One year ago in Indiana

Journal

One year ago in Indiana

Each of my trips to Indianapolis has been distinct in different ways. The first time I went out, to see the 100th Anniversary Indy 500 in 2011, it was all about soaking up as much of the speedway, its history and traditions as was possible in the time that I was there. Everything I experienced was new and, as such, I spent practically every minute of each day with Patrick guiding me through my rookie ‘500 weekend. I treated that week as if it was something I’d never get to do again, I was fixated on the details and I lived every moment as if I’d never again step off a plane in Indianapolis.

So, when I returned in 2012, I was more relaxed and spent a bit more socializing with Patrick’s family & friends and slightly less time picking over the cars and the race track. It was a great week that culminated in Dario Franchitti winning the race and me staying an extra day in Indianapolis due to a flight delay. As I sat on the porch of the hotel near the airport on that last night, drinking ale and talking to strangers, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to write about my 2012 Indy escapade in detail after the event because I felt it had been all about living in the moment and enjoying it.

Hooked entirely on the experience, I headed back to Indianapolis in 2013 and again wanted to spend the greater balance of my time catching up with the family and friends. Of course, the track and the race are still the focal points and that’s as it should be if I’m going to fly 4000 miles to be there. But the thing is, the track and the race aren’t going anywhere and I could come back another 50 times and there’ll be a race on Memorial Day Weekend the way there has been for the last 100 years.

However, I might not always get the chance to spend quality time with the people who’ve given me such a warm welcome over the last couple of years that Indianapolis really does feel like a home from home for me now. It’s from the desire to capture those moments in a jar so I can look back at them in years to come that this late account has been put together.

Tenderloins, fries and root beer to die for!
Tenderloins, fries and root beer to die for!

A hiccup in the booking process meant I was flying out a day earlier than I had on my first two visits. I was still a couple of hours late, but compared to my first attempts it was practically plain sailing and I was sitting in Patrick’s MG having dinner at Mug ‘n Bun long before it even got dark on the Tuesday night.

After we got home, Patrick asked if I’d like to have a drive of the MG. I was pretty nervous about driving a left hand drive stick shift on dusky US roads, but Patrick seemed to think it would be a blast so off we went. I had some trouble getting it into third and probably went through an intersection carrying a bit too much speed, but it was like living the dream!

Once we were back at the house we caught up for a while then headed for an early-ish night. I was excited for the potential that came with having an extra day in Indy and didn’t want to waste it by staying up late and being tired in the morning.

That extra day to acclimatise with my surroundings was ideal and on the Wednesday afternoon we headed to a retail park to acquire a US sim card for my phone. Equipped with that I could keep in touch with everyone without it being prohibitively expensive.

The freedom that gave me turned out to be quite liberating, as I didn’t have to hang on Patrick’s coat tails all the time or rely on him to organise things. The fact I had unlimited data with the $30 sim card meant I could keep in touch with family back home and keep up to speed with the media coverage of the race, too, so it was a brilliant move I wish I’d thought of in previous years.

One unexpected side effect of being connected was that I ended up being a bit of a go-between for people trying to reach Patrick. He’s notoriously hard to get hold of. Partly because his phone is a crumbling relic from a time when Blackberry ruled the feature phone landscape and partly because he not inescapably attached to it like most smartphone users. That last observation probably plays a bigger part, as he’ll leave his phone anywhere but in his pocket. So, once my US number was farmed out to people I’d get the calls and texts that shaped our activities. This I didn’t mind, because I at least felt a part of things as opposed to being a helpless passenger.

It also allowed me to shape my own destiny as opposed to being part of the “master plan that we didn’t have”, to quote myself from my first trip to Indy. If I wanted to hook up with Adam, Bill or Jason I could give them a call or a text message and things would unfold nicely because those guys, like Patrick, just seem to want me to have the greatest time possible when I’m in town.

This worked out well on the Wednesday evening when Jason had called Patrick with this crazy idea of camping in the Coke Lot and wanted Patrick & I to join him for the experience. I wasn’t convinced this was a good idea given that the Coke Lot is essentially an open air asylum populated by drunken crazies who, mostly, care more about partying than the race. Plus we had a 6am start for The Big Bud Open and, at last, on my third time taking part I wouldn’t be deliriously tired from travelling the day before.

