For those of you who are unfamiliar with gonzo journalism and its ludicrously loutish roots, one must recall that reporter Hunter S. Thompson got his first big break in his own backyard at the 1970 Kentucky Derby. At the time Thompson had only experienced mixed success with his verbose (and often obtuse) writing style. Despite voicing his objection to covering that year’s Derby, he was cajoled into covering the high brow affair in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Compounding the equation was the fact that visual documentation of the race needed to be captured, and since Thompson abhorred photographers for a myriad of reasons, a British illustrator by the name of Ralph Steadman was tasked with tagging along with the writer. Neither man had ever met the other and upon deplaning Steadman found himself accosted by a barrage of backhanded insults and queries from Thompson, who was suspicious of the Englishman’s preferred methods of mental alteration.
With common ground finally found, the two men formed a partnership that would last a lifetime. Thanks to Thompson’s drug-fueled antics, Steadman’s artistic style quickly spiraled into something that was equal parts terrifying and titanic. Over the course of the following decades Thompson refused to work with anyone other than Steadman. If you click on the following link you’ll see images of some of the artwork he has done for Flying Dog Brewery and you’ll understand why his art and Thompson’s words were so perfectly paired.
Craft beer and backstory aside, despite having read a copious amount of Thompson’s rampageous work, the story I have to tell today is quite different from the one in which he wrote all those years back necessitated mostly by logistics. There is no comrade in arms here, nor copious amounts of mind-altering substances. Just a long early morning drive from Cincinnati to Indy to marvel at the Speedway for a few hours with my ever inquisitive camera. Then it’s back in the car and home before the work day ends.
In order to make the most of my attendance I had to first get on the premises. It was then I learned my first lesson. Getting inside the circuit proved to be more difficult than previously projected. After sitting in gridlocked traffic outside of the Speedway for the better part of an hour, I was finally able to collect my credentials and speed over to the mud and cigarette strewn parking lot reserved for members of the media where I was fortunate enough to snag the last spot.
My tardiness caused by the shit-show of traffic meant I would probably miss the morning safety meeting for photographers and my chance of securing pit passes were officially going up in flames. But no bother. There was still to be plenty to see, I just didn’t know it yet.
It was the Friday before the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, or as it’s still commonly called, “Carb Day.” In this day and age that may sound more akin to a foccacia festival than a sanctioned race function. Although there was undoubtedly plenty of bread to go around, the majority of the carbs consumed at Indy tend to be in liquid form. But the carbs we’re talking about here aren’t dietary, they’re automotive.
Originally just the final practice when teams calibrated the carburetors (remember those?) on their cars, the Friday before the Indy 500 has become an annual event like no other. While you can still watch the final IndyCar Series practice from the grandstands along with an Indy Lights race, there is now a pit stop competition, and live concerts from national acts which this year included the Steve Miller Band and Barenaked Ladies. It’s one giant “pre-game party,” all formed around finding ways to get race fans in the swing of things before the big day.
Here spectators playing hooky from work and school alike get to mingle and make merry in the packed party paddocks running along the outskirts of Gasoline Alley, and damn near anywhere else inside the oval for that matter. It’s a constantly flowing sea of people, all hauling booze-filled coolers, like a massive tailgate party on the move, forever looking to connect over cars and have a good time. Take classic cruise-in car culture, blend it with a Midwest mentality, toss in a handful of hardcore IndyCar action, and you have only a lug nut’s worth of Carb Day’s celebratory side explained. Here’s why.
There is a metric mess-load of everything amazing here on Carb Day. For me the excitement started just getting inside the Speedway. After locating my entrance and hopping a shuttle, I soon found myself barreling my way beneath the front straight, a spirited jaunt that reminded me that even the staff here has a need for speed. Stepping out into the melee surrounding the media center I quickly spotted the door and stepped inside, unsure of what awaited me within its air conditioned, no, refrigerated confines.
Grid girls – a vision of glitzy makeup, gorgeous hair, and skin tight, torso clinging spandex – are something I have grown accustomed to over the years, and I typically don’t pay them much mind. But watching geriatrics crash their electric scooters every time they encountered one of these lovely ladies never ceased to entertain. After witnessing a minor pileup of perverts take place outside the door to the media center, I ran upstairs only to find that I had indeed missed the photographer briefing, knowing once and for all my chances of getting a safety vest and pit passes had vanished.
Disappointed but not downtrodden I snagged a coffee and a donut from an abundantly loaded breakfast table and headed back downstairs. I hopped on a golf cart and politely asked the 80 year-old female driver to shuttle me over to the track’s museum, where supposedly all of the historic race cars are being showcased. As I climbed in the car I winked cheekily at the more attractive of two nearby Grid Girls. The stunningly shaped brunette waved back, but our budding romance was quickly interrupted by my driver who punched the throttle and we rocketed off toward the far end of the grounds, leaving my new love disappearing in our dust.
Zipping along in my chauffeured golf cart I soaked in all of the insanity around me. Majestic display booths promoted everything from Corvettes to Meguiar’s cleaning products on my left, uninhabited by the masses. It was still early in the day. On my right was an endless armada of RVs and campers, a sea of American wealth and overindulgence, all humming to the tune of generated power and connected septic systems.
Indy is a wonderland that’s teeming with strategically placed sales pitches and high-brow nomadic living, all encapsulated within the confines of a massive oval. Just as Mickey and Minnie Mouse flew past me on the back of their own golf cart, I was quick to recall that this also all about the kids as well, a thought that is solidified by the sight of a massive kids zone that’s filled with all manner of engaging experiences.
