2016 Indy 500 – 100th Anniversary tour blog
Day 1 – Tuesday May 24th
It was definitely the Mexicans I reckon. Yep the grossly overweight husband and wife who had to be rolled onto the Delta flight from Los Angeles to Detroit in wheelchairs, such was their apparent inability to walk. I remember them being pushed past us mere plebs waiting in line on foot to board the aircraft. It was like Disneyland all over again. If you’ve been there you’d know that Mexicans have this frequent habit of feigning disability, hiring wheelchairs and thus avoiding the long lines to get on the rides.
But there at LA airport little did I think that this couple would bother me again. Until I arrived at my seat 29A and found them in 29B & C. What had I done to deserve this? The earlier flight from Sydney to LA had been a breeze. In fact you could call it a wind. We arrived an hour earlier than scheduled due to 160 kph tailwinds across the Pacific. The pilot said he saved the company $10,000 in fuel, such was the assistance from Mother Nature. But even she couldn’t help me now at row 29.
I politely asked Jose and Maria if they could get up to let me in to the window seat. No response. Zero. I asked again, but still received no acknowledgement. I remember thinking, how do I say “can you please f&!@ing move” in Spanish? But the hostie came to my rescue and spoke in their native tongue to them, which caused extreme energy to be expended just to get out of their seats. Let alone into the aisle to allow me to get in. Walking sticks and canes and what appeared to be a tripod walker had to be extracted from the overhead locker bins to allow them to even stand up.
I’m tipping it took six minutes to complete the whole exercise. Meanwhile the patrons of rows 30-48, who were standing all the way down the aisle towards First class, weren’t real happy at all. Oh well, at least I was in my seat and although it was a 4½ hour flight there would be no toilet break for me before Detroit. All that could be tolerated I guess but when he turned to me and coughed in my face without a hand or hanky covering the spittle that flew out of his mouth, I figured we had a problem. For the rest of the flight both of them coughed and spluttered over Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam, the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City and Chicago.
I had been wondering just how to start this 2016 Indy tour blog, but as I sit here in my room in Indianapolis at Midday on Day 3 with a head cold, blocked nose and chest infection, I guess I have reason to mention the husband and wife from Mexico, or was it hell?
But back to reality….
Like race team owners, drivers and crew who tow long distances to satisfy their urge to conquer a dirt track, there are race fans who do the same to experience something that only America can provide. Our tour members come from Rockhampton and Kingaroy in Queensland, Windsor, Newcastle and Barden Ridge in NSW, Nairne in Adelaide and Morley in Perth.
The USA is the mecca of speedway racing and they do it so much better and so much more than we do. For example we have 20 races in 21 days to see on this tour. Phenomenal to think that within a radius of a 120 kms of Indianapolis, we can go to a race track every night for 13 successive nights. Indiana around Indy 500 time is alive and well, believe me.
On arrival in Indianapolis, we picked up our 12 seater coach and headed for the terrific Courtyard Marriott right in the heart of downtown Indy. It’s our home for the next 13 nights. Dinner across the road at the Bourbon Street Distillery was first on the agenda; after all it was 22 hours ago that we flew out of Australia and something other than airline food (which is only marginally better than racetrack food) was required.
Day 2 – Wednesday May 25th
Communication is the name of the game and the T-Mobile store on Washington Street was the recipient of our money as always. Bree looked after us well and we all now have US SIM cards to permit calling anywhere in the world. Particularly back home to loved ones to say “having a great time …. wish you were here”.
From there it was a drive along perhaps the most famous street in Indianapolis. 16th Street is revered in auto racing particularly when it meets Georgetown Road because there on 1,025 acres sits the Big Track as it is affectionately known. Built in 1911, it is actually 105 years old having turned 100 in 2011 when we took our first tour away. But because of WW2, the track remained dark for five years and the actual 100th anniversary race is on Sunday May 29th and we’ll be at it, along with 440,000 other race fans. For the first time in history, the 2016 Indy 500 is a sell out.
After stopping to pick up pre reserved tickets for Friday’s Carb Day, Saturday’s Parade and Sunday’s 500, we continued on to Terre Haute some 75 miles southwest of Indy. It was to be our first race and it would be at the storied Terre Haute Action Track in the Vigo County Fairgrounds. USAC were running the Tony Hulman Classic for non-winged 410 sprintcars, a time honoured event which history will show is often rained out.
Before the race however we stopped in at Don Smith’s Museum of Wheels to savour the historic side of our sport. Although nowhere near his total collection which fills four barns out in rural Indiana, it was sufficient to whet the appetite. Thanks go to Henry Smith and Geoff Martin for their hospitality in specially opening up the Museum for our group.
Most Australian sprintcar fans have never experienced non-winged racing with a 410 cubic inch motor. Their view of wingless sprintcars has been formed by watching the recently introduced category in Australia which use six cylinder Holden motors. Chalk and cheese might be one way to describe the difference between them and what they would see tonight and on another 10 occasions this tour. I had been tipping that they like everyone else who sees 410s running without a wing, will become converts. Will Liston already has, that’s for sure. His photos from Terre Haute are oustanding.
Tonight’s feature race was a barnburner to say the least. What a race to kick off the tour! Robert Ballou and Thomas Meseraull had an old fashioned shootout for 30 laps when they sliced and diced for first spot. I think I’m too old to have a hero these days, but if I did, Robert Ballou may well be it. The current USAC National Champion in sprintcars, Ballou clawed his way to the top without any money, relying on T-Shirt sales to fund his race program. Now he’s on top of his profession and is fearless to boot. As are all sprintcar drivers. That was very evident tonight when they took to a track that has claimed its fair share of lives, over the last seven decades.
Day 3 – Thursday May 26th
Today should have been Dave Argabright day, but our Global Speedway Tours’ good friend was called away to Wheatland in Missouri to commentate a Late Model race for Lucas Oil TV. Lunch with Dave was unfortunately postponed to another time so his wonderful stories, so eloquently told, will need to wait for another day. We’ll catch up in Lawrenceburg on Monday night at the Outlaws race.
‘Twas a touch rainy today, which was unfortunate as it was basically a free day through until 4.00pm. I was determined to do something I have continuously told people about for five years, but had never done myself. And that was to walk the length of the canals of Indianapolis from end to end. Situated adjacent to our Hotel, construction was originally started in 1836 and was meant to run for 296 miles to the Ohio River, however the money supply quickly ran out when the city faced bankruptcy just three years into the project.
The nine miles that had been completed remained useful but were essentially a white elephant, until the 1980’s when a project was begun to restore them. The Canal Walk opened in 2001 and has become one of Indy’s most popular attractions by linking the city’s cultural institutions, a vast array of historical attractions and the Broad Ripple residential village, built especially to take advantage of the beauty of the area. You see, our tours aren’t all about racing ….. culture plays a part as well!!
It was very pleasant dodging the rain showers every now and again and strolling along the waterway watching the wildlife on the canal. Ducks are plentiful and healthy as the water system is super clean and beautifully maintained. And best of all it allowed me to get my 12kms of steps on the Fit Bit in one hit.
But it is speedway that we’re all about and Indiana provides that in spades around the Indy 500 weekend. Where else could you go to 14 races in 13 days? Tonight was at the Indiana Fairgrounds, the famously historic site of major events in Indianapolis. A Fairground in any city or town of the USA is the hub of family activity in the American way of life. It is the lifeblood to join the rural communities with those from the city. And in particular, race cars. Before Henry Ford did his thing and mass produced an invention with four wheels, the Fairground oval dirt track was for horse carnivals, mainly trotting as we know it.
But when the opportunity came for man to go faster in a car than on a horse, he needed to prove it somewhere against his neighbour. Hence the horses were replaced by motor cars and dirt track racing was born and has thrived ever since. The one mile Indianapolis Fairgrounds track is still its original size, but most have reduced to a half, or even quarter mile. But together with Springfield and DuQuoin in Illinois, plus Sacramento in California, the Indy Fairgrounds is just one of four remaining which host the race cars we now call Silver Crown. Big bold machines which look so good even just standing still in the sunshine, but better still under the bright lights of a race track.
The rain had cleared to a beautiful evening and the time honoured Hoosier Hundred was on tonight. It’s the shortest road trip of all time to the Fairgrounds. In 10 minutes you’re there from anywhere in the city. A display of classic and historic midgets, sprintcars and Champ cars greeted us on arrival. The owners drive hundreds of miles from neighbouring states just for the chance to show off their pride and joy to an admiring fan base. The mammoth grandstand is classic 1930’s construction and would seat 15,000 on its own. Most of our group did sit in the grandstand, but some adventurous ones ventured through the tunnel onto the infield to watch from Turn 1, just three feet from the inside guard rail.