Reluctantly I went along with the idea, threw some stuff in a bag and hopped in the MG with Patrick headed to Jason’s, who was marginally better prepared than we were. By that I mean he had a tent, a couple of sleeping bags and a cooler. We followed him in his van to the Coke Lot and drove around the field looking for a good spot, settling for one beside a fancy looking motor home and about a football field from where some crazy red-necks were blasting out music.

We had the tent up by dusk, but already the temperature was starting to drop and some very dark clouds were looming overhead. Patrick needed to head back to Jason’s to drop off/pick up stuff and on the way there I told him I just wasn’t up for camping. Patrick was cool with that, but couldn’t ditch his brother, so he told me to call Bill to arrange a lift to Charlie Brown’s in the morning. After Patrick had left me at the house I felt a lot more at ease. I wouldn’t mind doing the Coke Lot thing one day, but this year I really wanted to enjoy the Thursday and I knew a night freezing in a field wasn’t going to help that.

The MG golf cart at Charlie Brown's
The MG golf cart at Charlie Brown’s

Previously the first proper day of my trips, the Thursday before the race consists of an early start at Charlie Brown’s for breakfast before the Big Bud Open at Riverside Golf Club, followed by a cascade of bars and good times that forge a path of their own. When Bill picked me up around 6am I’d had a good night’s rest and felt exited about the golf and all else that lay ahead.

When we got to the diner we saw the MG crammed with golf clubs and, as expected, Jason and Patrick had endured a night of freezing temperatures and persistent noise from their Coke Lot neighbours.

Fortunately they had befriended the guy next to them in a massive RV and he’d took pity, giving them warm food and drink to help them see it through. Even so, they looked rough and took some ribbing from the familiar faces over breakfast.

Patrick congratulates me on the longest drive.
Patrick congratulates me on the longest drive.

With that done we made our way to Riverside for the Big Bud Open. Early on I didn’t play any better than I had in previous years, but as the day wore on I sunk a few putts and at one point had the longest drive of our group. I reckon by about 2025 I’ll be a contender!

This year my partner wasn’t Patrick, it was a new guy called Rob. He was a great guy who had recently retired from a long career at GM and he was a strong and composed golfer. Just the kind of partner I needed really, and he gave me good advice as we forged on through each of the holes. It’s funny how some of them had really stuck in my mind considering I’d only been there twice before.

Rob and I finished something like ten over par and, although not a great score, I was happy with how I played some of the holes. Except for the few partnerships that can play a solid game and are in contention for the win, The Big Bud Open is really more about the friendship than the golf.

It’s that side of it that’s made the tournament one of the highlights of my trip to Indy each year. The camaraderie before, during and after we play endures whether we’re hiding under the trees from a rain storm, slicing every drive, or are struggling to find a place to celebrate after it’s all in the books.

Celebrating Adam & Andy's win at the Big Bud Open 2013
Celebrating Adam & Andy’s win at the Big Bud Open 2013

That latter point turned out to be the case this year, as last year’s winner’s feast was held down town in Hooters, but that had shut down and we ended up heading to McGilvery’s Pub and Eatery, which was a bar near where Patrick had grown up. I’ll concede that it had a lot of character, but I kind of preferred Hooters!

We were in there so long that I kind of expected it to be dark when we left and headed to the Coke Lot to hook up with Jason, but there was still plenty of daylight left. I was on a high and for some reason wanted to head to a bar where we could do karaoke. Neither Jason or Patrick had that kind of fun in mind and I didn’t exactly want to stay in the Coke Lot, so I jumped in Adam’s car and we headed back to his place where he took a power nap.

When Adam’s girlfriend Julia finished work and his brother Troy had arrived with a friend we all jumped in the car and headed to Broadripple to find me a karaoke bar. Gotta hand it to Adam – he didn’t seem particularly convinced that it was a great plan, but he led us all to the Monkey’s Tale – a self proclaimed karaoke bar.

Once there I didn’t think I’d go through with it, but after feeling the place out and drinking a couple of beers I was up singing Footloose and the crowd seemed to appreciate the effort. Adam recorded some video on his phone at the time and despite being a little cringe-worthy upon later viewing, I’d at least checked the box of randomly singing karaoke in Indianapolis. Soon after Julia and Troy went up and did a duet that was pretty good, so I’m kind of glad I went on before them!

