You walk off the jetway at the Indianapolis airport in May and the first thing you think of is humidity.
It may be raining -- in fact, it's likely to be at least misting or sprinkling. It may be warm, it may be cool. But always, always it is muggy.
As your plane descended over the city you could see the moisture in the air in the form of an ever-present haze. But most times the haze is not thick enough to obscure the giant rounded rectangle with the thin gray border that is cut out of the green of the trees just west of the city.
That rectangle is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in a few days' time you will be there, sitting with a quarter-million of your closest friends as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing unfolds in front of you.
Once you extricate yourself from the Indy airport rental car lot, you head up I-465 to your hotel. On the highway you do not get the sense that Indianapolis is a metropolis. Though you can see the distant peaks of tall buildings out your right window, they are few and far between. You feel more like you are in an oasis of suburbs cut from a state full of farmlands and trees. Homes with expansive green lawns and enormous trees sprawl in all directions.
You cannot fully experience the Indianapolis 500 without taking the 10th Street exit and stopping for lunch at the Mug 'N Bun drive-in. This traditional focal point for racers and race fans alike is straight out of a picture book of 1950s Americana; some of the most famous names in racing history have sat on these prickly, uncomfortable picnic table benches. You see a neon sign in the front window that says, with an entertaining lack of grammar: "You've tried the best now your [sic] getting the best." You may not think so when your enormous pork tenderloin sandwich arrives, but one bite (plus a sip of homemade root beer) later you realize that sometimes your arteries can take a back seat to indulgence in an Indianapolis tradition.
On race day, you get up with the dawn. You trudge down to your rental car for the push towards the Speedway. If you are smart, you have packed your race scanner, seat cushions, some bottled water and some smuggled hotel washcloths for hot days, and rain gear just in case. Not much else -- you want to pack light at Indianapolis because of the sheer size of the place. You'll be doing a lot of walking.
There is no easy path to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day. Almost a half-million people will be trying to get to the same place you are, and even if some of them have been there for weeks, camping festival-style on or near the Speedway grounds, the approaches from all directions are through cramped suburban streets. The end result is a giant hours-long snarl of angry automotive chaos. Many of the homeowners on these streets offer their property (at a significant profit, of course) for you to park, and often these options are better than the actual parking lots near the track, because here at least you can kick back and chew the fat (or a giant turkey leg) with the proprietors and your fellow racing fans while the morning hours pass.
Eventually, you leave the shade of the giant trees and head for Georgetown Road, the "main drag" at IMS. Bordering the Indy frontstretch, Georgetown is a veritable midway full of sellers of a dizzying variety of products. From giant turkey legs to tenderloins to T-shirts to track memorabilia (some licensed, some not), the 7/8ths of a mile from 24th Street to the intersection of Georgetown and 16th Street is chock full of trailers, booths, card tables, portable deep fryers, and other assorted vehicles of carnival consumerism.
It is when you reach Georgetown Road that you finally see the entire length of the IMS frontstretch. It looks at first glance like an industrial park, stretching off nearly a mile into the distance. You see no details of the infield, just a mass of latticed metal and concrete hiding the history of a century from the masses making their way down the road.
As the day progresses, Georgetown fills from curb to curb with an enormous crowd of humanity. Occasionally a car tries to make its way south, but aside from repeated soundings of its horn and the frustrated imprecations from its driver it makes very little headway against the throng. You see so many different types and nationalities of people cruising Georgetown in the hours before the race... and you can believe that the whole world has come to see the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
You make your way into the Speedway past the yellow-shirted security. Inside the grounds, but still outside of the stands, it seems like you are walking through an iron-and-concrete-bordered park. A very busy park, it turns out - full of humanity bearing all sorts of interesting loads, from seat cushions to coolers to official programs to bags full of souvenirs. Along the periphery of the grandstands, you take time to stop at the restrooms -- and if you're male, you end up spending some quality time at a long trough shoulder to shoulder with total strangers. It is low-rent in that peculiarly charming way that only facilities of great history can boast, and that at other, less glamorous locales would be considered a disgrace.
Finally, it is time to head to your seats. And it is at this moment of transition, from the outside of the Speedway grounds to the inside, that your goosebumps begin in earnest.
The vista that greets you as you walk up the ramp to the grandstands is simply glorious. It's as if you have stepped into another world contained within the boundaries of the Speedway. The small-town suburban feel of the drive to the track dissolves, and the trashy carnival atmosphere of Georgetown Road is erased, for before you is the sprawling grandeur of The Brickyard itself. From the lush green of the infield grass to the gray ribbon of asphalt that is the track surface to the filling grandstands that already are so full that they look like a Seurat painting, you realize that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing less than a work of art.
It is hard to describe how enormous the facility is within the confines of the grandstands. But when you see the whole 253 acres of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for yourself, it is easy to believe that Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum, and Vatican City could all fit inside of it at the same time. If you sit in the north end of the track, the south end -- where the famous Pagoda, scoring tower, and yard of bricks lie -- is far enough away to require binoculars.
