Americans certainly know how to put on a motor race. Yesterday’s Indianapolis 500 was a thriller on the track, as Dario Franchitti resisted a last-lap challenge from Takuma Sato to win the famous race for the third time.
Yet even if the race had been processional, the pomp and ceremony surrounding it makes Indy one of those ‘bucket list’ events for many petrolheads. It certainly was for me, and having ticked the box this weekend, I can say with some certainly that it was the most atmosphere-fuelled racing event I’ve ever attended.
Indy is huge, both geographically and in terms of its prominence in the US auto racing calendar. You only really get a sense of how massive the place is when you arrive at the track and feel dwarfed by the huge grandstands towering over you. When every seat and grass bank is crammed with spectators, the noise and colour is overwhelming.
On race day, the track opens at 5.33am, but it’s not enough to simply unlock the padlock and open the gates; Indy fires off a cannon that is loud enough to be heard four miles away in the city centre.
With more than 300,000 race fans pouring towards Indy, there is traffic gridlock. For three miles on Georgetown Road, West 16th Street and the other main arteries to the track, every house and business frontage is draped with banners, posters and chequered flags.
Enterprising locals don’t miss the chance to spin a few dollars, opening up their gardens and driveways as makeshift car parks. I saw one message scrawled in black marker pen and a tattered piece of cardboard that read ‘parking + bag of ice - $10’.
There’s a festival atmosphere to Indy, and it’s apparent that not all the spectators are intent on passionately following every lap of race action. As we strolled from the car park to circuit at 7.45am, an enterprising drinks seller was loudly extolling the virtues of Miller Lite as ‘breakfast in a can’.
And as the heat soared to an all-time race day high of 34 degrees Centigrade – the track surface temperature was an egg-frying 56C – many people seemed intent on topping up their tans and having a full-day drinking session, with 215mph racing a mere backdrop. On the infield of turns three and four of the circuit, where fans spread out on the grass banking, the atmosphere felt more like a spring break party than a motor race.
Unlike most European race events, the headline 500-mile race is the only competitive action on the vast oval track on Sunday, which adds to the feeling of anticipation.
The build-up to the race start stretches on for hours, with marching bands, military parades, a four-plane flypast involving an F-16, A-10 Warthog and two P-51 Mustangs, a religious invocation and a rendering of the Star Spangled Banner.
This year’s event also featured many touching tributes to Dan Wheldon, the British driver who was a circuit master and won last year but was killed in a race accident in Las Vegas last October.
Fans were issued with white sunglasses – Wheldon’s trademark – and donned them as the cars set off on their formation laps and on laps 26 and 98, marking the two race numbers Dan wore in the years he won the big prize.
Somewhere in between all that drama and emotion, there was a brilliant race, in which Franchitti had to fight back from stone last to win in the most exciting circumstances.
Today (which is a Memorial Day holiday in the USA) the Indy grandstands are eerily empty, apart from hundreds of volunteers clearing up tons of beer cans, hot dog wrappers and empty sun cream lotion bottles.
There’s a four-year waiting list to become one of the cleaning volunteers – proof, if any were needed, of how much the US loves the Indy 500.