We left the Monkey’s Tale and headed downtown to Kilroy’s Bar & Grill for some food. For some reason I wasn’t particularly hungry – probably because it was after midnight by this point and I was running out of steam after my 6am start. Adam kindly said I could stay at his place and after a drive with the music blasting we were back there and fit to drop.

I woke feeling rough, but probably better rested than Jason & Patrick after their second night in the Coke Lot. Adam told me to get my ass in the shower because we were leaving to head to the track and whilst I was in there I heard him say the name Stephanie. I thought he was on the phone, but when I emerged I saw Stephanie had arrived from Chicago to head to the track with us for Carb Day.

The pylon at IMS after the Indy Lights race
The pylon at IMS after the Indy Lights race

The drive there included a comedy encounter with a duck near the Coke Lot. There we saw Jason, who looked even rougher than I did and told us he’d had his cooler stolen at some point during the last couple of days. We sat and chatted to the guy with the impressive RV for a while, but the cold morning air was giving me the shivers, so it wasn’t long before we walked to the track. Heading round we found some seats high up in turn one stands, but moved down to track level for the last fifteen minutes of IndyCar practice. It was cool being back at Indy Motor Speedway to experience the sights, the sounds, the smells and the grandeur of the track once more, all beneath a perfect blue sky.

With IndyCar Series practice over we made our way inside the track to get some seats on the bleachers by the pagoda to watch the Indy Lights race. The race itself was really dull – barely a dozen cars and no attempt by any of them to put on a show. The last 300 yards of it were a total contrast, though – any one of four cars could have crossed the line in the lead as they came out of the final corner. I couldn’t help but think there might be more cars and more interest in the series if they raced like that for 40 laps rather than a quarter of the last one.

The Lights race done, we made our way over to the viewing mounds near where the concert was taking place. The temperature was really starting to climb at this point, so I didn’t hang around on the viewing mound for long. Heading back for the shade of the pagoda I happened upon Bill and Debbie, who were making their way to the promotional stalls by the museum in order to say hello to a cousin (I think) of Debbie who was working there.

Bill had a suite ticket for me – part of a seemingly annual arrangement where I arrive with a bottle of whisky for him and he gives me a suite ticket. It’s a pretty good deal, I think! I hadn’t really spent a lot of time with the pair of them, so rather than head straight for the suite I decided to tag along with them instead.

After we’d paid a visit to the various stalls we walked the length of the golf course all the way up to the infield party, where hundreds of revellers were tailgating. Weaving through the maze of people drinking, grilling and partying, we finally found the folks that Debbie wanted to visit with. They had sun shades, so I stood under one of them while I had a drink, but after Debbie and Bill moved on I headed to the pagoda to see if I could find Patrick or any of his friends.

Patrick had had to drive south on some business, but said he might make it back later on Carb Day. So, heading against the tide of people leaving the track from the concert, I went to the pagoda but couldn’t see him there. I didn’t really see anyone else I knew, either, so I called Jason to ask where he was. This was when I found out I’d essentially been left at the track by myself – everyone else had left, figuring that I was with someone who could get me home.

I wasn’t actually too bothered by this revelation. I figured I wasn’t in any rush and things would work out somehow, so I headed to the planters by the pagoda to see if I recognised anyone there. Sure enough, Patrick’s old pal Forry was there and he offered me a beer, just like he has done by the pagoda on all of my visits! We chatted for a short while before he headed off, then I took a quick look in the merchandise areas and headed up to the suite. The staff there were all set to pack up for the day, but there was so much food and drink left over that they just told me to help myself to as much as I wanted. They gave me some sun cream, too, but it was a little bit too late for that!

While I was in the suite, Bill called me up because he’d just got word from Jason that I’d been left behind. He was heading to a party somewhere outside of the track and said I should come along, so he headed up to the suite to collect me with Debbie and her cousin. They headed off when we left the suite and Bill and I went to what turned out to be a Miller Lite sponsored party with some really good live music. Patrick called while we were there and said he’d heard I’d been left at the track and would come down to get me. News travels fast!

