Our trip to the 108th running of the Indy 500

Mar 3, 2011
The Willow Creek District AVA

Sue and I attended the 108th running of the Indy 500, crossing off an item from our bucket list. Although we embarked on this journey with the belief it would be a one-time deal, we’re not so sure now. We found the 500 to be such an epic event we are giving serious consideration to going back next year. Mere words cannot describe this race. In fact, the word “race” is a woefully inadequate description of the 500. It’s much more than a “race”, it’s a “happening”, akin to something like the original Woodstock.

I’ve been fortunate to have been in 41 states, several of those on my bicycle during my coast-to-coast travels in the ‘90s. Sue is a bit less traveled than I am. We decided to travel from our home in California’s Central Coast Wine Country to Denver, then drive from Denver to Indianapolis so we could travel through The Heartland, of which neither one of us has seen.

Our travel plans were ambitious but over the course of our 47-year marriage Sue and I have made dozens of road trips. We get along well sitting behind a windshield with each other – no doubt a consequence of sitting behind a windshield for hours at a drive-in movie theater during our dating days. Ha! That’s a joke! We didn’t go to drive-ins when we were dating, we went to hotels. That’s a joke too! In all seriousness, our second date was a trip to Laguna Seca in 1974.

I used the word “ambitious” about our travels. Here’s why:

Day 1 saw us up at 02:30 and off to the airport at 03:30 to catch our 05:10 flight to Denver. We arrived at Denver around 08:45, got our rental truck for the drive to Topeka, KS via I-70 where we’d spend the night. In summary, four hours of airports and air travel, followed by a 545 mile drive. Not bad for a couple aged 71 and 69!

There was pretty much a whole lot of nothing once leaving Denver. The speed limit was 75 so we moved along at a fast pace, cruising with the flow of traffic at 85 to 90 most of the way. We came to a dead stop at one point because of a big rig fire. Burned it to the ground. We were stuck long enough to get out of our vehicles and chat with total strangers, a few taking a quick pee in the center divider. All I can say is that it’s great to be a man!

Day 1 had an unexpected twist. I had a skin biopsy taking from my back and right leg a couple of weeks before the trip. While in eastern Colorado or western Kansas we got a phone call from my doctor. The one on my back was a melanoma and she said it was urgent that they do further surgery ASAP. No way were we going to cancel our trip so I go in on June 3rd, the earliest date possible. I’m still awaiting the results from the biopsy from my leg. I hope that one is negative. I’m not too worried but it was a bit of a downer. Also too, I’d been fighting a case a planter fasciitis for a couple of weeks prior to Indy, something I’ve never had before. It hurts like heck so I had to limit my walking as much as possible when we got to Indy. Between the melanoma and my foot it was bad timing.

Day 2 saw us back on I-70, leaving Topeka and heading to Indianapolis, or more specifically Carmel, the location of The Renaissance, our destination hotel. A 570-mile day behind the wheel. The hotel was just 13 miles from the track. We’d stay there for five days.

The drive from Topeka to Carmel went pretty fast, once again cruising with the flow of traffic on long segments at 85 to 90+ mph. We rented a 13K mile old 2024 Dodge Ram 1500 from Enterprise. Amazingly we were getting 18 to 19 mpg, even at these speeds. And thank God we got a truck! It had lots of room and was quiet, the perfect vehicle for covering long distances.

A general comment about our trip east. There is new construction going on everywhere. Lots of it and EVERYWHERE! Where are all these people coming from? Yes, some high cost states are seeing people move to lower cost areas, but the magnitude of the new construction is far greater than one would expect. I must be missing something because the amount of new construction doesn’t make sense, migration or not.

Day 3 saw us get up early and head to the track for Carb Day. I strongly suggest attending Carb Day. We parked in Lot #2, right near the main entrance and even though 100,000 people were there it seemed like we had the place to ourselves. Easy in, no wait times for food or restrooms, and easy out. Perfect! There was a parade of winning cars from previous decades, driven by well known retired drivers, including Mario. That was incredible! The car that really caught my eye was Johnny Rutherford’s race winning McLaren from 1974. What a sexy beast that was!

Day 4 saw Sue and I take the day off. We needed the rest. We got up and meandered around Carmel, which has to be the World Capital of roundabouts. They claim to have 161 roundabouts in Carmel, a local telling us they prefer them to traffic lights. I agree, but there are always those who have ZERO sense on how to use them. I came within 3 feet of broadsiding a woman who shot into the roundabout right in front of me. It was close enough for me to see her dangling earring!

