2019 Indy 500 and Midget Madness Blog
Day 1 Tuesday May 21st
The big American Airlines jet floated in from the west right on time at 6.08pm making its usual circumnavigation over the city of Indianapolis to adjust to the wind direction for landing. If you happened to be sitting on the starboard side you would have got a great view of the 253 acres that is Indianapolis Speedway. And that’s just the interior of the race track. It is said that all of the White House, Vatican City, the Taj Mahal, the Roman Colosseum, Yankee Stadium, the MCG, Liberty Island in New York and the track at Randwick Racecourse could all fit comfortably together in the infield of the speedway.
That’s not to mention the other 780 acres of prime suburban land which the speedway owns for grandstands, carparking and offices. I’m sure you could see it from the moon, let alone a Boeing jet.
The group had arrived for their 28 day adventure in the heartland of American dirt track racing. All midgets and sprintcars, except for the big day at the “big track” on Sunday when we head there for the Indy 500. But more about that later …..
For now it was a beer and then bed time for some weary travellers who had been on the go for 22 hours. Actually there was something else that needed to be done before either of those, and that was to buy some data for their phones. T-Mobile right now have the deal of the century for holiday makers. Unlimited calls and texts across the US, not that they need too much of that. (The tour host does though so he can find them when they get lost!) It’s the unlimited internet data at lightning fast 4G speed (soon to be 5G in Indianapolis) that comes included … all for US$50. Reduced from US$75 just days ago.
Then it was some cold Buds at the Tavern on South Street adjacent to our Holiday Inn Hotel. Sleep came quickly after that …..
Day 2 Wednesday May 22nd
It was the rain that woke us up. Plenty of it which continued through breakfast. The guy in the lift with tattoos over every square inch of exposed skin cheered everyone up when he saw the speedway logos and assumed (correctly) that we were in town for the sprintcars. Why he didn’t assume it was the Indy 500 remains a mystery? He said you guys must be going to Terre Haute (pronounced “Hote” as in Hotel) tonight.
“If it’s on” we said. Oh it will be” came the reply as he pulled out his phone and showed me a weather app I’d never seen before.
“There you go” he exclaimed, excited to have a captive audience. “There’ll be clear skies in Terre Haute by 1.00pm and by 3.00pm it will 20 degrees warmer.” And then he disappeared and we haven’t seen him since. Of course it’s history now that he was right on the money.
As we drove around Indy visiting the Indianapolis Speedway, Lucas Oil Raceway, Brownsburg and all it’s hidden treasures, Main Street, Gasoline Alley, Charlie Brown’s for lunch and Sarah Fisher’s 1911 Grill to watch the indoor kart racing it progressively stopped raining and the sun was shining.
By 3.00 pm we were on the road to the Action Track at the Vigo Country Fairgrounds in Terre Haute. 85 minutes later we were settled in under our favourite trees near the entrance attaching a brand new Australian flag to the exterior of the bus. Some did that, others prepared the esky for its first assault and some went into the pits. Those who stayed broke in new fold up chairs and for the next two hours watched as the traffic arrived in droves. Terre Haute drips history from everywhere. It is a very old speedway having hosted sprintcars since 1952. For 67 years drivers have tried to win here on the half mile. Many have of course, but sadly quite a few have died trying. The 49th running of the Tony Hulman Classic is full throttle tonight and yes you heard right, the winner receives a rifle to add to their collection of trophies.
All sprintcar races are good. But some are better than others. This one was in the former category I’m afraid. Just good. There were only a disappointing 21 cars in the pits. No need for a B main as everyone who turned up started the A. Chase Stockon ‘readied’ his car for the feature, ‘aimed’ it into the first turn on lap 1 and ‘shot’ to the front winning easily. All the things you should do I suppose if you’re gonna win a rifle.
Day 3 Thursday May 23rd
Ever lived in Darwin? Or the tropics? If not, come and live in Indianapolis in May it seems.
Regular as clockwork there are storms early morning before dawn which wake you up. And after getting out of bed and watching the streets below become rain drenched, you return to the cot and begin to wonder how much damage has that downpour done to the track we are racing at tonight.
Then you doze off again, only to awake when you should to see that the streets are still wet, the city folk are wearing coats and jackets to protect against the elements and the sky is leaden with more rain. Then you look at the weather app on your phone just to make sure that today will be the same as yesterday. That is, the skies will clear up around 11.00am, the temperature will rise by the hour to reach the mid 80’s by 3 o’clock and the fans at the track will be in shorts and t-shirts drinking beer like there is no tomorrow. But there will be a tomorrow and it will be the same as today, or should that be yesterday?
By the way, it’s very important if you’re a race fan to have at least three or more weather apps and radar displays on your phone. If you don’t like what you see on the first one, go to the next one until you get a forecast that makes you happy.
So what to do for the rest of the day before we have to head off to the Indianapolis Fairgrounds at 3.00pm for the last ever Hoosier Hundred? Note that it is never written as 100, always a Hundred. Thanks to Dave Argabright for that gem of info.
Across Missouri Street from our hotel is Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and the venue for the 2012 Super Bowl. The Stadium is impossible not to see against the backdrop of downtown Indianapolis. It is monstrous. More than likely the same size as Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, the old Etihad Stadium for anyone who hasn’t caught up with the name change yet.
$15 gets you an excellent 90 minute tour of the state of the art building which houses 67,000 fans indoors. The retractable roof is complemented by retractable windows at each end which are so heavy they are moved along on railways lines. The city skyline can be viewed through the northern end windows. Unbelievably impressive. More impressive is the fact that from below the building there is an underground pedestrian connection to the Indiana Convention Centre, twelve hotels, 15 multi storey carparks and numerous ancillary entertainment options. Spectators can enter the building or exit from it without going up onto the streets on a frigid winter’s day. Brilliant ….
