I live near Charlotte, North Carolina in the heart of NASCAR country. May raceweeks is a busy time of year with a flourish of racing, tourism, and fan related activities. The brand new Hall of Fame has been christened and the inaugural inductees have been honored. And as the racing peaks with Memorial Day weekend, I am heading to the Indianapolis 500 for the third time in the last four years.
My very first visit to ‘The Brickyard’ was in 2004. I was working at Michael Waltrip Racing and the Cup program was just getting off the ground. The team had all of two chassis and a very limited schedule planned. Kenny Wallace was hired as our driver while Waltrip was still a full-time competitor for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Fortunately that year‘s Brickyard 400 was on our schedule. It was a great opportunity to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and witness the famous racecourse. And my first time would not be as a fan but as a competitor.
The typical hot Midwestern summer air greeted us as we worked our way through a pair of humid Friday practice sessions and Saturday qualifying. This was the final season before the top-35 guaranteed starter rule was put into effect, so our team was simply looking for speed to qualify for the race.
Between our early morning unloading of equipment, getting our car through technical inspection, and grinding our way through the sweaty track runs, there was no time to see the facility. My entire experience through the first two days was the drive under turns one and two via the tunnel and our garage stall.
Race morning dawned and pre-race prep continued our pace in the sticky air. But clearing tech also cleared the way for a fresh view of a whole new world. We pushed the Wallace driven car through a car access cutout towards pit road and the starting grid.
That moment in time is still frozen with me.
We emerging from the garage area to the other side of the pit road grandstands. And viewing the frontstretch that I had only seen on television was jaw dropping. Looking around at the cavernous strip of asphalt with walls of thousands of people on either side put newbies like me in awe. Seeing the speedway that I had only seen on television for thirty years left me speechless.
We pushed our car to the grid and looking back I am glad I was not steering. I must have looked like a young farm boy from Kansas who just stepped off the bus in lower Manhattan for the first time. With my mouth opened slightly but my eyes fully open my head looked straight up, down, back, forth, and all around. I just absorbed the sights and sounds of race morning at Indianapolis.
With time to spare before the green I strolled through the packed and busy starting lineup to the yard of bricks at the start/finish line, the skyscraping scoring pylon, and the Pagoda. I did not know if I would ever get another chance to see these icons up close. And realized I had an opportunity that many others wish they had.
I assisted Wallace getting into the car. And experienced the National Anthem and Military jet flyover framed against a bright blue sky while standing on the Indy surface. With the thousands of races I have seen in my life, these particular moments were recorded and stored in my memory. I took note of the privilege this time was.
The MWR owned car did not handle well that day and we eventually dropped out with engine troubles. But a lasting memory was created for me.
Fast forward to 2010 and I prepare to cover my first Indianapolis 500 from a media perspective. I have witnessed this race as a fan before. Now I look towards returning to that very same garage area. And watch men fill the role that I knew years before. This year my impressions will be written and shared not just filed away for my future thoughts.
Gone will be Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, and the 2004 Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon. In their place will be Helio Castroneves, Will Power, and Dario Franchitti, all ready for their own stories to be written.
I have been in the trenches at Indy as a NASCAR competitor. Now comes a chance to experience Indycar’s historic event from a different perspective.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic)
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