Note: At the invitation of INDYCAR, several Tweeters ventured to Mid-Ohio for the race weekend. @NascarCasm recaps his experience:
You’re standing next to Rick Mears and Arie Luyendyk. Just keep your cool.
That was the thought going through my head as I tried to process the somewhat surreal nature of the moment. I was standing in Race Control at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, having just received an informative tour from IZOD IndyCar Series Race Director Beaux Barfield. In walked Luyendyk, and Mears shortly thereafter.
A small aside: I grew up in Indiana. When May rolled around, all eyes were on 16th and Georgetown. Every year we made the pilgrimage to the Brickyard for practice and Pole Day. I cheered on Foyt, Andretti, Mears, Unser, Luyendyk and, of course, Fabrizio Barbazza. (OK – I know he only ran the race once, but when you’re 8 years old, things like wacky names grab your attention.)
So there I was, standing next to two racing icons. Mears was his usual gracious self. Luyendyk was equally as gracious, despite probably another exhausting morning of women asking him for his son’s phone number. They were there to observe practice, and not wanting to intrude I shook their hands, and got out of their way. Thankfully, I was able to stifle the “DEAR LORD, I JUST MET SIX INDIANAPOLIS 500 WINS – I AM NEVER WASHING MY HANDS AGAIN,” feeling. (Note: Before you question my hygiene, I assure you that the Mid-Ohio chicken fingers basket later on made doing so entirely necessary.)
Again, it was a surreal moment — so surreal that I forgot to ask Beaux if I could randomly call someone for avoidable contact, just for the rush.
How we wound up there is equally as surreal. Thanks to Twitter, I’ve been able to meet several incredible people in the world of motorsports, primarily in NASCAR (@NascarCasm is my ridiculous, unpronounceable handle). But a few weeks back I was contacted out of the blue by INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard (which I had to convince myself wasn’t a prank call). It led to an incredible invitation.
I, along with some other Tweeters, traveled out to Mid-Ohio to experience the fender-free world of IndyCar. I didn’t know what to expect. Nor did I know why exactly they invited a schmuck who spends most race days lying on his couch posting lame jokes on Twitter to join them. But I didn’t ask. And now I’m pining to return.
Saturday’s schedule was packed. We enjoyed a nice breakfast with Randy Bernard at the INDYCAR Paddock Club, where we discussed IndyCar and social media, among other things. (Yeah, you heard that right Brian France – bet you wish you’d responded to my repeated requests to meet up at Waffle House now, don’t you?). Next we proceeded on to the walk-in-closet-sized media center, where A.J. Foyt was announcing that driver Chase Austin would be driving for him in next year’s Indy 500.
A.J.’s 77 years old, but still tough as ever, which is why I opted not to ask any stupid questions. Next up was Race Control. Barfield showed us the ins and outs of RC, from the TVs covering every foot of track to the famous instant-messaging system, which upon quick glance was free of the words “LOL” and “OMG”, as well as any emoticons. Did I mention Luyendyk and Mears came in also?
Other activities included a quick meet and greet with TrueCar Racing drivers Katherine Legge (IZOD IndyCar Series, @KatherineLegge), Shea Holbrook (Pirelli World Challenge, @SheaRacing) and Shannon McIntosh (USF2000, @SHANNON_MAC), where we learned about TrueCar’s Women-Empowered initiative (Follow them at @TrueCarRacing).
We also had a chance to meet USF2000 points leader Spencer Pigot, and learn more about IndyCar’s “Road To Indy” developmental racing program.
The most eye-opening experience was a side trip to meet “Jakesy Nation.” Who are they? A fun, jovial and possibly over-served collection of guys and gals united through their devotion to IndyCar driver James Jakes, who also just so happen to have an awesome trailer. The group, dressed in matching T-shirts, was surprised out of the blue by Jakes himself, who ventured out to the parking lot to greet his loyal fans and celebrate his birthday.
The group’s amazement that their hero had come out to greet them seemed to equal that of Jakes himself, once he saw their degree of fanaticism. I never got to experience the infamous “Snakepit” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during its heyday, but with this rowdy group, the “Jakes-pit” could easily pick up where they left off.
The next day we were greeted with a torrential downpour, but having been to several NASCAR races, I was used to that (It’s a running joke that you could run a NASCAR race in the middle of the Sahara Desert, and somehow a pop-up shower would interrupt it before halfway.) This day kicked off with an informative tour of the pit/garage area with Pippa Mann – encyclopedic in her IndyCar knowledge. From there, we roamed at will, awaiting the start of the Honda Indy 200.
Not surprisingly, the IndyCar garage is bustling with activity on race day, but it’s very common to see the drivers out signing autographs, taking pictures, and being their accessible selves. I also learned to recognize the tell-tale sound of an approaching scooter – see, the drivers zip around the garage on personalized scooters. They get them from point A to point B pretty quickly, but would likely get them laughed at were they to roll into Sturgis.
The Team Penske scooter fleet is especially impressive. They all match. They’re polished. Shiny. I wonder how often they get scooter-jacked.
Before the race, I was unable to hunt down Robin Miller, as I wanted to draft him during his famed grid run. But I was able to get close to the cars, and see drivers like Helio, Kanaan, Will Power and Josef Newgarden transitioning from driver-intro friendly to game face.
I also I disappointed my mom, who wanted me to inform Helio that she voted for him every week during “Dancing With The Stars.” I didn’t think during the pre-race invocation was the appropriate time.
The race itself was clean yet exciting. I watched several laps by the exit of the Carousel. As this was my first road-course race in any series, I was amazed by the precision it took to maneuver the tricky, sweeping right-hander lap after lap. I spent the majority of the race on pit lane, observing lap times, pit stops, and the loads of data each team parses during the race.
Most teams have what seemed like 7-8 laptops humming at all times. Looked somewhat like a mid-race Gen-Con “World Of Warcraft” meet-up.
Overall, what struck me the most about the weekend was the hospitality – everyone, from Randy Bernard, to Beaux Barfield, to the drivers, to the hard-working public relations people who planned the weekend and let us have the run of the place, was as congenial and welcoming as could be. They’re a young, enthusiastic accommodating bunch – practically the polar opposite of the yellow shirts at IMS.
They’re absolutely driven to raise the sport’s profile as high as possible, and know they have the product to do so.
I was primarily a NASCAR follower, but I went into the weekend with an open mind, as I try to do with any event (With the noted exception of that Michael Bublé concert I once went to. There’s three excruciating hours of my life I’ll never get back). I walked away thoroughly impressed with the race, the track, and most importantly, the people.
I’ve never joined the stock car vs. open-wheel debate. They’re separate animals, with their own attributes and intricacies. After the weekend in Mid-Ohio, I can honestly say I’m a big fan of both, and will be adding a few IndyCar races to our yearly motorsports itinerary. And Jakesy Nation darn well better be there.