As we threaded our way amongst the throngs of race car revelers I began to size-up the crowd of Carb Day enthusiasts swirling around me a little more aggressively. Unlike Thompson’s recollections of the aristocratic equine fanciers at the Kentucky Derby all those decades ago, the crowd at IMS on Carb Day is a mixed bag to say the least. Having been raised in Alabama where Talladega races and Crimson Tide football bring out more than a few people who could be generously described as “characters,” I have a keen interest in the individuals who make it to these kinds of sporting events.
At Indy you will find gnarly young men with misspelled tattoos standing shirtless next to senior citizens in grass-brimmed hats. As the elderly silently sip their iced teas through colorful straws and look disapprovingly over at their uncouth neighbors, I noticed hot on their heels (and looking a little worse for ware after the previous night’s festivities) a gaggle of race queens, all gussied-up in their push-up bras with skirts short enough to be classified as handkerchiefs. As they stroll past I overhear one of them talking about the depravity from the night prior, and I give the parental units walking beside them a nod of approval since they were smart enough to provide the sleeping babe on his father’s back with hearing protection so he didn’t hear a word.
Pulling up to the string of tents where all of the historic Indy Cars were housed, I immediately whipped out my camera and feverishly began snapping shots of the priceless array of automobiles. It’s still early, so I am able to capture clear snaps of all the vehicles, uninhibited by gawkers and walkers alike. After twenty minutes of shooting I bump into an old friend of mine, who just so happens to own a vintage Indy Car. He cajoles me into strolling over to his end of the tent in order to “see something badass,” an invitation that immediately proves fruitful.
Walking over to his sparkling blue and white car’s vintage candy shell, I suddenly recall why I have always liked this guy so damn much. Like me, he’s a natural talker and a bonafide auto enthusiast to the core. He is a constantly overflowing treasure trove of information so like always, I just hang back and soak it all in.
He tells me that everything one might expect to see during an event entitled “Carb Day” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is there and you can experience it all up close and personal. Mario Andretti’s first Indy Car? It’s right there as are bizarre gold reproductions of historic test mules. But being in close proximity to millions of dollars of vintage race cars wasn’t the only thing that people were taking full advantage of, and next time I must make sure that I pack accordingly.
As I noted earlier, it seemed like everyone had a cooler on their arm. Despite it being merely a hair past 10 a.m., people were already cracking open beers, a telltale sign that this was indeed a day for celebration. Over ice cold cans of mainstream American suds strangers and friends swapped stories and talked cars, all while standing a few feet away from some of the most iconic race cars in IndyCar history. Naturally, there were also ample amounts of tomfoolery, tales of yore, kids sitting in cars, and grandpa’s racing one another on scooters, a madcap homage to all things Indy.
After shooting the breeze for about an hour, and getting some pictures of various people sitting in vintage cars, some of which had a history of killing their drivers, I strolled back to the media center for a little lunch and some grid time. The final practice laps had just gotten underway and already bedlam had broken out on the front straight thanks to a thundering collision during the first lap between Colton Herta and Ryan Norman.
Staring out over the sea of faces in the grandstands, joviality and hi-jinx suddenly seem to fade as the action on the jumbotron reminded us in super slow-motion that engaging an ignition always puts the Grim Reaper’s office on speed dial. The snake pit at Indy may be a party, but the action on the track is deadly serious.
Upon hearing both drivers were rattled but not ruined, the crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief and I started making way back down to paddock level from the crow’s nest of the media center. It had been an exhausting and exhilarating morning, filled with people watching, performance automotive jargon, and photography, but my commute back to Cincinnati would take several hours and to pick up my daughter from daycare. Next time I will bring my fledgling petrolhead and wife along with a cooler packed with craft cans of beer and schedule a Lyft for easier pickup and departure.
As I strolled back down into the bowels of the track through Tunnel 6 which runs directly beneath the starting grid, the thundering roar of the race cars overhead sent vibrations ricocheting between its walls, and for one brief moment every hair on my body stood on end. It’s a moment that will live with me to my dying day. A fitting farewell from the fine folks at Indianapolis that day, forever tempting me to return for another fun-filled experience.
Forget Gasoline Alley, carting around in a redneck rickshaw, grilling out, gorgeous grid girls, delirium tremens-inducing levels of alcohol consumption, or the damn weather. This is what coming to Indy is all about. The feeling you get when a team of lightning quick race cars rocket past you in a melee of speed and sound is inexplicably exciting, a feeling that only true automotive enthusiasts will ever fully understand and appreciate.
After my wide-eyed meandering around Indianapolis’ most hallowed grounds, I get the feeling that Carb Day has morphed into a Disneyland for car buffs, experience-seekers, and kids alike. It’s a day where life-long enthusiasts can talk candidly to youngsters about what makes a vintage Indy Car so kick-ass, and hopefully foster a little interest within the next generation of automotive enthusiasts in the process.
Sloshing back through the mud-encrusted parking lot outside of the media entrance I think back to old Hunter S. Thompson once more. Despite all of his drug and drink-induced antics and his unfortunate ending, the guy had a surprising amount of life’s mysteries figured out. While retaining some level of self control is always crucial to prolonged success, going all-out remains one of the primary reasons we love racing in the first place, and gives cause for us to end today’s observances with a quotation…
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow!” – Hunter S. Thompson