And maybe a little withdrawal…
Where to start? By now you’ve read a million other post-race articles analyzing the race and drivers and the current state of IndyCar, IMS, and the Indy 500. People have given their opinions on anything and everything from the new road course race, the new concessions, the new tenderloins, the new qualifying format, Carb Day and its craziness, concerts at the track, Legends Day, this year’s rookies, the red flag after Townsend Bell’s crash, Ryden Hunter-Reay, and a million other topics. I’m not here to write about those things, though a few may get a mention.
Instead, I want to talk about one of my favorite things from the past weekend. This was my third consecutive Indy 500, which also happens to be the third time I’ve attended the race in my lifetime. I’m still pretty much a rookie when it comes to attending the race, though I do know bronze badge holders can get in to the track an hour before the gates open to the general public. Indy 2012 was the first IndyCar race I’d attended in a long time, and it was almost overwhelming. My three friends and I had silver badges, pace car rides, and all kinds of access due to an auction one of them won, and I knew immediately I would return every year. At the time, I had a few IndyCar fan friends on Twitter, but I didn’t get a chance to meet any of them.
In 2013, I attended the race with the friend who had won the auction, this time with bronze badges and tickets we paid for. By that time, I had made several more IndyCar friends on Twitter, and I met three of them (Amy, Jimmy, and Bob) over the course of the weekend, but only for very quick hellos before we headed our own separate ways. I saw Amy and Bob in Baltimore later in 2013, and it was so much fun to say hello again. I don’t have many other friends who are IndyCar fans, so my Twitter (and eventually Facebook) friends are my lifeline to discuss the greatest racing series in the world. These people get me through the long, quiet periods between races and seasons. We all root for different drivers but that’s what makes it fun. Mostly, we just want to talk about the sport we love. And every single person I’ve met wants to do something to advance IndyCar and help it grow, even if it’s by one more fan.
So, as I prepared to fly off to Indy last week, I knew my main goal for the weekend was to meet as many new friends as possible. Of course I wanted to take in as much of IMS as possible, and I had some definite shopping goals in mind, but reconnecting with old friends and making new ones could only make the weekend better, right?
I had no idea how right I was.
I arrived Thursday, and my friend (the same one who won the auction that got me to the track in 2012) and I made our now customary immediate visit to Gasoline Alley… with a stop for a bit of shopping at the Andretti trailer on the way. After strolling through the garages, we decided to go get some lunch. While we were sitting, I messaged Jimmy on Twitter asking where he was, since he was one of the few friends who I knew would be at IMS on Thursday. He and his wife, Nikki, found us at the picnic tables near the Pagoda, and we spent some time catching up. It was nice to just be able to relax, chat, and not have to run off somewhere right away. We later saw each other in the garages, and we stopped to chat for a bit longer.
Friday arrived and due to our bronze badges, we were able to enter the track at 7 AM. We headed right to Gasoline Alley, and after doing our customary laps of the garages, we ran into Amy, her son Gage, and Shay. I hadn’t met Shay before, so after greeting Amy with a long hug, she introduced me. I’d been following their exploits as IndyCar Social Media Influencers all season long, but especially at Indy. They’ve been fortunate to gain special race weekend access due to the hard work they do promoting IndyCar on their sites. I admit I’m a bit jealous of them. That said, they both work hard to promote this crazy sport we love, so they have earned every benefit they get. It wasn’t just handed to them.
We chatted for a while, watched the drivers gather for the drivers’ meeting before practice, and kept running into each other throughout the day. These were friends with whom I’ve spent less than a day’s worth of hours in my entire life, and yet our shared love of IndyCar made it feel like we’d known each other since childhood. (Granted, my childhood was a lot longer ago than theirs…) At least it did to me. They both had meetings they had to run off to, or people they had to assist, but knowing I had friends at the track (other than the friend who came to the race with me, of course) was a new experience for me. It made me feel like more a part of the crowd, if that makes sense. Later on Friday I saw pit spotter Patsy White on her golf cart. By her own admission, Patsy is known for her drive-by hugs, and this time was no different. We had only a few seconds to say hello before she was off again.
Saturday we arrived bright and early and ended up being the first in line for the driver autograph session/Mario Andretti bobblehead distribution.
