was wheeled out with numbers marking spots, and a bevy of photographers lined up and whipped out their massive lenses. The toting the weight of those cameras and lenses must have been a real workout for them, especially since the race often falls on one of the hottest days of spring!
One of the most recognized traditions for the winner involves drinking milk in the Winner's Circle after the race. Dan Wheldon won in 2005, and I got to stand just above the Winner's Circle and see it up close.

Finally, each winner's face is sculpted and added to the Borg-Warner Trophy, which is housed in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum 11 months out of the year. It's not until you get next to it that you realize the sheer scale of this trophy -- it weighs 110 pounds! The winner gets a replica to keep.

This is a really exciting time to live in the Indianapolis area. Memorial Day weekend always signals the start of summer, but I can't imagine it without the Indy 500.

The Speedway has a great YouTube channel with lots of clips from memorable Indy 500 moments over the years, if you have time to check some of it out. I'm sure they'll be adding more in the coming days.

Happy holiday weekend! How will you be celebrating?

No comments:

Post a Comment