I had waited years to do this again since first encountering the crazy notion in 2002 at the same race. As Darren Bould (a former tour member) wrote in his book about the 2015 Month of Money tour, “Occupational Health & Safety has yet to arrive at some race tracks in America”. The adrenaline rush is enormous as the car flies past at 120mph, just mere feet away. One of our male tour members did venture to the fence to experience it as well, even though he really didn’t need to get that close to a car again just yet. Three hours earlier on the corner of New York and Meridian streets was enough for him.
Anyway, to conclude what was a great night, Kody Swanson took his third consecutive Hoosier Hundred victory to join the great Al Unser Snr and Jimmy Bryan as the only other men to do so.
Day 4 – Friday May 27th
It’s Carb Day at the Big Track. So what does that mean in English?
Indianapolis and the state of Indiana have so many race tracks (51 in fact) that many carry nick names to differentiate themselves. In the heyday of post WW2, auto racing thrived as returning soldiers tried their hand at this burgeoning sport. Perhaps they thought that because they had survived the war, racing against other cars around a dirt track would be child’s play. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, with many drivers perishing at the wheel. But it didn’t stop more coming along to take their place and promoters keen for a dollar constructed race tracks wherever there was available land.
One of those built was the Indianapolis Speedway. It was originally created in 1909 when it was thought you needed huge tracks. At 2.5 miles per lap, it is huge alright. When other speedways were planned and built, they were not as large. Hence to simplify things, the Indianapolis Speedway simply became known as the “Big track”.
Carb Day is not a reference to a careless dietary intake. It came about when cars had carburettors and finicky as they were, needed constant tuning by skilful mechanics. And the Friday before the Indy 500 was the last chance they had to test and tune the carbies on the track. The name has stuck and it’s now very much a commercial opportunity for the owners. Although, to be fair, final practice is held for an hour and the Indy Lights series has a 40 lap race on Carb Day. Otherwise it’s an excuse for a drink for many with music bands galore involved in what really is a fun day.
There’s not that many people that go really. Probably only about 100,000 I’d say! Compare that with Sunday’s sold out crowd expectation of 440,000+ then an AFL Grand Final size crowd really isn’t that big I guess….
The drive to the Big Track takes a mere eight minutes on a regular day in Indianapolis. Today it took 20. Not bad I guess, but wait until Sunday. We went over in two shifts. Some at 7.30am and the rest at 10.00am. There’s so much to see and do that five times the six hours we had is needed. Remember that each straight of the (almost rectangular) track is one mile or 1.6 km long. The infield is 1,021 acres in size and the Fit Bit gets quite a workout traversing this joint. Many grandstands were closed as for a crowd of just 100,000 they are not needed believe it or not, and seating was only in those areas which were open.
It was an enjoyable day and the merchandise stands got quite a workout as eager GST folk sought out the best bargains for the loved ones at home. More suitcases will be needed believe me. Like any race track, beer is plentiful although at $8 it represents quite a margin for the caterers, given that a carton of beer is still $17 to buy in a supermarket. It makes the $1 cooler (read esky) in the bus quite a bargain as always.
The day was done at 3.30pm when we all met up again ready to drive to Bloomington some 55 miles south. Tracks in Indiana are all within an easy drive of Indianapolis and each one of them is in a totally different direction meaning that the sightseeing part of the tour takes us on many different and varying routes. This afternoon it was south down US 37 through beautiful rural Indiana to the town that is on the speedway map because of the Kinser clan who are “from around these parts”.
Racing there tonight was for the Josh Burton Memorial to remember a young man who was killed at the track in May 2013. After the hurly burly of the Big Track today, returning to a grass roots racing venue was refreshing. Whilst Putnamville remains my favourite picturesque Indiana track, Bloomington is right up there with the best setting you could find. An amphitheatre with terraces on the main straight, but large grassy hills to put down the fold up chair and picnic tables. Tailgating and watching the racing simultaneously is possible as cars can be backed up on the top of the hill and away you go, as long as you have a driver for the trip home!! If there’s a drawback, the track lighting is not the best …..
Non winged 410 sprintcars, the inevitable modifieds, Race Saver winged sprints and to Steve Evans’ absolute delight, a form of Late Models known as Super Stocks. A widely varying program indeed, but it was the 410’s we came to see and Brady Short took out the Memorial race and a handsome payoff, supplemented by many businesses who wanted to commemorate Josh’s life.
Day 5 – Saturday May 28th
Like parades? Americans do. They are a way of life for many.
Every Saturday before the 500, downtown Indianapolis comes alive as the locals and visitors alike flock into the city to enjoy the spectacle of the Indy 500 parade. Temporary seating is erected along the two mile route and when that’s booked out one must get there early for a good spot. We had reserved seating in Pennsylvania Avenue, back row with one downfall. On the internet when booking the seats it doesn’t show the lampposts in front of the stand!! Too bad. Only a minor distraction and only for the serious photography buffs like Will who relocated himself to a better seat anyway. The rest of us put up with an extraordinarily large husband and wife who resembled the Mexicans I sat next to on the Detroit flight. However these two were bigger again, but fortunately were free from coughing. They actually had to sit sideways on the bench seats to fit.
I reckon there could not have been one High School marching band left in the state. As great as they are, there comes a moment when you’ve seen enough, although the baton twirlers are easy on the eye I must admit. The Purdue “All American” University Band was the best of course. Indiana’s finest on their Harley Davidson Police bikes were outstanding as they demonstrated their skills up and down the wide streets mainly for the intended purpose of keeping people off the parade route.
Massive 30 metre high helium inflated balloons in the shapes of Indy cars, cartoon characters and flags were manipulated down the road held down by teams of people struggling with the brisk breeze. No one took off to our knowledge. Amongst the 105 floats were the 33 drivers starting in tomorrow’s race. Seated on 2016 Chev Camaro convertibles they came through in their starting rows proudly waving to the fans, apparently oblivious to their thoughts about the big one tomorrow. Even that well known “Australian I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here” star Florence Henderson arrived as the Grand Marshall of the race. By the way, if you’re not a driver, you need to be born in Indiana to get a start in the parade.
Post parade was lunch at Scotty’s Brewhouse and then it was off to Anderson for the Little 500. It would become a real highlight of the tour so far. I knew it was always going to be, but the initial thought of watching 33 non winged sprintcars race for 500 laps on a quarter mile paved track conjures up all kinds of thoughts. Not the least of which is “boring”. But let me assure you it’s not. The tactics, the noise, the colour, the smell, the fans and the spectacle make for a superb evening.
Of course it all starts in the carpark with the $ esky getting a workout and sharing with those who are lucky enough to have us pull up next to them. Or in Steve’s case, unlucky enough. (Only kidding Steve.) This afternoon it was the Olson family from California. Dad, two brothers Mitch & Brian along with their wives and partners. Both Mitch and Brian are racers, with Mitch having started in the Little 500 in previous years. Indeed he raced in the 2011 Little 500 the last time we had a tour group for the race. It really was a fabulous two hours with them and now all are friends on Facebook for life.
Rain was threatening but it stayed away for the night and the capacity crowd saw the Hoosier Hundred winner from two nights ago take his second big race in as many days. Kody Swanson started 14th in the 33 car field and he and his crew outwitted the rest of them in the tactical strategy game, much like chess. You simply need to outwit your opponents.
Day 6 – Sunday May 29th
The big day had arrived. So far it’s been a constant blur of different places, roads, race tracks and people, but this morning it should all come together at the largest one day sporting event in the world. The amount of spectators today would make the Indianapolis Speedway precinct the 57th largest city in America …. if in fact it was a city. It’s only eight minutes from our Hotel, so it shouldn’t take too long to get there, but just to be safe we would leave at 7.00am.
No 16th Street today. It was open, but would be clogged to the hilt. So the pre-arranged plan was to take the four laned 30th Street and come into the track from the north. A longer journey in distance, but I was hoping it would be shorter in time. All was good for two miles. Traffic was light and I’m sure the punters in the back of the Ford were wondering what the hell I was on about with leaving at 7.00am. I had contemplated leaving at 5.30am, but thought “no, that’s probably a touch too early”.
Then bang. We crested a slight hill on 30th Street and as the road ahead came back into view the worst possible scenario began to play out. Traffic was at a complete standstill and remained that way for 30 mins. We did not move one inch. We were still 5.8 miles (9.3 km) away from the track. In my mind I felt things would be OK. It must just be an accident up ahead. However the nagging doubt remained from our 2011 Indy 500 experience when it had taken three hours to get there. But there were separate mitigating circumstances five years ago.
