By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The “wow” factor in a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – at least when there are no races taking place – starts upon arrival.
Visitors are instructed to go to Gate 2, which is on 16th Street in Speedway, Indiana. They enter a small tunnel area. When they emerge from the depths, they look around and realize they have gone under the race track itself and some bleachers. Then they are surprised to realize they are overlooking the short straightaway between Turns 1 and 2. It makes for quite an entrance.
Then the enormity of the complex becomes apparently. It is a two and one-half mile oval, of course, so you can’t see everything from ground level. But it’s more crowded than you’d think. A look to the right while approaching the museum reveals the Indy golf course – some of it inside the walls of the track, but most of it outside. The thought that the area turns into a large city for major races quickly came to mind when scanning the grounds.
As it turned out, we had just missed a NASCAR race the day before. Still the museum and its tour business were open for business, just like it is for most of the year. Who could resist a chance to see the place that has become one of the most familiar spots in auto racing?
We signed up for the “Kiss the Bricks Tour.” A smooch on bricks at the start/finish line at Indy is a tradition that began in 1996, when Dale Jarrett led his crew chief out for a kiss after his win in the Brickyard 400.
Our group hopped on a bus and started a one-lap tour of the race track. Since we were doing a less-than-death-defying 20 miles per hour, the passengers had a chance to get a good look at the area and its atmosphere. The inside of the track has stretches for a road racing course, while there are portions on the outside without any bleachers at all. By the way, it looked there were no backed seats in any of the major grandstands, not including the boxes of course.
Along the way, a recording goes over a little of the history and details of the track. It includes a description of the closest finish ever at Indy, when Al Unser Jr. nosed out Scott Goodyear in 1992 by 0.043 seconds. Our guide said Goodyear took his family on this tour a while ago, and mumbled when the replay of that ’92 race was played, “Ah, don’t they have anything a little more up to date?” The guide was quick to add that everyone in Goodyear’s party enjoyed the show.
Even in a bus, it’s quite a thrill to come out of Turn 4 and head down the main straight. The bleachers on both sides surround the track there; driving it in a race must never get old. The bus stopped just past the start/finish line, and we all piled out, cameras in hand.
And standing there is a really odd feeling – you’re waiting to have a security guard come along and say, “What the hell are you doing on the track? Get out of there!” as if you were 12. I stood in the front stretch during intermission at Lancaster Speedway this summer, and even that was a bit strange. Multiply that by a few hundred times and you get the idea. We’ve seen that spot so many times on television over the years, and it’s quite a thrill to stand there.
Everyone kissed the bricks while someone else snapped a bunch of photos to make sure that one good one would turn out. I can report that I did not taste any motor oil, although it was more of a peck than a smooch.
The bricks are left over from the days when Indy was an actual Brickyard. (Most of those bricks are now buried under the current surface.) A visit to that strip has two lessons for newcomers. One, there are a couple of small plaques placed on the bricks. One of them marks A.J. Foyt’s four wins (see photo at top of story). The other is dedicated to the 100th running of the Indy 500. Two, the strip of bricks runs across the track, through pit road, and all the way to the entrance to the 13-story “Pagoda.” That’s where officials monitor and time the race, and where the radio announcers sit as they describe the action. Who knew?
After 10 to 15 minutes, everyone has taken plenty of photos and is somewhat ready to get back on the bus. The vehicle completes its lap and heads back to the museum area, which offered different thrills.
The Indy Museum has many of the vehicles that won the 500-mile race over the years. It’s fun to see how the cars have evolved in that time, to the point where they are something like guided missiles that are aimed around the track. This year, the museum has a display marking the 50h anniversary of Mario Andretti’s win at Indy. Andretti won in all different types of cars and classes over the years, and it’s impressive to see the vehicles lined up for your inspection.
The visit ends with a customary stop in the large twin gift shops. If you can’t find something that’s worth buying despite the usual markup, you aren’t trying.
It’s all great fun, providing a memorable experience. What’s more, you don’t have to be a racing fan to enjoy a visit to the Brickyard. If you are in Indianapolis, put a visit on your schedule.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)