What surprises you is how many people there are. Even at a low mutter, the collective voices of over a quarter-million people in one setting stagger you. If you were not struggling with claustrophobia it might impress you more - you are packed in the grandstands like a sardine. If it is a hot day, then you feel every degree of the heat and humidity.
Finally, it is time for the traditional ceremonies to get underway as you hear "On the Banks of the Wabash" from the Purdue University All-American Marching Band. You can hear people singing along and you wonder how many of these people are actually Indiana natives. The feeling you get is that it doesn't matter, for today everyone is a Hoosier; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has in fact become the second-largest city in the state on this day.
The pre-race ceremonies continue. Florence Henderson sings "God Bless America." And then over the P.A. you hear, "His voice has become an institution..." In years past, these words have been uttered by Tom Carnegie, the longtime voice of the Indianapolis 500 public address system. Tom, sadly, is gone... but when you hear the words, you still hear his voice.
Whatever else is said is lost as the first real cheer erupts from the packed grandstands: Jim Nabors is singing "Back Home Again in Indiana." It seems like everyone knows the words. Actually, you can barely hear Nabors' voice as more than 300,000 people sing loudly along. Hundreds of multicolored balloons fill the sky.
Then, after "Taps" and the obligatory flyover, it is time for "the most famous words in motorsports." On hand to deliver them, as always, is Mari Hulman George. As she says, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines," the crowd roars its approval. You can't actually hear the engines start over the cheering. The crowd noise gives you the queer impression that the cars are silent as they begin to roll down the frontstretch.
During the pace laps the crowd continues to cheer. As the cars pass you during the first two pace laps they are weaving frantically to build heat into their tires. You hear a low buzzing sound from them, like a swarm of wasps; once in a while, the buzz jumps in pitch as a driver revs the engine.
Then, at the end of the final pace lap, you look into turn three and see the cars arranging themselves into eleven rows of three. And that's when the chills start racing up your spine. You can't help it. The pace car flashes past and dives for pit road, and the cars are alone on the track. As they go by the engine pitch starts to rise, but it is quickly lost in the loudest cheering you've ever heard in your life. 300,000 people are screaming at the top of their lungs and, you discover, so are you. Screaming to tear out your throat, in fact, because on the screen you see the green flags waving and you know that the race is underway.
For a few seconds all you can hear is the cheering. Then, as you peer into the distance at Turn Three, you see the field racing into the North Chute. No matter how many races you have seen either live or on TV, you are not prepared for how fast these cars are going. Airplanes don't look this fast taking off from a runway. You get the briefest impression of the drivers' heads cocked to the left against the G-forces as the cars angle gracefully into the apex of Turn Four.
Then you hear it.
It's a noise peculiar to the Indianapolis 500: the sound of thirty-three cars going flat-out at 220mph through a sounding chamber of a quarter-million people on both sides. Nobody has headphones or earplugs in — for the first few laps, everyone is listening to the music of thirty-three racing engines. The Doppler effect elevates the engine pitch as the cars approach you. The cars flash past so fast that you strain your neck to follow them. Before you know it, they are flying down the frontstretch, leaving only echoes. Echoes, and the now-weak-sounding cheers from the crowd.
And that's when you realize it. You are present at something you won't ever forget. That sound has seared into your brain like a cattle brand melted it in there. You are shaking with the adrenaline rush. You are yelling as loud as you can but you're not saying any words - just letting out a wordless howl of amazement and excitement. And just about forty seconds later, as the cars come by for the second lap, you are doing it all over again.
Eventually, of course, the race settles into its rhythm. It takes you at the bare minimum five laps before you decide to use the seat you paid for again. But eventually your attention shifts back to the Diamondvision screen as the field becomes strung out. You put your headphones on and listen to IMS Radio as the laps click away. Occasionally a car goes by with engine trouble and you can smell the burning oil and hot machinery even up in your grandstand seat. Or maybe someone misjudges the fourth turn exit and smacks the SAFER barrier right in front of you. A shower of carbon fiber erupts and you feel the impact in your chest.
The one impression you are left with after the race is over is how quickly it all seems to have ended. After spending hours cruising Georgetown and sweating in the sun for the pre-race ceremonies, 200 laps go by as if they were on fast-forward. Before you know it, the winner is drinking milk in victory lane and you are looking over your shoulder at the streaming humanity headed for the exits.
You head back to your car and join the mass exodus, reveling in the air conditioner. After a while, you clear the heaviest traffic and make your way back to your hotel. When you reach your room, you gratefully remove your shoes and relax with a sigh on your bed. Flipping through the channels, you discover the Indy 500 being rebroadcast on tape delay.
Tomorrow, you'll be on a flight home after a quick stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum to see the incredible display of history and pick up some souvenirs. You'll spend the hours in the air reveling about having been at a happening, a day's worth of tradition, history, speed, adrenaline, and sheer sporting joy.
But that is tomorrow. Today is still the day, and with your ears still ringing from the sound of the engines and the roar of the crowd and your heart still racing and your nerve endings tingling from the adrenaline rush, you are not in the mood for reflection.
Just because you can, you watch the race again.