Like the early morning murder in the RV carpark across from the track and then a woman had been killed instantly by a car on Georgetown Road about 15 mins after the murder. The police certainly had their share of problems that morning. But this was 2016. Surely it couldn’t have happened again? These thoughts and more were running through my mind and the worst of all was that I knew we still had 5.8 miles to go. That’s a long way when you don’t move for 30 minutes.
I kept everything to myself for the time being. We watched on as people of all kinds walked past us and disappeared into the distance. Carrying bags of all descriptions, dragging coolers on wheels and happy as could be as they strolled along in brilliant morning sunshine, excited to be going to the Indy 500. Behind us on the road was a low slung sports car which surely had the loudest and strongest sub-woofer of all time built into it. There was no need for us to have the radio on as every few seconds the whole Ford would vibrate with doof doof music as the bass was turned up max just to annoy the crap out of everyone around them.
Still we hadn’t moved. In the distance we heard sirens. Some thought that maybe there had been an accident (a wreck as the Yanks call it) and the emergency responders were only just getting there. But no, I knew it was another Police Escort for VIP’s. And then as I mournfully gazed in the side mirrors there coming up from our left were the Harley Davidsons, sirens blaring, coming closer on the wrong side of the road.
The bikes at the front ensure that any oncoming traffic is shepherded to the side so the convoy can get through. Following the lead dogs are those vehicles whose owners have paid for a police escort. At the back are another bunch of Harleys with coppers who ensure that no smart aleck citizen swings his car into the procession.
Traffic lights and intersections are totally controlled by the cops. Pity help it if you try to beat the system. On Carb Day last Friday I had a young bloke right in front of me in a small Honda who wanted to be on the other side of 16th Street to enter the tunnel into the Big Track. All the way down 16th there are temporary wooden barriers set up to stop exactly what this young fella wanted to do. And that was a U turn and break into the line of cars that had done the right thing and came from the correct direction in the first place. This young bloke spied a tiny opening in the barriers, looked around him and decided to go for it.
The U turn was completed in four seconds. In 10 more seconds there were five cops on foot running towards him. I guess they could have booked him, but they did something far worse than that. They made him re-do the U turn back to where he came from and then summonsed two Harleys. The cops on bikes then gave him his own escort for two miles down 16th Street and put him on the end of where the line started to get into the tunnel. It was beautiful to watch …
And then we moved. Albeit maybe 100 metres. It was getting on to 1½ hours that we had been stuck. Now it was getting serious. Around 9.30am, in my role of Tour host I decided it was my responsibility that a warning should be given that maybe, just maybe this will keep up until 12.20pm when the 500 would commence and you just might miss the start (or all) of the race if you stay with this rapidly sinking ship. It was only a walk of eight kilometres after all. Some mumblings emerged from the back and then I heard the side door being opened and seven of the passengers piled out and raided the esky in the back for bottled water. You would have thought they were walking the Sahara desert!
With tickets safely in lanyards around their necks and carrying bags with every conceivable necessity in them for sitting in the sun for the next seven hours, this intrepid group set off up 30th Street with no idea of where they were going. A courageous act indeed. But getting lost was an impossibility …. just go where the rest of the crowd was going.
So we were just five left. As we inched ahead some progress was made every few minutes. At one stage a third lane appeared to open up. Ever alert to such possibilities I thrust the big vehicle into drive and it lurched forward eager to be in this lane. And boy did it move quickly up the hill for about half a km. I smiled. The others smiled and we kept a look out for those on foot just in case they wanted to get back into the Ford. A self-satisfied smug was on my dial. As we breasted the hill, there to my eternal horror was a policeman enforcing those vehicles (like us) in the turn left lane to do exactly that. Turn left and remove ourselves from the line of traffic we had been sitting in for nearly three hours.
No alternative. No point in arguing. We simply turned left (remembering we’re on the other side of the road, so it’s just the same as turning right in Oz). So we turned around in a gas station and joined the line of other idiot drivers who had done the same thing and waited until the same cop permitted us to get back on track for the speedway.
By now three of the remaining passengers figured they better get out and walk too, so off they strode like soldiers to war intent on winning the battle. Now it was just Steve and I left. Steve chose not to walk. He was having too much fun talking to people through the window. If you know Steve, you would also begin to feel sorry for me, being the only other person in the vehicle with him!!
Still the delays were inordinate. At one point Steve offered to jump out and get me a coffee from an adjacent gas station. He asked what type I wanted. “Just regular coffee would be fine thanks mate.” Upon his return he had two. One for me and one for him. “Yours is on the left”, he said. I said, “What’s the difference?” “Oh mine is butter coffee” he replied. Now I’m a veteran of the varying styles of coffee here in the US, but I’ve never heard of butter coffee. “What is it Steve?” “Oh it’s a special concoction I like. Make it up myself. I grab eight or so butter sachets from the condiments section and dissolve them in the coffee.”
The race authorities and the city itself encourage local residents to open up their yards and allow parking to ease the extraordinary burden of race day. Around 10 km from the track it starts at $10 and then progressively increases to $50 for those houses within actual sight of the track. Steve and I didn’t need a car park. We had the $125 bus park pass into Lot 9A, but this was only good if we could actually get to Lot 9A off Georgetown Road. The track had long ago sold out of car parking spots on their properties and now cars were clogging the roads looking for private housing spots. This was the major delay and impediment to us, but eventually after 4½ hours we swung into 9A only to find that like the airlines in this country, they had oversold the available spots and there was no room left.
It actually wasn’t as bad as that because the nice young dude on the entry gate (who was equally as exasperated as us at this point) explained first up “we have to find you a spot man.” Which they did reasonably quickly. You see we were actually in the coach parking section. You know, the big 60 seat interstate buses. Our little minibus could fit anywhere. And that’s what we got. A great spot on lawn underneath a massive tree for shade. Steve and I jumped out and we both had several Jim Beam heart starters at precisely 11.45am to finish off quite a remarkable morning.
And so endeth the tale of getting to the Indy 500.
But wait, we still have a 500 mile race to watch and more than that we still have to get out and on our way to Kokomo for tonight’s race at that spectacular track 55 miles north.
Steve and I locked up the bus and walked the 300 metres or so to the entrance of our grandstand. Which by the way is one of maybe 200 around the track. Because we were so late, the experience of walking up the steps was surreal. The people were absolutely packed in like sardines. Hundreds of thousands of them as far as the eye could see. Well not quite. You can’t actually see the other end because it’s so far away, but there were that many again down there. And then you notice the number of people on the infield and in the snake pit. I wondered if anyone really knew how many were in the joint.
The anthems were sung, “Back home in Indiana” (without Jim Nabors) was belted out, the flyover of Air Force jets deafened everybody and then the most famous instructional words in motorsports of “Gentlemen start your engines” were uttered. Suddenly, far way in the distance, the sound of motors wafted towards us.
In a few moments 33 drivers would put their lives on the line for $13 million. The winner would receive $2.5 million alone. I won’t bore you with the race description because sometimes that’s what it becomes. Boring. However, like the Little 500 the night before on the short track at Anderson, it is a battle of tactics. Judging fuel stops and tyre wear all plays it part and in the end the Andretti team, managing rookie driver Alexander Rossi in his first Indy 500 start, elected to keep him out there for an additional four laps more than the usual fuel window of 32 for a Honda engine. And the gamble paid off, although it nearly didn’t as he ran out of gas just seconds after taking the chequered flag.
A huge moment for the local kid from Indianapolis and one no doubt that he will never forget. And nor will we, given the time and drama of getting there. Any enjoyment I had at the race was diminished by continually thinking about how we would get out. We would eventually of course, but would it be in time to get to Kokomo?
The tour members all did the right thing and watched the end of the race from ground level at the fence and then hightailed it to the parking spot. We piled into the Ford and headed for the exit. And then the most incredible thing happened. There were three buses in front of us to get out onto Georgetown Road. I glanced left and could see an avalanche of people headed up from the track. The footpaths are incapable of accommodating this crowd and to that extent, so is the whole road. The sea of humanity coming towards us was indescribable. We had just one window of opportunity. The police on this exit had to let us out within the next 60 seconds, otherwise we were stuffed.
And then it happened. He decided that four more vehicles could leave and we were the last. For once we had some luck and in literally no more than eight minutes we had traversed the suburban roads around the track and were out on I-465 the ring road cruising at 65mph headed north to US31, the road to Kokomo. Just unbelievable. In fact we had so much time we called in at the Hotel first and then once we had arrived in Kokomo we decided that KFC was the meal of the choice. And found to our great pleasure the only KFC restaurant in the area that serves a buffet for $7.99 every Sunday night. Can you imagine that? All you can eat KFC?
