This week the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its gates for the biggest event of the year – but not for the public and not for the first time in this pandemic. Other races have taken place under first-year Roger Penske ownership. Here’s a man who has always had good timing, but definitely bought this track at the wrong time. The Hullman family, owners of the fabled track since 1945, was the big winner on this deal, getting out of the business at the right time. The Hullmans somehow avoided the shut downs due to war and now this frickin’ virus. Roger that!
I spent a good portion of my time in Indianapolis at the track. I ran, walked, drove, and rode on its banked surface over a 25-year span starting in 1980. I went to the Speedway for the first time as a radio account executive, securing some tickets through the radio station. I learned how big it was when my angry son ran away in the crowd when he was about six-years old. I’ve spent days and nights there eventually graduating from the infield to the luxury suites. I’ve arrived at the track by police escort and helicopter after years of fighting the race day traffic and trying to find a parking spot.
The track was once my home every day in May, starting on the 1st. I’d spend my time hosting motor-home, tent, and suite gatherings for friends, guests, and clients. I’d sell commercial time in the radio and TV broadcasts, plus arrange car/driver appearances, promotions, sponsorship, and endorsements for the event. I’ve even helped disassemble a car to fit in a hotel elevator for display in a ballroom. The pits, garages, museum, and infield grass were my domain, as I gained knowledge about the history and performance aspects of the sport. One year I became a weekend warrior, moving with the circuit from city to city throughout the season. I even got to be a member of the pit crew when they were short on help.
Securing hundreds of tickets each year for family, clients, and friends became an annual responsibility. I’d spend evenings outside the track negotiating with scalpers and making ticket deliveries. It was a consuming ordeal every year but my biggest sales months in the media business were always May. Typically, I’d wear a sport coat & tie to the Speedway, and check in at the office before and after. There were no cell phones or emails at that time. It was up early and home late every day.
My closest connection to racing was the Daly family. 35-years gone by, their son had the second fastest time at the track yesterday, as the tradition continues. In the late 80s, I was also part of the Machinist’s Union Racing team that evolved into Panther Racing. I’ll see two of the friends that I made as part of this group in California next week. A former member of Panther now runs the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Roger Penske. Drivers like Roberto Guerrero, Pancho Carter, and Kevin Cogan were regular acquaintances and my racing heroes.
Today is the first day of qualifying at Indy. I’ll be able to watch on NBC. Due to the COVID-19, it’s three months later than normal – the first time in my lifetime that it has taken place outside of May. I’ll be watching the race after the race for the Pole on August 23rd from a San Francisco hotel room. The “Fast Nine” will be determined today as the next generation of racers compete for the honor of sitting on the Pole, without any fan support. It will be odd to see the empty stands after years of sold-out action. Qualifying is the first of the two annual races as part of the Indy 500. It’s an exciting day that will bring back lots of memories, even though I’m thousands of miles away.