Day 5, race day. In summary it was a long day, a very long day We got up at 04:00, left the hotel at 05:15, got back to the hotel at 00:45, asleep by 01:30. A 21 1/2 hour day!!! The drive back to hotel after the race was plain and simple dangerous. Unknown roads, heavy rain, a near complete absence of visible painted lines or Botts dots - and our 2024 Ram 1500 headlights were so unbelievably bad there should be a recall on them. In a word, stressful, but what a great day!

Race Day: I won’t rehash the race because you all saw it on television. We got to Lot 1C at about 07:30, which was about ¾ of a mile from the track. Our cooler packed was with junk - powdered sugar donuts, peanut butter crackers (protein, yay!), chips, sodas, canned Starbucks Nitro, and water. We had been staying at nice hotels where we ate hotel food for breakfast, while on the road we ate fast food of some sort, and for dinner a nice restaurant somewhere – but it wasn’t our usual routine and diet so our digestive tracts were unhappy. After downing a few donuts and slamming down a Nitro I came close to doing a Morgan Spurlock, puking my guts out in public, but fortunately I was able to avoid the humiliation.

The race was scheduled to start at noon (?, I don’t even remember), but the weather forecast was looking bad. Add my foot pain to the mix, I didn’t want to walk a single extra step. The parking lot was a GIGANTIC party, people milling around everywhere with some really fancy set ups with covered BBQs and grills, coolers filled with beer, music blaring, you name it. People were rocking and the mood was incredible. There was a group of guys parked in front of us that looked kind of menacing, dangerous looking dudes, but what the heck, I like people and walked over to talk with them. They were awesome! One guy told me this was his 26th consecutive 500. So much for appearances.

Then there was the quiet guy standing by himself behind us. Bjorn, he traveled from Denmark just to see this bucket list race. Sue and I talked with him for quite awhile. What a wonderful man and serious race fan! My only regret is not exchanging contact information with him. Bjorn, if by chance you are reading this, please PM me. I want to remain in contact with you.

Finally, it was off to the track for the race. Every third step made me winch out loud, me lagging behind Sue. I hated every step. I’ve been blessed with a lifetime of good health and physical ability but being hobbled like this was not sitting well with me, but there was no alternative but to suck it up and keep walking.

Thankfully, there were plenty of distractions along the way. I had no idea so many checked flag outfits existed on the planet - both men and woman alike. These outfits made Sue’s patriotic fingernails look like nothing. And of course, there were many young women wearing virtually nothing at all. There were times I was so distracted my foot pain went almost unnoticed!

We got to our “Paddock Penthouse” seats around 10:30. We were high up in the covered section with grandstand seating, about 50 yards past the start/finish line. All the pre-race ceremonies were right in front of us. It’s unreal the time and effort people put into these things. Fantastic. There was so much going on our heads were on a swivel.

People sitting around us were friendly and engaging. The woman sitting behind us, who if you bet me whether or not she was a race fan, I would have confidently bet $1,000 she wasn’t – this was her 24th 500! The 89-year old Englishman sitting next to Sue? He’s traveled to the 500 20 consecutive years. 89 years old (!!!) and he does this every year. He told me how much he and his wife enjoyed coming to the 500 in their younger days, but she passed away 15 years ago. He said he keeps coming back because the race reminds him of the good times they had with each other. How endearing is that?! So many life stories and, once again, appearances can be deceiving.

Let me tell you about the four-hour rain delay. Being a Californian I was amazed at how quickly the weather changed. The track announcers kept giving updates, plus Sue and I were checking the forecast on our phones. Rain, really? No way. WAY! In a matter of 3 or 4 minutes it went from grey and warm to cold with sideways, stinging rain. Everyone was told to evacuate the track and seek shelter. I was too hobbled to make it back to the car so we stayed in the stands with several dozen others. The wind and rain were unreal!

A funny story. One of the guys behind us had one of those thin, clear plastic rain capes with a hole in the middle for your head. That plastic cape was blowing in the rain and wind like a 6 foot long strip of toilet paper. He was struggling mightily to get it over his head while all of us looked on in amusement. Finally, someone said, “Come on! You can do it!”. It was absolutely hilarious and got a big laugh from everyone around us. I LOL as I write this. You had to be there. Too funny! LOL!!!

The race itself was EPIC. I won’t rehash it here but let me say the roar of the crowd during the final laps was louder than the cars themselves – absolutely deafening! If you saw Pato O’Ward’s post race interview he said he could hear the crowd from inside his car at 235mph. I’ve heard drivers mention that before but questioned if that was really true. After being there I have no doubt.

With 349,000 people in attendance Sue and I were in no hurry to leave because traffic would be insane. We sat in the stands and talked with those who remained before finally walking back to our car as evening set it. By now my foot was excruciating. I contemplated getting a ride on one of the people hauler carts that were everywhere but personal pride kept me from doing so, me choosing to soldier on and suffer instead. What’s with that way of thinking?!