Naturally it is a rectangular field with artificial turf that is 25 feet below ground level. Thus keeping the playing area cool on ultra-hot days in summer. And so that the designers could keep the height of the building down, thus allowing passing traffic on I-70 the opportunity to still admire the Indianapolis city skyline. The artificial turf when first laid is close to 15 cms thick. It is then manually “filled up” with clean soil and crushed rubber from old car tyres leaving about ½ a cm of exposed “grass”. We were permitted out onto the field during the tour and as usual I had thongs on. Flip flops for the Americans reading this. So I walked all over it in bare feet and it felt beautiful. Compared to what I walked on at Gore Hill back in Sydney a week or so ago, there is absolutely no comparison.
The place was immaculately spotless and a pleasure to be inside of. As far as I know nothing was off limits. We experienced the Lucas Oil End Zone Entertainment area complete with actual race vehicles ranging from dragsters, sprintcars, off road cars and powerboats decorating the area. Above it on the next level up, nearly 200 feet above the playing arena is the Budweiser Party Porch. Anyone can get in here to watch the game, but you must have a seat ticket to do so. In other words, you don’t have to sit in your seat, just have a ticket for it. I would watch every game from there ….
We visited the Colt’s locker room. A room with a mere 66 lockers in it for the squad. All individually named and set up exactly as each player likes it to be. Peyton Manning is gone from the Colts now, but his locker that he used has been dismantled and hidden away, only to be brought out again when, as expected, he is inducted into the Hall of Fame. Apparently the locker will be as well …
A wonderful morning’s tour which will now be on every tour itinerary where possible when we’re in Indianapolis.
Just while I’m thinking about Lucas Oil Stadium and given that we are here on a motor racing holiday tour, and because Forrest Lucas the owner of Lucas Oil loves speedway racing, and because he dropped in a lazy US$120 million for the naming rights for 20 years, why hasn’t the stadium become the home of indoor midget racing here in this country? Just askin’ that’s all ….
One place in Indianapolis that could never be indoors though is the massive Indiana Fairgrounds. It has a dirt track that is one mile in circumference and which permits one race a year on its hallowed surface. Or at least it did. Tonight’s Hoosier Hundred is the last one that will ever be raced here seeing as how the “horsey people” won the debate with the Fairgrounds Board of Directors as to who is more important.
We rolled through the entrance gates off Fall Creek Parkway around 3.00pm. Way early, but so you should be when it’s the last time you will ever do it. Think back to when you drove into the final race at the Sydney Showground, the Brisbane Exhibition Ground, Claremont in Perth, or Rowley Park in Adelaide.
Plenty of folk thought the same apparently because the available car parking spots were diminishing rapidly, but we scored a beauty inside the Champion’s Pavilion. Thunderstorms were possible tonight, so a roof overhead was a good idea. Our neighbours’ were involved with the historic sprintcars from yesteryear which were on display outside the main grandstand. Needless to say the conversation revolved around the sport in Australia and America.
The Hoosier Hundred is a race for Silver Crown cars. These cars resemble a sprintcar, but larger and slower and only race sporadically now on the larger one mile tracks of which there are only three left in the country. 43 cars turned up and the large and vocal crowd on hand was thrilled. Qualifying was over, the Modifieds had raced their feature and the Silver Crown cars had completed their consolation race for those who didn’t qualify fast enough. It was now time to start the 100 lap race.
I decided I would sit down the front in the bottom row of the grandstand for the early parts of the race to get some close up video footage. The race started and the 34 unmuffled cars flexed their muscle into the first turn. Lap 1 passed and two, three and four did just as quickly before I decided to turn off the camera on the phone. And then of course all hell broke loose right in front of me. Chris Windom blew a right rear tyre, a most unusual thing to happen after only five laps. The force lurched his car to the right coming up to the flag stand on the main straight. You could not get a faster part of the track. It pitched his car into the fence and then it started flipping, disintegrating as it did coming to rest just five metres or so in front of me. Some people deny the stricken car had been hit by two following cars while in the air, but let me tell you the tell tail noise was easily detectable.
Windom momentarily stayed in the car gathering his thoughts, his breath and counting his blessings as the rescue crew approached the car. They were amazed that he was out of the car before they could even get there. A very lucky boy indeed as you will see here.
Tyler Courtney went on to win after he pipped Kevin Thomas Jnr in the 96th lap on a restart.
Day 4 Friday May 24th
Friday was Carb Day. No, not piling on the calories. That happens every day over here. Carb day is the last chance the crew chiefs of the qualifying cars for the Indy 500 have to make final adjustments and changes before Sunday’s Indy 500. In days gone by that also meant tuning carburettors, hence the name.
It’s also the last opportunity for the owners of the track to squeeze a bit more cash out of the fans before the big race on Sunday. Off the track there are historic car displays, the Museum is open of course, the Snake Pit comes alive down by the stage where famous bands are engaged to perform. On the track though is the most disappointing aspect. The Indy Lights race the Freedom 100 and this year was no better than last year with only 12 cars fronting for the race. You certainly wouldn’t go just to watch that race.
Perhaps Chris Windom, who was sporting huge black and blue bruises and red eye from last night’s Fairgrounds accident, should have made it 11 cars and stayed home. Just five minutes after the Indianapolis media folk had replayed Windom’s huge bell ringer at the Fairgrounds on the massive screens all round the complex, on lap 1 this time, we saw him climbing the turn 4 fence over the top of David Malukas. Watch the accident here.
Night time was down at Bloomington Speedway for the Josh Burton Memorial races for non wing and winged sprintcars, midgets and modifieds. Great fields in all of them and a really enjoyable night at the skids evolved. Robert Ballou took the honours in the non-wing cars and 31 midgets contested a highly entertaining feature race. Yep, they started 31 in the A Main!