And the racing at Kokomo? Well Bryan Clauson, who had just driven at the Indy 500 made the journey back to his “home track” and won the sprintcar feature in front of his adoring fans. Only in America can you race in front of 440,000 people and then drive your dirt sprintcar at little old Kokomo. Dreams are made of this stuff …..
Day 7 – Monday May 30th
Time for a mini holiday within the holiday. No official duties until 3.00pm, so because it was Memorial Day across the US, services were being held at the Soldiers’ Memorial on Meridian Street. Time was made available to pay our respects, or to sleep. I think a bit of each was achieved.
The drive to Lawrenceburg was filled with anticipation. Firstly it was a new venue for everybody and secondly the World of Outlaws were racing and they have wings! As much as I try to convert Australians to non-winged racing it is understandable that after growing up with winged racing in Australia, that is their preference. And what a night we saw.
The banking at Lawrenceburg has to be seen with the naked eye. No photo or video can do it justice. It’s a great track and one that I had never seen winged cars at before tonight. 10 years ago this facility was a typical Fairgrounds ¼ miler. When the Casino opened up across the road, the charter of the city is that the owners must put a percentage of profits into a local community venture. Would you believe they chose the speedway and within a few months workmen had transformed the place into what it is today.
The World of Outlaws put on a hell of a show helped along by the inclusion of Kasey Khane, Rico Abreu and Kyle Larson, the latter two who were in Indiana to race at Midget Week starting tomorrow. The crowd went nuts in Heat 3 when Larson and Abreu put on a clinic. And the dash had more stars in it than the Milky Way. The feature was probably one of the best winged races I’ve seen for years. Shane Stewart won it, but not before holding off Abreu for 15 laps and then right at the death David Gravel who charged into contention with two laps to go.
Brilliant stuff indeed.
Day 8 – Tuesday May 31st
Tuesday morning was long awaited by most as it meant a small break from the hectic routine we have settled into. Apart from the Indy Fairgrounds last Thursday, we haven’t yet arrived back at the Hotel on the same day as we left. It has been and always will be (until the end of the tour), after midnight every time. Usually after 1.00am in fact.
An early lunch was taken as we had a 1.30pm appointment at Target Ganassi for a private guided tour of their race shop. The staff are very accommodating to us there and always go out of their way to show us everything they want us to see. I say that because I’m sure we don’t see the development area which would be off limits to everybody. Indeed cameras are totally forbidden, except for the foyer and the huge garage at the back where the transporters live when not out on the road.
We were in luck today as the race cars were still in the shop after the Indy 500 of 48 hours ago. All five of them were in various stages of undress you might say. They are completely taken apart and components inspected for wear or damage and replaced if required by new ones before they are reassembled and whisked up to Detroit in the haulers for next weekend’s Indy car race.
There were upwards of 60 technicians (we used to call them mechanics) toiling away in the main bays where the cars were. As we walked slowly around with Nick Ford our Ganassi guide, the background music suddenly changed to Men at Work’s classic of “Land Downunder.” Someone knew we were expected. It was pretty cool as the guys working must have known about it as they smiled and joked with us.
As always, it was a great tour and my thanks go to the Ganassi staff for their continued courtesy.
Indiana Midget week has been a time honoured part of USAC’s race schedule for a couple of decades now. It’s when the best of the best midget speedcar drivers get together to test themselves against each other. For the first time ever Montpelier Speedway in the north of the state was given a round. I hadn’t been there before and nor had many other fans as it turned out after talking to them. Just what was expected was in the lap of the gods I think.
We headed up I-69 past Anderson where we were on Saturday night and past Gas City where we’ll be tomorrow night for round 2. When the exit for Indiana State Route 18 appeared we turned on to it and drove due east. As I related in a Facebook post that same night, it was quite an experience. The first thing we saw was a Campground called “Green Acres”. It sort of kinda set the scene as further on the small town of Roll came into view. It really did look as though the TV show of Green Acres could have been filmed there. Time had forgotten the town of Roll that’s for sure. The locals sat on their porches swinging in cabanas watching us go past, wondering I guess just what all the excitement on State Route 18 was today.
Montpelier itself was a nice enough place with the speedway virtually smack bang in the middle of town. No one seemed to care that 51 midgets, 25 sprintcars and 32 modifieds would race tonight without mufflers until after midnight. Besides, this USAC mob were bringing them city folk and their money to spend in the town.
After parking the bus, I made the usual walk to the ticket office to buy the wrist bands for entry, but weirdly couldn’t find it. I actually had to ask someone where it was and to my surprise the booth was back outside in the parking lot. I didn’t realise it, but I was already inside the track by simply walking in a straight line from where I had parked. There were no restricting fences stopping anyone from just walking in. Purchasing tickets for the speedway in Montpelier is clearly based on an honour system.
With all the preceding you would be forgiven for assuming the race track itself was substandard. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was truly outstanding and I hereby give my recommendation that if ever you get a chance to watch sprintcars and/or midgets at Montpelier Speedway on Indiana SR 18, then you absolutely must do so. If any of the next five nights of Midget week can top this, then it will have to be very special indeed.
Kyle Larson ended up winning, which in itself is quite remarkable, given that he hasn’t sat in a midget since the Chili Bowl in January. He’s a dead set freak. Bryan Clauson was second and Christopher Bell third. Clauson also went on to win the sprintcar feature as well.
The 100 mile (160km) drive home was mostly in silence. Not because people were in shock from the quality of racing we had seen, but because they were all asleep and no doubt dreaming about five more consecutive nights like we had just seen …..
Day 9 – Wednesday June 1st
On September 30th 1955 James Dean had a bad day when his Porsche Spyder crashed in California fatally injuring him. Dean was born in Marion, Indiana, but was raised in Fairmount just a few miles from Gas City where round 2 of Midget week would be held tonight. Today we were intent on heading for Fairmount to see the Museum set up to remember him and the house he lived in.
However that didn’t happen as after spending the obligatory hour or so at Wal-Mart in Fishers, we turned north onto I-69 but only managed to get four miles up the road. I had pulled out into the overtaking lane to pass slower vehicles and at 70mph (a very reasonable 112kph) the engine management system decided to completely shut down at that very moment and we lost all power and importantly, control of the accelerator. We slowed quite dramatically while enveloped by traffic all around us.
I reached over and hit the hazard warning lights as quickly as I could and searched the road ahead for somewhere to coast to a stop. Fortunately the semi-trailer behind us had an alert driver who also realised something was wrong and braked quickly. The consequences could have been disastrous, but all was good except that now we were stationery on the inside shoulder of the freeway. The motor kept idling very roughly, but the engine would not rev at all via the accelerator. The display on the dash continuously reminded us of that, as it simply said “Engine fault –take to a Ford Dealer.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that there wasn’t a dealership handy in the middle of I-69 just at that time, so there we sat while I rang the national Vehicle Recovery Centre in Tennessee. Whilst it didn’t happen as quickly as you might think, I was eventually able to convey our situation and by 1.30pm, 45 minutes after breaking down, agreement had been reached for the Rental Company to deliver a replacement minibus. It would arrive on the back of a truck at 3.44pm. 2¼ hours to wait while half of Indianapolis sped past us five metres away on a very busy northbound route through to Michigan. The other half were heading from the Detroit area on the south bound lanes. I did cheekily ponder as to whether Maria and José were in any of those cars still coughing and spluttering as bad as our Ford engine was. Oh, I forgot to tell you on Day 1 that they have two sons in the marriage by the way. Named after Dad, their names are Hose B and Hose C. (Thanks for that line Stu Telfer.)
A stationary vehicle on a major Interstate Freeway you’d think would attract the attention of the police. But no, not one cop car went past for at least 2½ hours. Eventually a young patrolman from the Fishers Police pulled in and asked how we were. Believe it or not his name was Bill Smith. He was very good to us indeed and once he found out that there were three ladies in the bus, his immediate concern was that they must need to go to the bathroom! In actual fact they did, so he offered to drive them to the next exit and drop them at McDonalds. On the journey there Andrea sat in the back seat with Officer Smith’s rifle between her legs!! One to tell the grandchildren about …
3.44pm came and went and it wasn’t until nearly 4.30pm that a truck pulled up with our new wheels. Goods and chattels were hurriedly removed from the old and transferred to the new and we were back on the road again to pick up the girls from Maccas. Drove straight past the exit to Fairmount as that was now out of the question and kept going to the quaintly named Gas City. So called because of the abundance of natural gas in the area. And I thought it was Steve I could hear up the back. He has baked beans most mornings for breakfast.