It was a long hour waiting to be let in to the area where the autograph session was set up, so interacting with my friends on Twitter made it pass a little more quickly. When we got in and I was in line for Row 2 (of course), I saw Amy, Gage, and Shay in line to get a wristband for the Mario Andretti meet and greet later in the day. We said hello, and the couple in line in front of me asked if Amy was OpenWheelMom. They are big fans (Amy told me she later met them) even though they don’t have children. That told me how big a reach Amy has had through Twitter, her blog, and Instagram! We need more people like Amy to help grow IndyCar.
Actually, IndyCar needs people like Amy and Shay, who are good at reaching out to fans and who enjoy doing it. You hear that, IndyCar! Give these two a job!!
I later read about Amy and Gage’s visit with Mario on Twitter and Facebook, and I couldn’t help but smile at her excitement and the touching story of Mario signing a book for Amy’s mom, who really needed a pick-me-up. It reaffirmed my love for IndyCar and its drivers–Mario saw a lot of people over the course of the weekend (I finally got his autograph on Thursday after trying at 4 races in the past 2 years) but he still took the time to make that day special for a few fans. I’ve always said, if you can just get a fledgling fan to come to an IndyCar race, they’d become an instant fan for life. There is truly nothing like the experiences you will have at any IndyCar race, be it an oval, road, or street course. If you come away from an IndyCar race weekend without a single driver interaction or autograph, you’re just not trying.
Sunday arrived and I couldn’t wait for the Indy Fans TweetUp, scheduled for 9:30 AM. I knew everyone there would understand why I left my friend napping in the car in Lot 2 to enter the track as soon as the bomb went off. They would not have any questions about me sitting at a picnic table by myself while the track was still dark, watching things slowly spring to life. So, when I saw Amy and Gage walking through the Pagoda plaza at 5:45 AM, it was the most natural thing in the world. Of course we’d all be there, bright and early and ready to go with the excitement of race morning.
As we sat there, Shay arrived and then I met some new friends, including Shelby and Aaryn. Shelby is a HUGE Helio fan, so I shared with her that I was standing in front of Helio in the photo from the driver autograph session on his Facebook page. She, of course, had seen it. Aaryn is also a runner, so we talked briefly about her recent participation in the Indy Mini Marathon (half marathon distance, Aaryn informed me earlier this month it was named before half marathons were as popular as they are now).
More fans came by, and we sort of took over the back corner of the picnic tables. It was like the TweetUp before the TweetUp. We all had our stories and I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.
At one point, Jamie Little came walking by with her producer. She was already in her firesuit, and after she posed for a photo with someone else, six or seven of us descended upon her for this:
She couldn’t have been kinder, even though she was obviously headed somewhere. It was the moment I realized I had truly found my people.
Amy was a little nervous about the TweetUp, since she was expecting a big crowd and her usual partner, Pippa Mann, couldn’t be there due to her pre-race commitments. So we all gathered around to offer her support and encouragement, and other people started to arrive. It was a HUGE crowd, and Amy did great, as I knew she would. During the TweetUp, I saw Bob, Jimmy, and Nikki again, and I met Jane (who somehow I accidentally unfollowed on Twitter at some point–just fixed that) and her husband, Scott. It was amazing being surrounded by IndyCar fans and that’s when I realized–these aren’t just my friends. They’re my IndyCar family. Here’s our family portrait:
I had such a great time and I didn’t want to leave when my friend texted me she was at our seats. It was like that goodbye that takes forever. I kept telling people I was heading to my seat, but 30 minutes later I was still standing there chatting. Eventually I collected a bunch of goodbye hugs and made my way under the track to my Paddock Box seats, so thankful for the time I’d had to spend with so many other fans on race morning.
If you’re still reading, hopefully you can relate to the way I feel about my IndyCar family. I hated leaving IMS on Sunday, but I left knowing I had a whole big group of people I would see again in a year. And in 2015 I’ll be bringing my friend Samantha to the track for her first-ever IndyCar race. I can’t wait to introduce her to everyone!
If you haven’t been fortunate enough to make friends at the track, I encourage you to reach out to one of the people whose Twitter handle I’ve linked here. They will be happy to chat with you and let you know about TweetUps and other stuff going on during race weekend. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed, even if the people you meet aren’t rooting for the same driver or team you are!