I didn’t mention it yesterday, but once again just like clockwork, it was raining on cue this morning when the blackout curtains were pulled aside. Regretfully it washed out the Historics’ one hour session on the big Indy track at 8.00am. And again today it did its best to damage the Indy 500 Parade, but mercifully the clouds cleared around midday and the parade started on time and was not interrupted.
Regretfully however the wind was too strong to allow the super large balloons to be inflated and be pulled along by assorted human beings up and down the streets of Indy. The marching bands provided as much hot expelled air as the balloons would have though, as quite possibly nearly every trumpet player in Indiana was in the parade. The Purdue University Band was by far the best as always, while Indianapolis’ finest on their police Harley Davidsons were again super impressive. The 75 minute parade finished with Simon Pagenaud the pole sitter for tomorrow’s race, but today he was trailing the field as the final car in the parade. He like all the other 32 drivers sat on the back of GM supplied identical Camaros throughout the procession.
Next task was to get breakfast for tomorrow in the 1B Parking Lot at the Indianapolis Speedway. Many of our readers would know from previous Blogs for the Indy 500 tour that up to 440,000 are estimated to attend the race. Gates open at 6.00am and the race starts at 12.45pm so fans have a window of 6¾ hours to arrive at the track and get to their seats. Or, in the case of those on the vast infield, to find their patch of grass (or lawn) depending on their age and when they grew up.
So BBQ rotisserie chickens were purchased, along with tomatoes, cheese, lettuce, bread rolls, strawberries, apple juice and jam donuts, plus strategically souvenired (stolen?) plastic knives, forks, spoons, mustard, ketchup, butter, pepper & salt and paper plates & bowls from the Holiday Inn breakfast bar over the last few days. Beer was removed from the esky for the morning to fit the food in, but be assured it was returned quickly.
In the afternoon it was off to Anderson Speedway for the Little 500 for 33 non wing sprintcars on a ¼ mile banked asphalt track. It was raining in Indy and through the various weather apps available to us we knew it was raining in Anderson too so there was no rush to get there. As it turned out, for the first time ever we weren’t able to park in the car park beside the main entrance. Horror of horrors, we had to walk about 400 metres from a parking lot across the road.
I’m afraid to say the night at the Little 500 was not an enjoyable one in 2019. The facilities at this track and in particular the grandstands have not been improved for a long time. We have had tickets on turn one in the rickety old wooden grandstand since 2011, our first tour. The width of the allocated area to put your bum down is minimal. Kylie Minogue might find it OK, but certainly not an averagely proportioned male or female, let alone those who have over indulged in the eating stakes at the Golden Corral.
It’s the lack of width on the bleacher itself and the room between the bleachers for your knees. Both are grossly inadequate and will lead to serious thoughts for future years of whether it’s the Little 500 at Anderson, or the sprintcars on the dirt at Putnamville on the Saturday night for the tour group from now on. On a brighter note Kody Swanson pulled into victory lane for the third time in four years to win the 71st Payless Little 500 by two full laps.
Day 6 Sunday May 26th
5.15am should be when you’re getting home from a race, not getting out of bed to go to one. The nature of the traffic is such that to beat the crowd and avoid a four hour, six km drive at 8.00am, one needs to head out to the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road at that time of morning to at least try to get there in 120 minutes.
For the last 12 months, on and off, I had been thinking about how some visiting Aussies could beat the system on the roads around Speedway, Indiana. What a great name for a suburb, by the way. So, after a false start of 15 minutes when the driver left his phone in the room and a return to the hotel was necessary, we set off at 6.20am. Our estimated time of arrival based on past experience was between 8.30am and 9.30am. But to everyone’s amazement, using the route selected, we drove in the gate of Lot 1B at 7.05am. Incredible and no I’m not telling you which way we went …..
The tailgate was down on the Dodge and the breakfast was assembled and by 7.30am the familiar noise of the first ring top coming off a Bud Light can was heard. Mind you the thousands of other party-goers (sorry race fans) already there had beaten us to the Budweiser record. Happy with our position, we settled into the Walmart fold up chairs and watched the world go by.
Gradually our group dissipated as they merged into the throng of people heading for the gates to try to find their seats. And that in itself is an exercise and a half. Just imagine 4.4 times the number of people who go to the AFL Grand Final all endeavouring to find their seat with backpack on and pulling a cooler on wheels full of food. No beer. You have to buy them at $8 / can from the track. As a matter of interest, Eldora Speedway will sell you six for $10. Go figure???
Having found their seat, people chat with their new neighbour who they find out is an Australian. And yes “they still say they have always wanted to go to Australia.” Nothing has changed there from previous years, but of late they say it’s the spiders and snakes that keep them away. Has there been a special on National Geographic recently or something?
Then comes the requisite invocations from four different ministries, then special thanks to the military, then the National Anthem, then the flyover from the Air Force. The F16 was most spectacular as it came back for a second low level pass before heading absolutely vertically up through the clouds to the moon. Finally Jim Cornelison, the more than capable replacement for the late Jim Nabors delivered “Back home again in Indiana”. And at last the drivers were instructed to start their engines and the race began.
For 100 of the 200 laps it was follow the leader. Nothing special, but then again rarely is any sporting contest remembered for the first half of play. So some left and some stayed. We knew there was no urgency to get out of Lot 1B quickly as Kokomo had already cancelled earlier this morning at 10.00am. The weather forecasters had got it totally and utterly wrong in Indianapolis. Elsewhere yes it rained, but over the Indianapolis Speedway the streets and racetrack remarkably remained bone dry. Hence the reason 90% of the spectators were burnt to a crisp.