The imitable Stubb was in attendance and originally we had planned to be there much earlier than 5.45pm. Dinner had been prepared on the Budweiser BBQ and bratwurst sausages had been grilled for us. They were eaten hungrily by a grateful tour group keen for something other than track food. We will meet up again with Stubb next Sunday afternoon at Kokomo.
The whole day wasn’t a good one for us and a poorly prepared track at Gas City made for a less than desirable night of racing in my view. For the record, Spencer Bayston, one of the eight drivers from the Keith Kunz team and current USAC Rookie of the Year, won his first USAC midget feature when he streeted the field to win from Clauson, Daum and Bell rounding out the top four.
Day 10 – Thursday June 2nd
A day to do some tourist things. After all we are tourists. Rod Stewart recorded Gasoline Alley in 1970 but it had nothing to do with the famous old Gasoline Alley in Indianapolis near Holt Road. In its heyday teams would garage their race cars in Gasoline Alley and then fire them up and drive to the track along streets to the speedway. A distance of about one mile. Nowadays Gasoline Alley is inside the Speedway itself and super hi tech. But in the 30’s the garages (84 of them) were wooden structures with big double doors left open to let the cooling breeze in on hot summer afternoons.
These days the twisty street is occupied by quite a few smaller race teams and retailers like Arizona Sports Shirts where we spent a pleasant 30 minutes buying up $5 t-shirts from the bargain bins. Indy Race Parts have their shop along here too where Kevin Swindell raced out of before last year’s accident at Knoxville. As do Hinchman Race Suits.
From there we meandered out to Lucas Oil Raceway but the gate across the railway line prevented us from going any further. Hence lunch beckoned and it was the always reliable Pit Stop BBQ for everything fried. Around the corner was Don Schumacher’s enormous Drag Racing Operation and because we are Aussies, a quick word at the front desk permitted us a short 15 minute tour. Nothing to see though as all seven teams in the Schumacher stable were on their way to New Hampshire for this weekend’s racing . Then to John Force (closed) and Simpson Race Products. Outside Tony Stewart’s sprintcar shop we were pleasantly surprised to see a Donny Schatz’ sprintcar (minus the wing) driving down the street and into the parking lot of the factory. Obviously on a warm up lap or two around the block.
By now it was time to head for Putnamville and Lincoln Park Speedway where Round 3 was on tonight. Weather was superb, the fun factor inside the Ford was 100% and hopes were high that the spectacle would be like Montpelier. I love taking tour members to Putnamville. I don’t think you could find a more picturesque track in Indiana. The camp ground for RV’s at the top of the property has a magical setting and as always, we headed straight for that. Grass and shady trees abound and all free of charge to stay overnight.
The car count remains high for R3 with 49 midgets and 25 non wing sprints still following the trail. Tanner Thorson, who last year left this same race in an ambulance after a nasty crash during the feature, found redemption tonight by holding off a fast charging Bryan Clauson in the final laps. Yet another Keith Kunz team victory. Clauson won his third consecutive sprintcar feature during Midget week and his fourth since we have been here.
Our replacement Ford is identical to the broken one except it does not have satellite radio. Which is a shame because the “Sixties on 6” channel was a regular feature of our late night drives home from the tracks. Even Will at age 18 likes it cos he said “I grew up with Mum & dad listening to those songs.” Sadly we don’t have it anymore, but that’s OK. Tomorrow night sees the start of the weekend in Australia and we (read me) will have the AFL app on the phone piping the Hawthorn v Melbourne game through the speakers!!
Day 11 – Friday June 3rd
From a male’s point of view, today could be described as follows:
Left hotel and drove to Outlet Stores
Left Outlet Stores
Arrived Bloomington Speedway to start the day.
Looking at it from the female perspective adds a little more meat to the bones.
Excited to do something other than watch bloody racing cars.
Finally on the way to the shops.
Arrived at utopia in Edinburgh where 79 shops were waiting to take our money.
Peter gave us additional coupons to get even more discounts from those poor store owners.
Peter explained the discount system. He said that you get so many reductions, eventually the store pays you to take the items selected out of the shop.
Hit the first of 79 shops. Elected to avoid Tools & More (shop # D 110).
Didn’t want to see our husbands again that quickly.
11.26am to 2.57pm
Circumnavigated the complex 16 times to ensure we didn’t miss any opportunity to grab a bargain.
Loaded goods acquired into the back of the Ford.
Insufficient space,. The esky had to be moved to allow room to fit shopping bags.
Reluctantly boarded the speedway bus with our husbands who thought they had just woken up ready to start the day.
Peter fired up the bus and we peered forlornly out the back window thinking about what we could have done if we were allowed to stay until 9.00pm.
Arrived at Bloomington Speedway. Day has finished.
Well maybe it didn’t quite go like that, but it’s fun to fantasise.
It was nice to see that they had put all the clay back on to the Bloomington track. Last Friday night at the Josh Burton Memorial it disappeared faster than a bourbon in Steve’s right hand. Tonight it was once again the lovely shade of red that only Bloomington is famous for. The good crowd on hand saw one of the larger midget flips during heat race action when Ryan Robinson took this wild ride. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=y8Tz5ZxMMGo Then look at it in slow motion this time from the infield via this next link. https://www.facebook.com/peterphysick/posts/10154270385723958
Drivers put everything they own on the line in Midget week. But I’m not too sure how Holly Shelton who coverts her ride with the Kunz team very highly does that. There’s no tokenism in this decision by Keith Kunz. She won the seat on talent alone.
Christopher Bell quite remarkably won his third Bloomington Midget Week race in succession. It’s becoming a habit for Bell in what is becoming a yearly tradition for him and the track. Again the Kunz team were victors for the fourth time in four days, with a different driver winning each night. Plus they have already won crash of the week hands down with Robinson’s flip as you would have seen above. Dave Darland was a strong second and Bryan Clauson continued his consistency with third having come through the B Main.
PS Clauson did not win the sprintcar feature for a change ….
Bloomington tonight pushed Gas City down to fourth on the quality list for Midget Week so far. For me it’s now Montpelier, Putnamville, Bloomington and Gas City in the pecking order. Later in this Blog we will review all tracks according to their bathroom facilities.
Day 12 – Saturday June 4th
The weather has been outstanding up to now. 12 consecutive races fully completed with no sign of a rainout possibility. Prior to leaving Australia I had offered the advice that if any race is rained out, Global Speedway Tours are not responsible, however we will cover dinner if that eventuates. I also guaranteed that at least once on the tour we would experience a typical US thunderstorm, or T-Storm as they are called over here. Both eventualities happened today.
Night 5 of Midget Week was down in the southeast corner of Indiana back at Lawrenceburg. It was reasonable therefore that the daylight hours could be spent in Dayton, Ohio at the US Air Force base. Hence we set off along I-70 under heavy, but high cloud. A couple of hours later we arrived at this monstrous place which has now added a fourth gigantic hangar in which to display even more aircraft. It opens next week. But the existing display was more than enough to keep our friends occupied for four hours. It was going to be three, but midway through Andrew Quinn texted me from Indianapolis with the bad news that Lawrenceburg had already been cancelled.
Whilst people were disappointed, weirdly they weren’t upset. After all, 12 in a row is a pretty good result so far. Decisions had to be made. Could we get a race in somewhere in Ohio? There were plenty scheduled, but the rain band which had destroyed Lawrenceburg’s chances was deep through both Indiana and Ohio and tracks quickly posted on social media that they were off as well.
Hence it was back on the road to Indy, headed for a feed at the Golden Corral on 38th Street, but with a hastily scheduled stop at Sheltons, billed as the World’s largest fireworks store on the state border. Selling of fireworks is illegal in Ohio so the store sits right on the border. In fact a yellow line at the entrance describes exactly where the border is. Like kids in a candy store the boys were in their element as memories flooded back for them of their youth. Mind you Will is still at that stage and he bought his fair share to let off somewhere along the road between now and home time. So did Peter B who liked the rockets.
As we headed further west into Indiana the storms which had hit the state were moving slowly east and of course we ran smack bang into them. At some stages speed was reduced to 10 mph and visibility was even less. An experience indeed for those who have not been inside an American T-Storm. As we emerged out the other side, I began to relate how the authorities here know exactly where you are by virtue of your mobile phone. They will send out tornado warnings via your phone and the car radio (if it’s on) should you be in the vicinity of a potential touch down.
