It’s an impressive feat of napitude to achieve slumber on a narrow, sun-baked sliver of metal grandstand, sitting just a few hundred yards away from thirty-three engines you can hear all the way across town, but I did it.
I grew up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; it’s baked into my genetic cake. My father started working on racing teams when he was a teenager. He was on Emerson Fittipaldi’s winning team in 1989 and has the ring to prove it. I see it all the time on his finger, the checkered-flag pattern just another part of his hand as I’m used to seeing it. The 500 is a part of my childhood, part of my family’s traditions, part of my home. The stories about them changing our diapers in the infields almost half a century ago are family legend. My brother inherited my father’s love of auto racing, and picked up photography in order to appreciate it in a way wholly his own. These days it’s my brother who knows the ins and outs of racing, who travels the circuit, who knows the minutiae of the sport.
Sometime around the turn of the millenium, give or take a few years, my dad started attending the race in the grandstands again. He keeps a slew of tickets that he renews every year. I stopped going when I moved out of state in my twenties, and I started spending Memorial Day weekend in the woods instead of at the track. I went back two or three years ago to introduce Travis’s son, Deryk, to our family seats. He and my brother and my nephew, along with my dad, are now the core racing fans in the family. I don’t know whether my son will enjoy it or not. He expressed interest this year, but declined once he realized he’d have to be at my dad’s house by 7:00 a.m. to beat the traffic. So he spent the afternoon with us instead, kayaking.
The thing I miss about attending the race isn’t the actual race, although I do appreciate the build-up of excitement at the beginning. It’s the culture of the race. I still tear up a little when I hear Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” – I can’t help it. This year is his last, and it represents a hard symbol of the passage of my life: I can’t remember a time when he didn’t sing it. He started when I was two years old.
Time does go on. That’s not the only change that’s come to pass at the track during the course of my life. The one that probably means the most to me is hearing the ever-famous “Gentlemen, start your engines” changed to “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines.”
Whoops I’m tearing up again.
I miss photographing and partaking in the creativity around track culture, and the overwhelming sensory experience — the sounds of the engines, the smell of the food, the sights of the people. I miss gobbling down the giant Henry VIII turkey legs from the food vendors in the morning, the taco stands, the burgers. I miss the street preachers outside the track trying to persuade the river of humanity going in that we will all spend eternity in hell for the crime of auto-racing.I miss the festival atmosphere, the faces popping in front of my lens.
But then you have to sit for two hours in a superheated grandstand with earplugs in for two hours. And I’m not small enough to lie down on the seats anymore. So once every five years is probably enough. I’ll hang out in the woods where I belong in the off years.