The Indy 500 is one of the greatest sporting events in the world-300,000 people usually attend the race, and millions more watch it on tv. The race cars are single seat, open cockpit vehicles that can reach 240 miles per hour. The race dates back to 1911, and with the exception of World Wars I and II, has run continuously since that date. The 2021race will be held next weekend. I had the chance to attend three times, and enjoyed them all. But the first one was the most memorable, and is the subject of today’s post.
In the early 80’s, before I had kids, a group of friends decided to go to the Indy 500. The tickets weren’t very expensive, but the hotels in the area tripled their prices during race weekend. So we decided to economize and take an RV that belonged to someone’s elderly relative. No one saw it until we left for the race, but we knew it was a Winnebago, which is a well known brand. It was supposed to have sleeping room for 5-6, and that was exactly what we needed. We could park it much less expensively than paying the inflated hotel prices, and probably be closer to the race track. So we packed our belongings and food and prepared to hit the road about three days before the race.
When the RV pulled up, it was obvious that it had seen better days, but the inside was clean, and the fridge and bathroom were just what we needed to get to Indiana in good time. So off we went, and things went well for the first couple of hours. The first thing to go wrong was something mechanical. We stopped and determined it wasn’t serious, but it did raise some concerns about the age of the vehicle. The next problem was a bit more difficult to contain. One friend had brought along a chocolate cake, with mint frosting, for everyone to snack on. And snack we did, with each person enjoying a piece. But the cake baker decided to indulge a bit more, and had at least three pieces. Unfortunately, this didn’t agree with her, and she was spending a lot of time in the bathroom. And after one particularly long session therein, she discovered it wouldn’t flush. Embarrassing to say the least. She didn’t want anyone to try and fix it, and nobody really wanted to anyway. So we closed it off, and decided to figure it out later.
With the toilet broken, we then had to slow down and stop for restroom breaks. And our sick friend still had to go to the bathroom a lot, so it took us hours to make it very far. We finally got her some medicine, and were able to drive more quickly to our destination.
We got to Indianapolis after dark, and started to look for a place to park. By this time, we also knew our toilet was beyond repair. All we could find was a parking lot near a store, that was already full of Rvs and campers. It did, however, have port a potties. The ones pictured above are actually nicer than what was available, but we didn’t have a lot of options. The parking lot crowd was a bit rough, so we ran to and from them and tried to settle down for the night.
The next problem was a nasty odor from one of our propane tanks. Propane itself is odorless, but unpleasant scents are added to the tanks so that RV owners can detect a leak. Ours was a cross between rotten eggs and skunk spray. It was nauseating, so I decided to try and drown it out by spraying perfume. This turned out to be a bad idea, and somehow made the odor worse. My travelling companions were not amused.
Somehow we survived the night, and set out on foot to the racetrack the next day. It was quite a hike, but worth the wait. The pre-race fanfare was fun- the Purdue University Marching Band, and a vocal rendition of Back Home Again in Indiana were the final events before the race began. I remember sitting in the stands watching the parade laps and not thinking it was too remarkable. Then the green flag came out and the real race started. We were behind the pit crews, and not far from the finish line. The first time the cars went by at full speed, they were a complete blur and sounded like buzzing bees. Unbelievably fast, and something the tv cameras don’t capture. After a few laps, a friend and I ventured to the infield area to look around.
The infield is ridiculously large- 253 acres, and the raceway publicizes that Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl and Vatican City could all fit inside it at the same time. That is a huge space. In the days I went to the race, it was also a bit of a free for all. Lots of campers and RV’s, but they were mostly full of guys who thought they were in New Orleans. They were handing out beads to anyone who would flash them, and there were plenty of willing participants. I had no idea this was the norm at the infield, so my friend and I hurried to the gift shop, which was air conditioned, and spent some time buying souvenirs. We also visited the nearby raceway museum.
Once we got back to our seats, the race was about half over. It was fascinating to watch the pit crews work, and how precise they were. The tire changes were particularly swift. The race itself was fairly uneventful with a minimum number of accidents to slow things down. The most interesting part was the finish-the white flag comes out before the last lap, and the top cars zoom into position. We happened to be at one of the closest finishes of all time, which ended with Gordon Johncock beating Al Unser Jr. by .16 of a second. It was a great way to end the day.
Once we got clear of the mass of visitors and made it back to the RV, we decided to hit the road right away. The parking lot wasn’t exactly the best place to stay, so we thought we would look for a campground along the way. We fired up our smelly, ancient RV, with the non flushing toilet, and hit the road.
Somewhere in Illinois, it dawned on us that campgrounds were going to be full because it was Memorial Day weekend. It was getting dark, and the RV wasn’t getting any less smelly as we drove along. I saw a sign for a motel with the vacancy sign blazing near an upcoming exit. The entire group concurred that it would be a great idea to ditch the RV and check in for the night. The rates were ok, and it was a great relief to be able to take a shower, and use a functioning toilet.
I don’t recall anything unusual for the rest of the trip, but I think the RV was probably beyond use after we got home. The next two times I went to Indy, I flew and stayed in one of the ridiculously over priced hotels. If you ever get a chance to go to the race, I highly recommend it, even if you aren’t a serious fan. Just be sure to budget for air travel and a nice hotel. It will make your entire experience more fun, and will be worth every penny.
*I will be taking a break for Memorial Day next week. Back on June 7th with a new post.