Sue snagged some food from one of the vendors and brought it back to the truck. Traffic leaving the lot was moving at a pace of about 1 inch per minute, and the line out of our lot stretched for hundreds of yards. No way am I going to sit in that, so we reclined the seats and chilled. After downing our “dinner” I had a few powdered sugar donuts for dessert. While sitting there storm two moved in, this one a hail storm. I was glad I was in a rental. The hail sounded like ball bearings falling on us.

About 23:00 we decided to get in line to leave, only to realize the traffic on the surrounding roads was at a DEAD STOP. As I said earlier we finally got back to our hotel at 00:45. It was a long day but was worth every minute.

Day 6 we chilled at the hotel. We woke up at 12:45 that afternoon! I haven’t slept that late since my teens and I have to tell you it was magnificent! We stayed an extra day just in case the race was delayed a day. That was a wise move for two reasons – the race itself and we needed a day to rest up before driving back to Denver. Having a bit more time on our hands we found really nice places for lunch and dinner – an awesome taco bar for lunch and an outstanding Italian restaurant for dinner.

Day 7 we took a more northern route home via I-80. The first leg of our return was 610 miles, covering four states, Indianapolis, Indiana, Nebraska and Colorado. That drive felt like it would never end! We spent the night in what was supposed to be a "5 star" hotel in downtown Omaha. Not! Had we not been so exhausted we would have found another place to stay. At least our dinner was good at this steakhouse called Spencer’s. They serve nothing but Omaha prime grade beef. Sue’s filet mignon was beautiful and my ribeye outstanding.

Day 8, Omaha to Denver. A 550 mile day behind the wheel, this one feeling easier than the day before. We got to Denver in good time and stayed at a FANTASTIC airport are hotel (IIRC a Hyatt, it was brand new). The facility, our room, and the staff were top notch in every way. We sat at the bar and had dinner, thoroughly entertained by the bartender, Mark. That guy may be a bartender but he has to be a millionaire. His service to EVERYONE was outrageously good. I suspect the tips he gets are amazing. I left him a $25 tip for two gin and tonics and Sue's ginger beer. Sue and I shared a gorgeous pepperoni pizza while watching Mark do his thing. So much fun, especially given that airport hotels are usually grim and lacking in personality. Staying there was an unexpected bonus.

Day 9, up early and to the airport for our 11:25 flight back home. We flew a United CRJ, which I’ve flown many times while I was still working. But that plane seemed 7/8 scale. Sitting next to a stranger would have been undesirable, but I used the opportunity to ham it up with Sue and act like a creepy stranger who didn’t know her. She was amused until she wasn’t.

In summary, we had an amazingly good time. Total miles driven = 2,383. Only 50 or 60 miles of that was driving in Indy. The other 2,300 were in just 4 days. People everywhere were kind and friendly. It will be a lifetime memory and was worth every nickel. That said, our final approach while landing made me realize just how much we love living where we do.

Surely many typos and gaps, but you’ll have to read through them.


1a tickets.jpeg
1b leaving.jpeg
2 Ram 1500.jpeg
3 stopped.jpeg
4 big rig.jpeg
5 driving.jpeg
6 speed.jpeg
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Nice review. I've been there several times. An event unlike any other. Stayed on infield mostly, rowdy crowd. Took me a long time to escape after the race was over. Interstate 65 back to Chicago, LA rush hour kind of bumper to bumper.

Nabbed one of these for the window of my Jag.

Day 7 we took a more northern route home via I-80. The first leg of our return was 610 miles, covering four states, Indianapolis, Indiana, Nebraska and Colorado. That drive felt like it would never end!
Just because time expired to edit it and I'm stickler for detail, make that Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.

Wow. What a great thread. Truly sounded awesome. Nice pictures. Perfect write up.........(I did wonder about the CO state..)

Never ever experienced - only one relatable experience. I've seen Indy (USAC) cars once. Ontario Motor Speedway. 1975 My dad took my brother and I and one friend each. I remember I had my SLR - first camera. The only reason I bring it up - because it rained!! In So Cal. They had every vehicle that would roll on the track getting it dry. We were kinda bored! Then the race started............AJ won.

They tore the joint down in 1980! Chevron stole it by buying up the cheap bonds. Amazing.

Anyway. Very cool Thanks.
Here's a heads up you may already know about. Looks like Santa Maria speedway is back in business starting June 15th. Not sure what is running but I know you aren't averse to checking out your local tracks from time to time.
Thanks for sharing, so well written, I felt like I was there too. Good luck with the health issues! Loved the throwback photo of the wife. Unless that's you in the brown jacket in the back-round, you weren't the only guy diggin' her! LOL Sounds like you have a great life partner!