Like Brown’s cows the GST folk wandered back to the van at race end to re-hydrate, but it had been moved. To right up at the front row of Lot 1B on Georgetown Road. We were perfectly positioned to watch the passing parade of what must have been 200,000 people walking up Georgetown Road to see if they could remember where they left their cars. It was a most entertaining two hours indeed.
Dinner was at the Claddagh Irish Pub on Meridian. But the entertainment
was across Meridian Avenue where enormous crowds of Afro Americans had gathered
for pre Memorial Day holiday drinks. They
spilled out across the road towards the Irish Pub and the police seemed
powerless to stop them. Or couldn’t be bothered. The latter was more than likely
true. The Irish Pub locked their doors to prevent the crowd from using their
bathrooms as the ones in the bar they were drinking at couldn’t cope.
PS The Shepherd’s pie at Claddagh was absolutely perfect. 10/10.
Day 7 Monday May 27th (Memorial Day holiday)
Time to leave Indianapolis for this tour although the final day #28 is back here when we fly out. But for now it’s on the road to see rural America. Our trip today was a relatively short one down to Lawrenceburg in southern Indiana on the Ohio River. The World of Outlaws were racing on the high banks of this spectacular 1/3rd mile velodrome style track.
To fill in the day the tour host decided that a detour for those who had never seen Winchester and Eldora speedways was warranted. Even though it was a public holiday, fingers were crossed that both complexes would be accessible.
On arrival at Winchester there was no movement anywhere. Not a sole was around but as luck would have it, a small gap in the gate complex allowed pedestrians to access the track. Not a vehicle, just a human. So given our relationship with the owner Charlie Shaw and the Manager Kirk Daugherty, I figured we would be pretty safe in walking around the track. Which we were. It turned out to be a huge thrill and surprise for Barry and Peter in particular.
Pete’s a former speedway driver from Bairnsdale in Victoria and it was quite a funny moment when he started jogging while at the very top of the banking on Turn 3. “What are you doing Peter” came the cry. His reply? “I just want to be able to tell people back home that I had a run around Winchester.”
Next stop was Kathy’s in Greenville for lunch (many tour members will remember this restaurant) before finding that the famous Route 118 out of Greenville up to Eldora is closed …. and for 160 days at that. So much for the traffic that won’t be going that way this racing season.
The detour got us there a bit later than we had wanted, but again we were in luck as one lone RV was at the gate and in it was Diane who together with her “jack of all trades” husband are the caretakers for the track during summer. She said sure you guys can go in and look. So with that she opened up a side gate and once again some gob smacked Aussies saw an historic track in all its glory on a fine spring day. Thanks Diane ….
Lawrenceburg was over two hours away with no direct freeway route to get there. So it was always going to be a tight fit but we rolled into Lawrenceburg Speedway in time to enjoy some drinks with Mike and Laura, Doc (Jim Muth) and his wife Rebecca and their young fella Nathan. Oh and Steve Kinser dropped in too along with possible future daughter in law Michaela Dumesny.
On the track the Outlaws were again overwhelmed by a blow in. Of late, feature wins on the Pennsylvania swing have gone to Lance Dewease and Danny Dietrich and last night Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell creamed the rest of the field. They would have finished first and second but the desire to win (and not just points race) saw Bell flip wildly on Turn 1 after a tangle with Larson. Nothing in it. Both wanted the same patch of race track at the same time.
Day 8 Tuesday May 28th
Early to bed early to rise they say. For the first time in many tours, this appeared to hold true. Although we didn’t have a very long drive today, it was always going to be a test of logistics if, while in Kentucky, we were to ignore the itinerary and go to places spontaneously. Which we sorta kinda did. First up after leaving Lawrenceburg was Louisville, home of the very celebrated Muhammad Ali or as he was born, Cassius Clay.
Although Ali died (in Arizona) in 2016 from Parkinson’s Syndrome, he was and still is an absolute hero to his black community in Kentucky and indeed all other states. His outspokenness on issues of race, religion and politics made him a controversial figure during his boxing career. His taunts and quips were as quick as his fists and he backed away from nothing including the horrible disease that claimed him in the end. He mellowed somewhat once his career in the ring ended and he became an active humanitarian and goodwill ambassador around the world, not just at home.
The positioning of the Ali Centre in Louisville right on the Mississippi is to me quite significant. Nothing can stop the mighty river and nothing could stop Ali in or out of the ring. A visit to the Ali Centre is well worth it.
Next stop was lunch at the Golden Corral. At $8.49 for all you can eat is sensational. No one leaves a Golden Corral disappointed. Nor does anyone go away from the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont empty handed. Not necessarily booze, but merchandise disappears off the shelves in the blink of an eye. A lot of it will finish up in the Gippsland Valley in Victoria. We didn’t tour at Jim Beam, preferring to leave that smelling and tasting pleasure until Jack Daniels on Saturday.
With not much time left in the day we commenced the drive back to Shepherdsville via Bardstown along the Bourbon Trail. So named because of the number of Distilleries along its 200 mile round trip. We didn’t do that many preferring to stay local and visit the Heaven Hill Distillery as our last inspection. This one is huge with quite a number of brands under their umbrella. Opposite the plant are 30 or so giant rickhouses which store the barrels of aging bourbon for as many years as the distiller decides. The longer the better of course.
A regular size rickhouse of nine stories holds 20,000 barrels, roughly one million gallons of bourbon. The taste and quality depends entirely upon exactly where they put the barrel and on which level it lives for up to 12 years.
Dinner was at Cracker Barrel (but there was no bourbon in a barrel) and as usual it was a good feed of grandma’s home cookin’.
