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Wednesday, May 31, 2006 

Beer and Loathing at the Indy 500

During our college years, the Noob Sports family and friends occasionally visited a delightful, dimly lit bar named Fricano's. Aside from having deliciously greasy pizza, Fricano's also featured the cheapest drinks in town; if memory serves correctly, a 7 and 7 would run you $2.50. For that reason, Fricano's was the perfect first stop of a night out downtown. On one such evening, we ended up chatting with two older, hillbilly couples at the table next to us. As the conversation moved along and the townies downed their Busch Light cans, we ended up talking a little sports. It turns out that they weren't much interested in the Pistons or basketball, and they explained why thusly: "It ain't a sport if it ain't got wheels."

Personally, I've always wondered why a perfectly reasonable human being would ever willingly follow or watch auto racing. I just don't get it. The cars go around the same track hundreds of times, only making left turns, and it would seem that the engine matters more than the driver. Not to mention, the fans are a bit of a turn-off, as you are fifty times more likely to see a Rebel flag t-shirt in the crowd of a race than at any other type of sporting event.

Of course, I've noticed that motor sports are clearly becoming more and more popular across our great nation. These days, I can't drive to my local grocery store without seeing a Tony Stewart or a #3 sticker (race in peace, Dale) on a pickup truck. I can't watch Sportscenter without seeing some little dude throw his giant helmet at another little dude who ran him off the road. I can't pick up my Sports Weekly (formerly Baseball Weekly) from the mailbox without reading about Jeff Gordon (this has been responsible for a mini-fit every week since they started covering NASCAR). And I've never understood any of it. In fact, I absolutely hate it.

It wasn't until this past weekend that I finally decided to see for myself what the world of motor sports has to offer. On Sunday, I found myself situated in the infield along Turn 3 at the Indianapolis 500 in Speedway, Indiana. I was one of over 300,000 people at the race, making it easily the largest sporting event I had ever attended. Tickets for the infield were only $20 and fans are allowed to carry in coolers full of their favorite beer. Let me repeat that: fans are allowed to bring in as much beer as they can fit into a 14" x 14" x 14" cooler (easily enough for a case). This is a far cry from the $7 beers sold at Comerica and Wrigley. So far, so good.

After an extensive hike (not much fun in the already hot and humid day while carrying 24 beers, ice, and water), we reached Turn 3 around 8:30 AM, giving us 4 and a half hours of pre-game drinking. I couldn't believe how many people had already set up on the infield, playing bean bags and grilling. Soon after, the beer bongs were out in force and going around the horn more than a few times. Immediately, I realized that the beautiful Danica Patrick was the crowd favorite. As soon as the first beer cans were empty, our group began placing them in the chain link fence, spelling out "Danica 16." Soon after that, it was time to break the seal.

It was in the bathroom that I reached my first epiphany about racing. In the graffitti above the trough, there was scrawled several anti-NASCAR rants, most not fit to print. I asked my buddy Brandon, who was my gracious host for the trip, what the deal was. Apparently, IRL fans look down upon NASCAR fans in much the same way that a Metallica fan might look down upon a Nickelback fan. Knowing that I was not alone in my disdain for all things NASCAR was encouraging. My guilt for attending an auto racing event was dissipating.

Back on the infield, a procession of marching bands was followed by celebrities (Ludacris, Johnny Drama, 'Melo, etc.) and beauty queens riding around the track, waving to fans who were too busy consuming to take much notice. The temperature rose quickly; this would be the hottest Indy 500 in the past 35 years, with a track temp. of well over 100 degrees. Through the sweat now running into my eyes, Lance Armstrong emerged in the Corvette Z06 pace car. Looking around, I noticed that almost every fan had a shit-eating grin on their face in anticipation. I was told that the start of the race would be the most exciting part... and it was.

The crowd was so loud that we couldn't hear the traditional start of "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!" but by the buzz we knew that the cars would soon be headed our way. Since the actual race begins at full speed, the cars make 3 "warm-up" laps to build up speed. With Livestrong Lance leading the way, the Indy cars zipped past for the first time, turning slightly to warm up their tires. On the third warm-up lap, the cars were near their top speed of about 220 mph and were situated in 11 rows of 3. To see 33 cars in formation at 200+ mph is very fucking impressive.

On the first lap of the actual race, the whole crowd went nuts and beer was being sprayed everywhere you looked. The experience of the race is difficult to explain: everything was more exaggerated than I had imagined. The sound of the engines was incredibly loud, you could hear the cars before you could see them and you could only talk in quick spurts before the next racer came roaring past. The speed is equally hard to describe; there is just no way to put into words how quickly the cars are in and out of view.

Interestingly, unlike other sporting events, the results really don't matter to the fans at all. For most of the race, I would guess that most of the crowd didn't know and didn't care who was out in front. The early leader was Englishman, proud wearer of the Euro-Hawk, and 2005 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon. He was just flying. While the crowd hollered every time Danica made a pass, no one was too disappointed that she was never really a threat to actually win. As Marco Andretti held off Sam Hornish Jr. around Turn 3 on the final lap, we figured the race was over. It wasn't until Hornish's victory lap that we had any idea he had been able to pass around the back stretch, in the second closest finish ever at Indy.

So, have I been converted to motor sports? Not exactly, although I was pretty impressed. Do I hate myself for attending a car race? Well, you won't find me in any IRL fantasy leagues any time soon, but you will find me back on the infield next Memorial Day weekend. The best comparison I can make is to a Jimmy Buffet concert: not many people I know actually listen to Jimmy on a consistent basis, but almost anyone I know would jump at the chance to see him in concert because its an absolute party.

And so, thanks are in order to the guys at Fricano's (and Logansport, Indiana), but I must draw the line at the IRL. If I attend a NASCAR event, I have little doubt that the sports gods will send a rogue tire flying my way to strike me down in my hypocrisy.


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