Halfway through this story my phone went ballistic with the tornado warning sounds and subsequent spoken advice from the National Weather Service that those travelling further east (opposite direction to us) should take cover if in the following counties, which are then listed. Apparently the storm we drove through had the potential to intensify to tornado status. But the way we were going was fine and the skies were clearing quickly, as they often do after such a storm.
Andrew met us at the Golden Corral which is easily the best place to take an assortment of people for dinner. It satisfies all tastes and preferences for food by being an all you can eat buffet. Great value for money. Bedtime tonight (for some) was well before midnight. Unheard of on a GST tour and only when there’s a rainout. Several parties however chose to test the cocktails at the Bourbon across the road …..
Day 13 – Sunday June 5th
Being our last day in Indy before heading off tomorrow to Illinois Midget week, we were not scheduled to do anything until the 3.00pm departure for Kokomo. Packing, washing, sleeping were necessary tasks. However by mutual agreement it was decided we would give James Dean another chance up in Fairmount. And in doing so we would take a different route to straight up I-69, just in case the Interstate has a curse on rental vehicles.
We went through Bryan Clauson country when we stopped in Noblesville on Route 37 for lunch at Bob Evans’ place. Now Bob is not known to us as he has thousands of diners across America. They are great places to get lunch or dinner as you can eat with a knife and fork, rather than unwrap hamburgers at a race track. The drive along 37 was picturesque to say the least. Beautiful countryside so typical of the rural mid-west. We encountered our first windfarm along here too which again was another eye opener when seeing hundreds of these things close up beside the road.
Fairmount was reached without incident and the replacement Ford took everything in its stride. Many would know that FORD sometimes stands for “First on race day”. But to Chevy fans here in the USA, apparently it means “Fix or repair daily”. Let’s hope not ….
The James Dean museum is worth visiting. It won’t take you long, maybe 45 mins at most, but it is nostalgic. Heaps of memorabilia displayed in a house on a corner formerly owned by a doctor. JD didn’t live there however as he was out on a farm, where no doubt he harnessed his love of fast cars which ultimately caused his demise in California in 1955. The best piece of info that I picked up about him was that he had been signed for the starring role in nine future movies when he died. Paul Newman and Marlon Brando picked up those roles after his death.
Dean loved a drink and a smoke. In fact in just about every picture taken of him there is a cigarette out the side of the mouth, hence when visiting his grave in Fairmount, legend has it that it’s traditional to have a beer and a smoke while standing at the gravesite.
Kokomo Speedway was now in our sights some 30 miles away and before we knew it we were backing the Ford into position beside Stubb who had reserved a spot for us by tying Skippy down with a heavy trailer hitch in our spot. Skippy by the way is a blow up kangaroo ….
A Kokomo parking lot cooked chicken dinner preceded racing where we were treated to a phenomenal display of rim riding up on the wall by the midget in a midget Rico Abreu. Surely his balls are way bigger than the rest of him. He won going away from the once again impressive Chad Boat in third. Dayne Kingshott from West Aust had his best run yet when he picked up the Hard Charger Award when he finished 12th after starting from 22. Clauson became the Indiana Midget week champion by virtue of his consistency through the week. No one else other than five individual Keith Kunz team drivers won a race.
Clauso backed up his performances in the sprintcar taking his fourth out of five feature race wins during midget week. Quite remarkably all five non wing sprintcar features went flag to flag.
PS A farmer along SR31 back to Indianapolis unknowingly provided his property for an impromptu fireworks display ……
Day 14 – Monday June 6th
An absolutely glorious day greeted us this morning as we checked out of the Courtyard Marriott at the Capitol which has been our home for the last 13 nights. It’s a four and a bit hour drive to St Louis and we were governed today by a strict time schedule. However in our favour was a one hour time change between Indiana and Illinois. So it was a leisurely drive down through Terre Haute and Effingham stopping occasionally for refreshments and leg stretches.
Patricia, Bev and Andrea were seconded into Stubb’s Silverado which was now carrying all the luggage, so all the lads were in the Ford. Hence Billy Birmingham’s 12th Man album “Boned” made an appearance via the iPhone. It helped pass two hours or so listening to Ritchie and the Commentary team hilariously trying to get their jobs back at Channel 9.
Around about 25 miles out of St Louis, where I-70 joins I-55, the magnificent Gateway Arch appears on the horizon. It was the object of our time schedule as we had tickets to travel to the top of the Arch at 2.30pm. This objective was easily met, as after checking in at the hotel we then strolled down 4th Avenue to Market Street where the Arch sits in all its glory. With the day being what it was, the sun was shining brightly and the 630 feet high stainless steel Arch appeared to be reflecting the sun’s rays straight back at it from every angle imaginable. The spectacle was superb.
Only one of the group chose not to subject themselves to the partly claustrophobic ride in the Tram. It climbs its way slowly to the top inside the northern arch where viewing windows await those game enough to go up there. But it’s worth it with spectacular views across Missouri and Illinois. The Arch was built in 1965 to symbolise the journey that millions made to find a new life in the west when St Louis was “the Gateway to the West” and forever more the Arch will recognise those pioneers.
Those who frequent fast food stores will tell you that the Arch represents one half of a McDonalds logo. In jest perhaps, but I’m sure there are people out there who still sincerely believe that. So it was with total surprise when browsing a book about how it was designed and built, I discovered that the company which won the tender to build it was coincidently called The McDonald Construction Company. Weird, but true ….
Next up was to cruise the Mississippi on the Tom Sawyer Riverboat. The journey goes for a few miles north against the incredibly strong current of the river and then it turns around and virtually floats back south in neutral. The skipper provides valuable info on the history of the river through St Louis and its significance to the country as a whole. The barge traffic which constantly plies north and south is impressive. The tug boat captains are amongst the highest paid in the country such is their skill in manoeuvring the barges along the 3,734 km river and all it locks. It is not unusual to see 15 barges tied together three wide and longer than the longest aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But these guys have just the width of the river in which to work their magic.
Interesting fact. If you dropped a bottle with a note in it at the north end of the river where its starts in northern Minnesota, it would travel through 10 states and take 91 days to reach the end where it empties out into the Gulf of Mexico.
It didn’t take that long for us to find Tigin’s Irish Pub for dinner though. It was a farewell meal for the Barnes’ foursome who will leave the tour tomorrow for New York City and Florida for two weeks. The Pub was inside the Hampton Inn. Although they had sold out of Shepherd’s Pie (buggar it) by the time we arrived, the food was good and the company was great. Each person had the opportunity to relate their favourite moments of the tour to date and it became a terrific forum for memories.
Not the least being the opinions of the bathroom facilities at the various race tracks we have been to. The girls rated Putnamville as their best and Bloomington as the worst. Bloomington got the daily double up when the guys related how dexterous you need to be to ensure that the stream gets to where it needs to go. By way of explanation the brick trough is about three feet high as you stand in front of it. Anderson also got an honourable mention. The square open air no roof facility with earth and weeds on the ground has to be seen to be believed. Indeed, speaking of seeing, the fans in the stands high up on turn 1 only need to turn around and watch proceedings down inside the human cat-box.
Day 15 – Tuesday June 7th
We got the Barnes’ to the airport well in time for their 10.30am direct flight to La Guardia in New York and they would be there at 2.00pm. Under normal circumstances that is. But storms over Michigan ensured that they would now also see the inside of Cleveland Airport for several hours as they waited out the weather.
Meanwhile the tour continued for those still in St Louis, although today was a total free day to explore whatever it was that you wanted to see.
In the evening dinner was at Roadhouse 61, a “blues music joint with food” which provided an excellent helping of both.
Day 16 – Wednesday June 8th
Withdrawal symptoms had started to kick in this morning as we had had two full days without a race. But that was to be satisfied tonight and each night of the next five.
The Anheuser-Busch owned Budweiser Brewery tour was first up this morning. Nestled on 25 acres in the Soulard neighbourhood of St Louis, the site was selected based on its access to the Mississippi and also because of the large presence of German immigrants in the 1800’s. The natural cave formations beneath the district also provided the ideal temperatures for beer storage prior to artificial refrigeration. The 45 min tour is free, as are the choice of samples post tour. Now shorter than it used to be because of the difficulty of getting the crowds through the complex, it still remains a highlight for anyone really. The brick and glass stained stables for the Clydesdales show just how they provide every comfort to these magnificent horses which are used for promotional purposes at festivals and fairs right across the country. There are 250 of them, but only a couple of dozen reside at the brewery. Lunch was in the new Biergarten, a truly unique space to enjoy food and beverage before or after the tour.