Day 9 Wednesday May 29th
With no racing last night, tonight or tomorrow night, there was of course no sign of any rain on the horizon. So it was under a clear and beautiful sky that we set off for Tennessee. First stop after a couple of hours of driving was the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s easy to find. Just look for the giant GM Corvette assembly plant across the road. And if it wasn’t located under the spire of the Museum, also look for the giant sinkhole that opened up in 2014 and swallowed eight corvettes. But more about that later.
$12, or $10 for Seniors gets you in. Or, if you are ever contemplating visiting the Museum in the future and you reckon that Anita might be on the cash register, then pack some Tim Tams and you’ll get your whole party in for free. As with anything the creative folk in America do, the Museum is a pleasure to spend an hour in. Some interactive displays mixed with incredibly expensive historic Corvettes make for a fun experience.
But back to the loss of the Corvettes. Sometime before 5.30am on February 12th 2014 the sinkhole began to form. At 5.44am the motion detector alarms began going off and the cops were called. Security cameras then filmed what happened next. It captured vision of eight cars disappearing into a hole 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep. (12 x 8 metres). All cars were eventually retrieved from the rubble, but only three were painstakingly restored. The other five have been put back on display exactly as they were retrieved from 30 feet under dirt and rocks. ie mangled beyond belief.
From corvettes we travelled to sprintcars at J&J Auto Racing in McKenzie, Tennessee. The lovely Bonnie Elam hosted us and demonstrated her incredible knowledge of what makes a sprintcar tick, go fast and stay safe. Husband Jack who started the business 53 years ago was also on hand, but he and esteemed tour member Greg Foster from D&F Racing and Fabrication in Melbourne spent most of the time discussing welding techniques! It was as if they were old buddies from 30 years ago.
It really was a highly interesting 2½ hours we spent there. More so for those who make a living out of building and repairing sprintcars, but equally for me it was a great learning experience. Thanks so much Jack and Bonnie and we look forward to catching up with you in Nashville for the Outlaws on Friday and Saturday night.
130 miles later we were in Memphis checking in to the Comfort Inn right on the Mississippi river front. It’s home for the next two nights while we explore all things Elvis. And if he was alive I reckon he too would have been down on Beale Street tonight with thousands of others for the regular Wednesday Bike night that happens every week in summer. If you get a chance, go to Peter Physick’s Facebook page and look for the Facebook live experience on there for the date of May 29th 2019. Incredible.
But if you don’t think bikes are your thing then plan to be in Memphis on the last Tuesday of every month between April and October for Hot Rod night. It is the same experience where enthusiasts bring in their custom cars to park them on each side of Beale Street and just allow the folks to walk up and down the street with beers in hand to admire the polished metal and fibreglass.
Day 10 Thursday May 30th
Despite being in Elvis country, your Blogger did not visit Graceland or Sun Studios with the group, so I can’t relate what happened, or comment on the fun and games. If I hadn’t made this decision I still wouldn’t have caught up with the Blog, or the movie of the first 1/3rd of the tour. Click here to watch it.
As you might imagine, the Trustees of the Elvis estate milk it for as much as they can. The most appropriate tour in my view is the Elvis Experience, plus the planes for US$66.00. It gets you Graceland the Mansion, the grounds, the planes and the brand new Museums.
Sun Studio tickets cost US$14 and tours leave every hour on the bottom of the hour. That’s fancy talk for ½ past the hour.
The gigantic Bass Pro store down on the river was next up. If you know what the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas looks like then you would recognise the Memphis Bass Pro. Simply beyond belief. Like the Luxor, which has Hotel rooms and casinos inside the pyramid, Bass Pro also has a Hotel plus an enormous retail space selling everything a hunter needs to catch or kill an animal.
For food tonight we went out to the suburbs and found an Applebee’s restaurant. Not sure why I keep returning to these places given the poor experience in New York on the 2016 Month of Money tour, but I do. This one’s redeeming feature was its great Rib Eye steaks and the fact that they showed the opening game of the NBA playoffs between Golden State Warriors and Toronto. The Raptors won Game 1 at home by nine points.
Tennessee is a pretty cool state. Not cold, just cool. Tons of stuff to do and clearly powered by Jack Daniel’s which is where we are headed tomorrow morning. But first we had to leave Memphis via the other Bass Pro store out along I-40 so Greg could complete his shopping order for a lucky member of the Foster family. With that done we took off for Murfreesboro.
Now you like me, have probably never heard of the town of Murfreesboro before you just read it here. It lies pretty well halfway between Nashville and Lynchburg, the home of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. Seemed sensible to stay there for two nights, particularly given the hotels in Nashville were asking and getting over US$400 per night per room for the each of the two nights we were there. Still never found out why the spike in prices. Perhaps it was the Music City Outlaw Nationals racing at the Fairgrounds on a specially constructed dirt track inside the ½ mile high banked paved NASCAR track.
But no, I don’t really think so, even though the races are the sole reason we are in Nashville.
Nothing out of the ordinary occurred on the journey to Murfreesboro. It doesn’t matter what freeway you take, the road is still clogged with semi-trailers. Aussies would simply call them trucks but here in the land of the pick-up truck the correct terminology needs to be considered. Every man and his dog appears to own a pick-up. If it’s not that, it’s an SUV with a sedan a distant third – a relic of the past. However the smokies still use sedans to sit in the divided area of the freeway with a radar gun trained on all approaching vehicles. The other gun presumably sits on the front seat, just in case.
Successfully avoiding all these potential impediments allowed us to make a 2.00pm arrival at the Best Western Hotel. One of 12 hotels all grouped together. And, as we were to find out later in the evening after getting home from the speedway, all 13 were full. The number of people who use hotels in the USA never ceases to amaze. As do those who don’t eat their evening meal at home. ie They eat out somewhere.