As seems to be the case with Bill over race weekend, he has so many people to meet and catch up with that he doesn’t stay in one place for long. I was enjoying the music and the vibe at the Miller Lite Turn One party, so I was happy just to hang out until Patrick arrived. Plus I thought it would be pretty cool to get picked up from the party in a convertible!

When Patrick arrived he was really enthused that I’d managed to fend for myself all day – he seemed really proud that I’d been left at the track and had just gone with the flow. He’s taught me well, it has to be said!

What I’d completely forgotten about was the Carb Night Burger Bash. We’d attended it in 2012 because they had a huge tribute to Dan Wheldon going on that night and I had really wanted to be there for that. I wasn’t too fussed about going again, but Patrick was up for it so we headed to 96th Street Steak Burgers and enjoyed the live broadcast of Trackside.

By the time we got home on Friday evening I was completely exhausted. I have to say that it was probably one of my favourite days I’ve spent in Indianapolis – I got to hang out with pretty much everybody and just enjoyed myself so much.

On Saturday we weren’t in a hurry to be anywhere, but after a lazy morning we cruised downtown to Bill & Debbie’s place. From there we walked to Bill’s office to soak up some of the Indy 500 parade atmosphere.

The office was transformed from the last time I’d been there – business looked to be going well at Summit. Some of the office space on the floor that had been completely vacant on my first visit in 2011 was now taken up by a digital agency of some kind. I popped out my phone and looked them up to see if there were any jobs going, but they weren’t looking for my skillset!

When the parade was done and dusted we walked back to Bill & Debbie’s place before heading home for the arrival of Patrick’s son, “Little Patrick”.

It was good to finally meet him, as big Patrick had mentioned him on my previous visits. Little Patrick was interested in the games industry, so we got to know each other talking about my own experiences in games development.

Before long we got on with the traditional Saturday activity of going to Jason & Meggan’s place for their daughter Emma’s birthday party. I really love this – having all the family and friends around just creates a great atmosphere and it reminds me of my own family gatherings, but cranked up a few notches.

Later on Bill drove me out to the Romero’s place for their hog roast. The turnout was large (although we were pretty late turning up last year so maybe it’s always this busy) and featured a big spread of ages – all in good spirits.

Some of the younger guys were throwing a football about on the field, so I wandered over asked if I could join in. It’s been a long time since I’ve thrown a ball more than 20 yards, but I couldn’t have the young guns embarrassing me so I was really trying to heave it up the field to them. I ended up with a sore arm before calling it quits and heading to the garage for some food and beer.

When I’d gone to the Romero’s in 2012 I’d written a poem on their garage wall where everyone attending had put up a mention. Apparently they’d loved this and told me I’d need to come up with something better. I made an attempt, but was lacking inspiration and struggled. However, in the time since, I’ve actually been thinking of what to write if I ever find myself there again just so I don’t let them down – fingers crossed I get to make it to another hog roast at the Romero’s where I can deliver a poem worthy of the occasion!

Although Patrick had turned up in the MG during the course of the evening, Bill & Debbie took me back home so I could get to bed sooner as Patrick was dropping off Little Patrick at Jason’s place. Unfortunately, when we got there Lisa had gone to bed and locked up. I was stuck outside but I didn’t want to call and wake her up. Bill & Debbie called me back and suggested I just called her to get in, I didn’t think that was fair so I waited it out for a while until Patrick got home.

Once he was back and we got inside our excitement on the eve of the ‘500 got the better of us and we got to talking in hushed tones by the kitchen. Not quietly enough for Lisa, sadly, and she got up to yell at us for it. I felt pretty bad about that because I’m a guest lucky enough to have somewhere to stay when I visit and it meant the good intentions of sitting outside for half an hour were in vain.

Race morning
All set for race day

Race Day

The buzz I feel on race day is almost electric. It slowly builds from the moment I wake and carries through the morning, inversely proportional to the distance we are from the track and the time until the green flag waves. I was up and ready to go in no time, taking the opportunity to snap a photo in the back garden that Cooper the dog manage to photo-bomb!

Jason picked us up like he’s done on all of my visits and had us through the traffic to the Hill’s place via the extended shake & bake in an amazingly quick time, considering the traffic. The journey to the track is more art than science, for sure.