Racing this evening was at the Belle Clair Fairground, a tiny high banked dirt track designed expressly for midget racing. Late Models also race here although how they get around it is beyond me. Preceding all that was a change of hotel to the Holiday Inn Express in Shiloh and “dollar dog night” in the track parking lot, thoughtfully cooked by Stubb on the mobile Budweiser BBQ. It was extremely hot but we were able to angle the two large vehicles so the shade fell on the people and importantly the esky.
The racing analysis. Great …. in the end. The heats left a lot to be desired as drivers struggled with the conditions. But as the track “came in” the skill these drivers possess was on display big time in the feature. As the tour progresses the quality of the racing is maintained. Some drivers from Indiana chose not to make the trip to Illinois, but it didn’t matter. There were local Illinois teams equally as skilled waiting to step into the breach. It sure helps when you have a population of the size America has ….
The Kunz team continued their dominance of victory lane when Tanner Thorson swooped into the lead on lap nine and never looked back, driving six inches off the fence all the way around lap after lap despite the ever rising cushion building up on the wall.
Note to self from the night:
Americans have a love / hate opinion of White Castle hamburgers. Having never tried them before, it was time to do so tonight. Steve, Will and I called in after getting gas and had to go through the drive thru as it was after midnight. Not knowing what was on the menu I jumped out to look at the board while the guy in front called his order out. Couldn’t help but listen …. as you do. It was quite odd to my ears to hear someone order 60 hamburgers at once.
Turns out they are small square burgers known as sliders. 30 of them come in a “Crave Crate” when handed to you. Each is individually wrapped and placed in the Crave Box. Unlike the guy in front, we figured two Crave Crates would be too much for three people, hence we ordered just 10 sliders. Will didn’t like them, nor did I, so Will had just the one, I managed two and you can guess who ate the rest.
Day 17 – Thursday June 9th
We woke up in Belle Ville, Illinois but needed to go to bed tonight up in Quincy. In between these two homes of race tracks is Route 66 which runs between Chicago and St Louis. Beyond St Louis, R66 continues on west to Los Angeles, where I guess it only stops because of the Pacific Ocean. Our Month of Money tour in August always travels 66, but it is from the opposite direction. On that tour we drive north to south between the Windy city and the Gateway city, so seeing it from a different perspective would be good.
We headed for Livingstone and the Pink Elephant Antique mall. There’s got to be a better description of it than an antique mall. It’s not junk either, more like trash & treasure perhaps? Inside the building are mementoes, souvenirs and collectibles from families across Illinois who have decided to sell their treasured possessions to visiting tourists who stop in their hundreds each day at the Pink Elephant. Some is junk, but believe me there are bargains in there as well. Eating ice cream here is compulsory at the adjacent Twistee Treat, with today’s popular choice being an Orange Twirl. Orange soft serve ice cream is magnificent, believe me …..
From soft serves we moved up to hard metal with our stop in Staunton at the Country Classic Cars Collection www.countryclassiccars.com once again proving to be a popular decision. 591 cars are in the sheds and all are available for sale. Whilst perving over a yellow 1973 Chev Corvette, in his own mind Tony was convinced that Elaine (who had joined the tour in St Louis) would permit him to buy it for $14,950 and ship it home to Perth. However upon returning to the van, he encountered his greatest fear. The Orange Twirl had fired up his wife and the answer was no, so once again all Tony could offer Elaine was a soft serve ……
From Staunton we moseyed further north on 66 through to Mt Olive and Litchfield. Mt Olive to look at Russell Soulsby’s restored gas station and Litchfield to have a terrific lunch in the Ariston Café, which is considered to be the oldest restaurant on Route 66 anywhere, not just in Illinois. From Litchfield we jumped back onto I-55 and headed for Springfield and then I-72 east to Quincy. I have to say that neither Stubb, nor I have ever driven a more boring freeway than I-72. It is bleak countryside and the freeway appears not to run between any major cities, hence trucks are few and far between, which is good, but it also means many exits do not have the usual truck stops for folks like us to refresh and refuel at.
Quincy was a cool little town of around 40,000 population I’d guess ..… plus a speedway. Not many places the size of Quincy do not have a local race track by the way. It just depends on who looks after it as to what condition it’s in. Quincy’s promoter falls into the “good guy bracket” as the place was as neat as a pin with manicured lawn parking lots and an extremely clean facility overall. Great viewing lines from the bleacher style aluminium seating overlooked the ¼ mile high banked track which was real saucer shaped. The lip at the top of turns 1 & 2 would have been 70 degrees and most certainly would have launched any errant cars into the backyards of nearby houses.
The time spent at Quincy watching Austin Brown win night 2 of Illinois Speedweek was considerably less than the time spent in the Hotel carpark upon return. The weather was just sensational and it deserved to have some people outside enjoying themselves in it until 3.00am. We discussed all things to do with the tour so far, the speedways visited, the dumbest things done so far on tour and whose turn it was to get the next round. Those who have participated in one of these evenings before on tour will know how much fun they can be. Even the luggage trolleys got a spin. There were enough for a stars’ dash, but like always, an insufficient number of capable drivers were present. Probably just as well.
Day 18 – Friday June 10th
The mighty Mississippi was just two blocks down the hill but it was practically inaccessible from the closest walking track or footpath. But never mind, we have another spot to view it from near Davenport on Sunday.
After watching eight successive midget races, it was time for a short break and return to winged sprintcars at the World Capital of Speed, Knoxville in Iowa. Illinois and Iowa are adjoining states so it wasn’t long before we were scooting along between miles and miles of corn field bordered highways. Iowa is the country’s largest producer of pigs and pork and it wouldn’t surprise me if corn is up there somewhere too. Honestly, it’s everywhere. Only about 18 inches high at the moment, but when the Month of Money tour returns in August, it will have grown to six feet tall.
There are cornfields around Pella as well, but it is the town’s Dutch heritage which puts this place on the map. Tulips, windmills, canals, pastries straight from the bakery and the architecture in the town centre make for Pella to be a wonderfully relaxing town to wind down in after some long days on the road chasin’ racin. Mind you, Pella doesn’t have a speedway, but the always welcome news is that 14 miles down the road, the little town of Knoxville has a very big one.
Home in Pella is at the Royal Amsterdam and as everyone who has ever travelled with us knows, the hotel and its staff are second to none. They love the Aussies who stay with them and our standard block booking for the Knoxville Nationals comes under increasing pressure each August as the waiting list to get accommodation there lengthens every year. Nestled in amongst the canals and within walking distance of virtually everything, makes for a perfect ending to every tour. Or in the case of our forthcoming Ultimate 4 tour, a perfect start to the trip.
At 5.00pm it was time to leave for Knoxville and at 5.25pm we were there settled into the parking lot so generously provided each year by AJ, the owner of the Dingus Lounge. Needless to say we always return the favour by providing numerous willing drinkers at his legendary bar directly across the road from the Raceway. For the World of Outlaws races, patrons are nowhere near the number who invade the joint in August for the Nationals. During that week the entire floor space is chock-a-block with fans every hour from midday and especially after the racing has finished. But we made our mark….
One of the most famous signs in sprintcar racing now has an approved addition to it. Stubb, Russell and Steve proudly stood in front of the World Famous Dingus Lounge sign, now adorned by a large Global Speedway Tours sticker. Dingus originally started off as a tiny bar of maybe 60 square metres inside a small white building. But as its popularity grew, the adjacent gas station was acquired and the outdoor bar was fabricated to ensure everyone got a drink.
You can’t help but be impressed by Knoxville Raceway. The town itself has a population of only 7,251 and has just three motels. But it owns a speedway which seats 24,172 fans. It is only during the Nationals that every seat is occupied, so just ask yourself where does everyone sleep? The answer to that is in RVs which abound in every nook and cranny in every street. Or if you don’t have a camper, it’s in a neighbouring town, some of which are up to 100 miles away. It makes for a very long round trip drive each day for four consecutive nights.
The four storey Sprintcar Hall of Fame and Museum sits proudly on turn 2 overlooking the track and is a must place to visit before the races. Along with the merchandise vendors, all of whom have stuff that a visiting Australian fan simply has to buy. Our group was no exception.
The night’s racing was top class, but nowhere near what we would see the following night as you will read later. Terry McCarl ran away and hid half a lap in front of second placed Donny Schatz. Kerry Madsen was a threat until he tangled with Brooke Tatnell and cart wheeled down the front straight. But he was not to be the only Madsen to receive unwanted fame this weekend.
Day 19 – Saturday June 11th
We hadn’t seen rain for so long so it was with surprise that the curtains were opened and it was tumbling down. It wasn’t in the forecast, but then again rogue storm cells abound in the Midwest and they do come out of nowhere. The good news is that they disappear just as quickly and by 10.00am the sun was shining in Pella.