Remember that Bass Pro store we went to in Memphis yesterday? And the second one in Memphis this morning? Well Greg still hadn’t got what he was after, so a third visit this time to the Nashville store was required. It’s up on Opryland Drive pretty well next door to you guessed it. The Grand Ole Opry. But that will be tomorrow. Next door to both of these are the Opry Mills, a rather large Outlet Centre but that too was ignored because Edinburgh back in Indiana next Friday is for that. So it was just the Bass Pro. And Greg had success in there as well so it was a good day all round.
Nearing 4.00pm meant it was now time to head to the Nashville Fairgrounds. It has a very posh address too. Smith Street; Nashville. $10 to park your car gets you in and another $45 admits into the races. Expensive when you start converting that back into Oz dollars. AUD$67 for a sprintcar race. Although the Kiwis amongst us (good morning Bryce if you’re reading this) it’s worse. Try NZ$74.
If you’re evaluating the racing against the cost to get in, then the answer is definitely not in our favour. The Friday night was disastrous. The tiny ¼ mile dirt track was purpose built over part of the existing 1 mile NASCAR banked track. Turn 1 was almost a left angle, it was that tight. The permanently open pit entrance “gate” was between turns 1 and 2 and mouths remained agape as the cars seemingly would at some point disappear into the pits in trying to negotiate that end. The track disintegrated into disrepair as the night wore on and the feature was a one lane follow the leader exercise.
All in all not a good night for the organisers and a slap in the face to the World of Outlaws I would think. However Donny Schatz was happy with his win as was the local Nashville paper The Tennessean whose headline on Saturday morning of “Donny Schatz holds off Tony Stewart to win a thriller at the Fairgrounds” seemed to be milking the NASCAR connection just a little. Stewart in fact finished 13th.
Apparently we haven’t seen enough bourbon so far on the trip! It was now time to sample some more. Lynchburg, Tennessee was calling our name so away we went for the pre-arranged 10.30am tour of this historic old distillery. A very pretty place is Lynchburg which has just 365 residents. The distillery beats it with its 371 employees. But hundreds of thousands visit Lynchburg yearly to see where America’s favourite Tennessee whiskey is made.
The first thing that immediately grabs your attention is the black trees and black buildings that clearly have some kind of coating on them. In fact it is called Baudoinia compniacensis. (I had to look that up.) The trees do sprout beautiful green foliage, but their bark is a deep black colour. This phenomenon isn’t natural, but a fungus that feeds off the ethanol which is released into the air from the distillation and aging processes that the whiskey goes through. It was the gangsters’ downfall during the prohibition era. Elliot Ness and his mates simply looked for the black bark trees and made their arrests.
The tour itself at US$20 goes for 90 minutes and concludes with a tasting of five nips of different Jack products. Well worth the money, especially if you go with someone who is not a whiskey / bourbon drinker. You’ll finish up with 10 nips all to yourself. Didn’t you Pete?
Once the tour was done we hightailed it up to Nashville 70 miles north where we had a 2.30pm backstage tour of the Grand Ole Opry awaiting us. This time it was US$33 and again it was well worth the expenditure. It was pretty much a production line tour with the group behind us (the 2.40pm tour) right up our clacker all the time. But it worked OK and they kept a reasonable buffer between us, except for in the Gift shop which everyone spilled into at tour end.
Keeping to a fairly strict timetable meant there was no time to see anything else in the Opryland precinct. It was back to the Fairgrounds for night 2 of the inaugural Outlaw Music City Nationals. The question on everyone’s lips was would it be both the first and last Music City Nationals if things didn’t improve tonight. The nightly cost of admission was high at US$45 (AUD$67) and car parking at AUD$15. But it’s what you pay knowing the Outlaws do give you a great show provided they are given a track to do so.
Plenty of others thought so as well as the people turned up in their thousands, completely oblivious no doubt to last night’s debacle. Google says the very large grandstand holds 15,000 people. Let’s agree with that for the sake of working out how many were there. I’d say it was 80% full therefore meaning there were 12,000 folks who each paid US$45. I’ll save you the trouble. That’s US$540,000. Which probably explains why he was able to send a few people up to the roof of the giant grandstand and release 2,000 $1 bills into the crowd below. As they came fluttering down those who had seen it before knew how to catch them. Simply take off your cap and catch them in that.
Anyway, the racing was substantially improved. There had been no noticeable change to the track configuration, but it had been prepared much better and the drivers to their credit adapted significantly better. Shane Stewart took the $15,000 win, his first for the season.
If it’s Sunday and it ain’t rainin’ then Kokomo is the place to be. Trouble is it was 360 miles (612 kms) away so a six hour drive was required to get there in plenty of time for the pre-race festivities. With the fabulous US road system it wasn’t difficult and not even the all you can eat buffet at KFC in Martinsville delayed us too long. Although Greg had some bathroom repercussions later that night.
Kokomo, indeed most of Indiana like other mid-west US states, has had a ton of rain lately and grounds are saturated. As you drive through the rural areas the fields lie fallow for the coming season. Not intentional, the farmers just can’t get their equipment into the fields. By now in early June the corn should be in the field, but it isn’t and its highly unusual to say the least.
Speedways have a similar problem. But in reverse. The track surface dries out pretty quickly, but then the weirdest thing happens. It dries out too much and the promoter often can’t get their heavy equipment and water trucks to the track because the surrounds are so wet. And so we have a dusty race. No good for the drivers and certainly no good for the spectators.
The Kokomo parking lot was heavy with ground water still evident and large tracts of it were out of bounds to cars. Many were parked out on the street. The pits and track however had been well manicured and the racing went ahead without any issues. The feature was a classic with Justin Grant taking the win by a nose from Thomas Meseraull and Kevin Thomas Jnr.