It was at the Hill’s that we made a bit of a tactical error. Putting some money in for the sweep and greeting everyone that’s there to compare slips  is such an exciting part of the morning that it’s easy to get a bit carried away. So we found ourselves walking to the track a bit later than was ideal. And this is where the new security checkpoint system caught us out big time.

Security checkpoint chaos
Security checkpoint chaos

The queues were just horrendous – just a sea of people stuck outside the track with far too few yellow shirts checking each bag. Nobody we spoke to had seen anything like this before and people were saying that if anyone had a bomb on them then right there in the dense crowd created by the security bottleneck would be the perfect time to detonate it.

It took a crazy amount of time to get through and by the time we were at our seats we’d missed practically all of the ceremonial stuff. At least we hadn’t missed the opening laps of the race and once it was underway the excitement made the security queues a minor inconvenience.

It’s funny that, in three years of having a ticket for a seat in the same area, I’ve maybe sat down for the sum total of one hour in that time. I’ll only rest my legs during an extended yellow flag period – other than that I’m on my feet for the whole race watching everything unfold and this race was no different.

I’d noticed on the Friday at Carb Day that, although she hadn’t qualified well, British driver Katherine Legge could put her car anywhere she wanted in turn one. When a car sticks that well it makes overtaking a lot easier and sure enough, Katherine was on a march from the back of the field and seemed to be picking people off every other lap. While the drivers at the sharp end were playing the long game it was fun seeing how much ground she could make up, but ultimately a brush with the wall would upset the car and halt her progress.

Tony Kanaan was in the thick of it all day, but I never expected to see him win it. I’d even said before the race that I would love to see him win one, but I thought the window had closed for him. Sometimes it’s great to be wrong. Three visits to the ‘500 and I’ve been fortunate enough to see three different winners – each of the drivers I’ve been happy for.

Little Patrick, Big Patrick, me, Stephanie and Bob
Little Patrick, Big Patrick, Jason, me, Stephanie and Bob

TK is such a crowd favourite that the atmosphere in the stands was fantastic, so we stuck around for a while taking pictures like we’ve done on my previous visits.

The walk back to the Hill’s sure took a lot less time than it had in the morning and it was good to see everyone there again. The Romero’s were there and donated a beer to me, which means I really will have to deliver with my poem the next time I make their hog roast!

On the drive back to Jason & Meggan’s place the decision was made to barbeque out in the garden for dinner. The food was great and it was fun just to chill out and talk about the race. At some point, myself, Patrick, Little Patrick, Jason and his sons Miles & Joe had a game of basketball on the driveway.

Basketball isn’t something I’ve played a lot of, but I’m up for anything and the competition got pretty heated. With the humid weather I was sweating buckets in no time, but it was a great run around.

When it was time to head home I had to say goodbye to Stephanie, as she was driving home instead coming to the lake the next day. I hadn’t realised she was leaving so soon and had wanted to talk to her about IndyCar Fan Zone – the fantasy IndyCar site I run with my friend Nathan. Stephanie is involved with social media marketing, so I hoped she’d be interested in helping to promote the site. I decided to leave it and email her once I was back home, but it would have been good to chat about it in person.

As it was getting dark we figured it was smart to head home and have an early night to avoid disturbing Lisa again. She was working in the morning, while we were heading up to the lake.

The day at the lake falls on what’s normally the last full day of my trip to Indy. As such, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness in being surrounded by this amazing family who have practically adopted me. It’s always in the back of my mind that I’ll soon be leaving them all behind for another year.

Memorial day at Marty and Mike’s place was great, relaxing fun as ever. There was a cook-off with the Ehret brothers concocting bbq sauces, baseball on the driveway, a mystery whisky sipper in our midst, cake for Bill, and a general over consumption of fantastic food.

When it was time to go Patrick drove me and Little Patrick home in the MG with the roof down. Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse on the way back and Little Patrick was freezing in the back seat while I ducked down under the cover of the windshield up front. It has to be said that he takes after his dad when it comes to making sacrifices for international guests!

On my last day, Patrick drove me and Little Patrick around downtown, killing time until my flight back home before dropping me at the airport.

With another trip to Indianapolis over all too soon it was at least some consolation that with each visit I seem to have a better time than the one before. What started out as a one-off trip of a lifetime has become an annual highlight where I get to enjoy the company of my Indiana family.

Long may these trips continue.