Exploration of the town was the order of the day and people scattered everywhere. The Vermeer company’s giant 34 metre high working windmill right outside the hotel’s front door was popular. Or the Jaarsma Bakery for the sweet toothed amongst us. Or like me, the morning was spent in McDonalds peacefully catching up on the Blog!!
At 2.00pm it was time to head for Knoxville again and this time, with some free moments on our hands, we stopped off at Lake Red Rock on the Des Moines River to watch the fishermen fight for bass, pike and catfish. Generally they use conventional fishing rods, but every now and then when we stop here, you can find the more adventurous shooting with cross bows. They watch for the fish jumping from the white water at the foot of the swirling dam spillway. Bingo, the arrow flys and gets the fish in midair. You’ve gotta be quick, but it works.
From Lake Red Rock we cruised up and down the main street of Knoxville, which admittedly doesn’t take a long time, before dropping several folk off at the Museum. The rest went to TJ Slideways to try our hand at racing sprintcar styled karts on a small 1/16th mile oval track. Great fun actually and at $9 for four minutes is good value.
On arrival at AJ’s parking lot we found Stubb cooking pork fillets for an early dinner. Along with all the necessary condiments, it was much superior to a burger and fries that would otherwise have been the staple evening meal. We were joined by a few locals we have met over the years of coming here and a terrific late afternoon of fun and good natured ribbing of each other’s countries led us into the night’s racing.
36 410’s were in the pits, along with 22 360’s. But not all would roll back into the transporters undamaged tonight. Our own Jamie Veal from Warrnambool dominated proceedings leading up to the A Main and he and Ian Madsen formed an all Australian front row for the feature. Veal jumped into the lead and by lap 5 he had established a full straightaway lead. But the yellow came out and the pack reformed. At this point no one in the crowd was prepared for what happened next. Ian Madsen came down from the top of the track as they passed the flagstand and tagged the right front of Shane Stewart which sent him flipping. A Talladega style NASCAR train wreck then exploded in front of the main straight grandstand. Cars at the front took action to avoid Stewart, banged wheels with others and then the pack cannoned into them.
The noise was amazing as metal hit metal and by the time it was over there were six cars upside down and four more in various stages of disarray, all in a pile of wreckage. The crowd went silent because these types of accidents very rarely occur in sprintcar racing. But as is usual drivers began un-strapping and climbing out, although some couldn’t until other cars were taken off theirs. Heated moments ocuured as fingers were pointed at everyone for blame, but it wasn’t really until the replay on the big screens revealed what really happened.
I’d guess that it was 20-25 minutes before racing got underway again and Veal repeated his dominance, but it would all be in vain as the master Donny Schatz gradually wore him down and with three to go took the lead on lap 22. Lasoski grabbed second, David Gravel third and the Warrnambool kid kept 4th. A great hit out for him as the Nationals creep closer. Don’t rule out J Veal as a very strong contender in August. After all he has won everything else this year in Australia. Why not the Knoxville Nationals as well?
Day 20 – Sunday June 12th
Racing tours are great. Everyone has the same reason and passion for going, so when the opportunity comes up to sneak one more race in before leaving for Australia tomorrow, then why not do it? Even if you have to drive 424 kms to get to it and then another 364 to get back to Indianapolis where tonight’s bed awaits us. So we loaded up our possessions and took off to Lincoln for the final round of Illinois Midget week, having missed nights 3 & 4 whilst in Knoxville.
Sightseeing took precedence today and we called into Iowa Speedway in Newton on I-80 to check out the high banked 7/8th mile pavement track which is used by NASCAR for their XFINITY, Trucks and K&N series, plus the Indy cars race here once a year. The Rusty Wallace corporate NASCAR Ride program was on so we watched that for a little while before continuing east on a truck infested I-80.
Signs along the freeway say 36,000 vehicles a day travel I-80 through Iowa and I would estimate that 25% of them are semi-trailers. So 9,000 trucks fight with each other every day to cut an extra couple of seconds off their journey time. It’s good fun battling with them, but they are way bigger than us…..
We recognised some of the semi’s at the World’s Largest Truck Stop at Walcott where it is compulsory to stop for fuel and food. This place is on 65 acres, has three restaurants, seven fast food outlets, a gift shop with two full size semi-trailers in it, a movie theater, museum, barber shop, and dentist on site. On average, it serves more than 1.4 million customers per year since opening in 1965. It already has 32 petrol pumps for motorists, but another 64 are being installed at the moment. The semis have a separate area all to themselves over by the Truck Museum!
East of Davenport, I-80 crosses the Mississippi and a great opportunity for a photo stop and to put your feet in the water is available on Canal Shore Drive at exit 306 on the Iowa side. Very pleasant indeed and a great chance to realise just how quick the river’s currents are.
Now it was full steam down I-74 headed for Peoria which sits on the Illinois river. Lots of rivers in these parts! A deliberately late lunch was planned on the balcony at Joe’s Crab Shack which has a delightful setting on the river right next to where the Spirit of Peoria paddle wheeler ties up after cruising the Illinois and the Mississippi. And sure enough, almost as if it had been planned, this majestic vessel came chugging back from a cruise right on cue. I’ll take the credit for that …..
The Lincoln Fairgrounds were next and the passengers only had a chance for 50 minutes of shuteye before we rolled into what really is a very old facility indeed. We should have held off on the bathroom ratings back at dinner in St Louis because these may well have taken the title. Clean but ancient, with the opportunity to do your business and then take a shower straight after in the same cubicle, should you be in the mood. No doors, just a plastic curtain.
We were early so we set up the vehicles to provide some shade and sat down right next to the pits which had only a small wire fence to separate them from the spectators. So we watched as the weary crews readied themselves for the final round of 11 nights racing, including the Indiana series. Brisbane domiciled Jimmy Quin, when questioned on the PA what he would do tomorrow, said “sleep man, just sleep.”
The weather was threatening which was a good thing as they hurried the show through from a 6.00pm start and after watching a crash filled A Main where four cars flipped in the first four laps, the midget finale finished at 8.35pm. On a jet black track cars fried their right rear tyres and dropped off like flies. Like eventual winner Tanner Thorson, all elected to replace the tyre and start from the back. With eight laps to go, Thorson came from 12th to take a thrilling win and also become the Illinois midget week point score winner. Considering the long drive in front of us everyone agreed to forgo the remaining features for the other classes and we hit the road to Indianapolis.
There’s an interesting side note to the drive home which I can relate now as I’m finishing off this blog back in Sydney. I always have the fast and unlimited T-Mobile data available to me on my phone when in the US, so to keep myself awake I turned on 3AW through their app from Melbourne. And for two hours we (or at least Dennis and I did) listened to their pre-game show before the “Big Freeze” Collingwood / Melbourne match from the MCG on the Queen’s Birthday Monday. You know the one? Eddie McGuire will never forget it.
Although, we weren’t listening to Triple M, the 3AW crew did a job on Caroline Wilson as well about exactly the same thing….. And she was on the panel there with them!
What the itinerary originally forecast to be a 3.30am arrival in Indy became 1.00am after the early finish at the track and absorbing the one hour addition because of the time zone change. Very welcome indeed, thus allowing a couple of bevvies in the parking lot.
Day 21 – Monday June 13th
No rest for the wicked. Up again at 6.30am to get Dennis and Patricia to the airport for the early morning flight to Idaho where they were staying on with friends. Russell and Steve were not flying out today having previously arranged to undertake “the Hell Tour” adventure for 10 days or so taking in as many Late Model races as they could find. And there were plenty. Steve flys home out of St Louis on June 22nd while Russell continues to explore the mid west racing scene until he meets back up with the Month of Money tour in Indianapolis on July 12th.
John, Elaine, Tony, Will and I were on flights out at 4.00pm so there was ample time to pack, last minute shop, or sightsee before jumping back into the Ford for the last time as we returned it to the rental depot, minus 10 fold up chairs. Two went on the Hell Tour and the rest to Stubb for me to pick up at Eldora in five weeks time. The esky, along with the remaining alcohol supplies, was bequeathed to Russell who will bring it back when he re-joins us in Indianapolis for the Month of Money tour.
A totally incident free return journey through Minneapolis and Los Angeles saw us arrive in Sydney at 6.50am on Wednesday morning after a sensational tour. 19 races in 20 available days (amazingly for May / June only one was a rainout) was an incredible effort by the tour members who soaked up every available piece of atmosphere they could, despite the hectic schedule.
14 people have now made 13 new lifelong friends each and I hope that re-reading this Blog in the years to come will engender many great memories of their time on the 2016 Indy 500 tour.