The tour got larger today with the addition of a new member who flew in from Melbourne. The group drove back down to Indianapolis to meet Russell Baker at the airport for his second successive tour with us. It was a fairly uneventful day with a highlight being the swapping of tour vehicles to allow for the increased capacity. Sometimes car rental companies can be difficult, but in the end we were happy.
Dinner was superb at the Coachman Steakhouse in Plainfield. Steaks and great service were the order of the day followed by a get together in the parking lot of the Hotel to welcome Russell back to the US. I know that may sound strange to some, but it’s what you do on a pleasant warm night in the mid-west of the USA.
Day 15 Tuesday June 4th
Self-appointed luggage master Peter Greenwood has a job that evolves each day. As the bags are brought down to the bus each morning, many have changed shape with yesterday’s purchases having been shoe-horned into them, not to mention the corresponding weight increase. Often there are simply more suitcases than yesterday. Wal-Mart and the Outlet Stores have a lot to answer for. Having got it right one day, the Lego building experience he gained as a boy returns to assist him put the jigsaw puzzle back together again.
Barry Lane is the esky re-filler. It’s his job to ensure a never ending hydration supply. Water, coke (both regular and diet), beer (Bud regular, Bud light, Busch and Corona), plus bourbon and Bacardi. It’s a very important role as we can’t afford to have anyone pass out through a lack of liquidity. If they pass out through too much liquid, then that’s another story altogether. After the re-fill, it’s a walk to the Hotel ice machine on the ground floor to fill our large bucket with free ice.
If the machine is empty, because someone beat us to it with their own bucket, then simply walk up to the machine on Level 2. (There is no Level one in US buildings by the way – Level 1 is the ground floor.) Then tip out yesterday’s melted ice and replace with fresh.
After all those duties are accomplished, it’s back on the road again to the next destination. Today it was the Ganassi Indycar team where we have gone every year for 10 years. To that extent I was honoured to be able to present an Appreciation plaque to Grant Weaver and Ganassi for their help in establishing Global Speedway Tours as the preferred tour supplier for so many Australians. Today’s excellent host was Nick Ford as Grant was in France with the Sports car team for the forthcoming Le Mans race.
The date for today’s visit to Ganassi was strategically chosen to ensure the Indycars were in the shop. Last weekend was the Detroit race and next weekend is the Texas race. Monday and Tuesday would see the cars being dismantled and re-assembled by the hordes of mechanics employed by Chip Ganassi. He’s the boss man, who in all these years we have never met, but maybe one day ……
A very good friend of Global Speedway Tours however who we have met, and very often, is Dave Argabright. Respected author, biographer and now national TV commentator with Lucas Oil Television. We met Dave today for lunch at the Pit Stop BBQ restaurant in Brownsburg. It’s a regular stop for us along the trail of places to eat which have a race flavour. Dave was as always wonderful company who enthralled the guys with tales of Jimmy Sills whose biography is in the final stages of completion before the book hits the printer. Sills visited Australia many times and there are several chapters in the book devoted to his experiences downunder.
After lunch, I-69 got our attention for an hour or so as we punched north up to Gas City where we would stay for the next two nights at the Best Western Plus hotel. Firstly for tonight’s Indiana Midget Week opener at Montpelier and night 2 tomorrow at Gas City.
I have described the short drive to Montpelier before as something from out of the movies. The houses and farms are such that the fabulous old Greenacres television show could well have been filmed in Montpelier. And that’s not to be derogatory. It’s just how life was here in the 60’s and Hollywood went out of its way to stereotype rural America in that way. But I’m not sure that Hooterville had a dirt track speedway like Montpelier does. On any given night it is basic and very much down to earth. But tonight that earth is sodden and soft and was just waiting to catch unsuspecting tourists in its bog. The inches and inches of rain the area has had in recent weeks had been damaging. In fact tonight was the first time this season that the track had been able to get race cars on it.
So yes we drove in, quickly finding Stubb’s parking spot with the grill alight and cooking a chicken dinner for us. We followed his instructions as to where to park and then immediately sank into the mire that looked like a dry patch of ground. It was quickly evident that we weren’t going to move anywhere until someone or something pulled us out. Kind strangers pushing from the front were of no use. Stubb decided that the solid chain he had to hook onto his tow bar and wrap around our rear end was the answer. With both Chevy V8 engines straining away the big van slowly moved and rolled back out onto dry land where it stayed for the balance of the night.
The food was good, the company was excellent, the beer was cold and the racing was fast, but regretfully most spectators couldn’t see it for the dust. Ironic indeed that there was so much dust, given they had had so much rain. But one scenario used to explain it was that the track dries out way more quickly than the surrounds and it subsequently needed water. But they simply couldn’t get the heavy machinery to the track to provide the necessary lubrication.
Logan Seavey won from Tanner Thorson (first drive back since his near fatal road accident in California) and Zeb Wise.
Day 16 Wednesday June 5th
A welcome sleep in allowed some re-charging of batteries and it wasn’t until 11.00am that Chloe saw us at James Dean’s historical museum in Fairmount. Chloe is the great dog that welcomes everyone to the house. She makes no distinction between visitors and even treats Geelong supporter Russell Baker like a normal person.
Memories of how James died in such horrible circumstances are relived and souvenirs are purchased. As we prepare to leave, Chloe sits on the patio deck and watches us, although secretly I think she’s looking for squirrels to chase in the garden.
With hours to go before we were needed at Gas City, it was a case of fulfilling needs and wants of tour members. Greg had notes for Rural King, “America’s Farm and Home Store” where the possibility of boots for daughter Jodie weighed on his mind. He was dropped off there while others bought mobile phones to take back to Australia. The trail for the mobile phones then led us to Muncie and the Verizon store there.
Eventually with everyone satisfied we left for Gas City amid a brewing thunderstorm. Not a desired meteorological condition for race fans. But as we drove through it and came out the other end, as often happens here, the weather brightened quickly and a beautiful afternoon and evening eventuated.
Stubb was present again with grill burning, but now with bratwurst on it. Although the Gas City parking area was in a similar condition to Montpelier, this time we were on solid ground and remained so all night being able to drive in and out under our own steam. As always Stubb’s friends dropped in throughout the afternoon ready to abuse him in a friendly fashion for some reason or another. It’s very entertaining to watch as each of them try to get the better of him. Because of the weather and lengthy rainy spells, for some it’s the first time they have seen each other for the racing season and there was much to catch up on.
Racing was conducted on a perfectly manicured track and the promotion should be congratulated on the presentation of the whole show. Not that they could take the credit for the sunset, but it too was memorable. Michael Pickens from New Zealand was impressive getting up to third in the A Main and gaining on the two ahead of him. Whether he would have caught them will never be known as the cardinal sin of racing occurred with three laps to go when he ran out of gas.
Justin Grant did have enough fuel to win, but only narrowly from a very impressive Cannon McIntosh, another relatively unknown youngster who is born in this millennium, is the size of a jockey, has no fear and can drive fast. Very fast. How they can do what they do at such a young age beggars belief ….
Day 17 Thursday June 6th
Bryan Clauson lived in Noblesville, 30 miles or so north of Indianapolis. Most readers would know that he was killed in a midget at Belleville in Kansas in August 2016. Last year the city and the Indiana Racing Memorial Association erected a marker plaque in Forest Park near his home. It always seems fitting to call in and pay our respects on the way through from Gas City to Putnamville for Round 3 of Midget week. A drive that Bryan would have done countless times.
Dave Argabright lives in Noblesville as well, so it was appropriate that we called in to see him to get him to sign Russell’s copy of “Modern Thunder”, Dave’s latest book on the history of USAC from 1981 to 2017. From Noblesville we moved on to Brownsburg to a joint called Cold Hard Art where the entertainment came from the owner whose talent to make artistic pieces from engine parts is only exceeded by his ability to talk!!
A late lunch at Denny’s on I-65 took us past 3.00pm which then allowed us to check into the Edinburgh Comfort Inn, directly adjacent to the Premium Outlet Stores where the guys will visit on Saturday morning.
We weren’t to know it just yet, but tonight we were treated to the best race of the 2019 Indiana Midget week. Putnamville lived up to its reputation with a vicious cushion which took out the best driver in dirt track racing at the moment, although he only makes guest appearances when his NASCAR owner allows him too. Of course I speak of Kyle Larson and that NASCAR owner is Chip Ganassi.
The final seven laps at Putnamville were electric. Wild might be a better word. After a yellow, the race resumed with Tanner Thorson, Kevin Thomas Jnr and Logan Seavey engaged in “slide job city” with punch after counter punch being thrown by the unbelievably talented drivers of these rocketships. And then an orange and black streak with #97 on the tank arrived on the high side with Kyle Larson in the seat. He poked his nose in time and time again and at one stage he stuck it into the lead, only to be thrown a haymaker by Thorson, Thomas and Seavey all at once and he went back to fourth equally as quickly.
But still Larson kept on coming, riding the treacherous cushion with skill and daring. Surely it was just a matter of moments before he sent the car into the night sky and that he did on turn 2 on the last lap when 24 inches of built up clay jumped out and bit him. The reds came on, Larson climbed out of the car to enormous applause from his fans and he trudged back to the pits with helmet in hand wondering what could have been. But the folks on the hill kept on cheering as they had just witnessed something magical from the freak in the orange streak.
Thorson went on to win making his comeback from a near fatal highway accident complete.
Day 18 Friday June 7th
A big, big day with visits to two mega profile race shops. Both were arranged, but the tour host still has butterflies right up until you actually leave said premises.
First up was the KKM shop in Columbus, Indiana. Keith Kunz Motorsports can best be explained by reading this excellent article about how he built an empire. Quite a remarkable story about giving back, while at the same time sustaining a good living from racing midgets. Usually a next to impossible task.
I asked Keith while at the shop whether anyone in winged sprintcar racing is doing, or contemplating doing the same thing in that sphere of the sport. His answer was yes and his answer surprised me, but it’s not for me to announce who that is.
It’s a jaw dropping experience at KKM. In years past Keith and his partner Pete Willoughby have shied away from publicity preferring to let their results on the track speak for themselves. Including shielding the address of their shop from all potential visitors. Now (having moved to new and expanded premises) they encourage visitors, particularly enthusiasts from Australia and New Zealand. Of the 50 visitors when we were there today, 35 of them were from the southern hemisphere.
The first thing you see when walking in the front door is Christopher Bell’s 2019 Chili Bowl winning car. Sitting on an elevated pedestal, it proudly and distinctly illustrates what this company is all about. Winning midget races. Behind it, and to its right and left, is the evidence of their results. Dozens and dozens of very large trophies that have been accumulated over the years. There is no big race in the USA that KKM have not won at least three times.
Maybe I lost count, but there were a minimum of 15 midgets in full race mode, but in varying degrees of assembly. The nine cars which raced last night at Putnamville were there having arrived at the shop around midnight and unloaded from the three giant haulers. A team of weary mechanics starts work at 2.00am to strip all the cars, wash them, check every nut and bolt and then put them back together again ready for tonight at Bloomington.
The cars each car sit up on a stand (minus wheels and tyres) with a clipboard attached upon which everything that has been done to that car since it arrived back in the shop is carefully recorded. It reminds me exactly of a patient in hospital lying there in the ward after surgery. The trainee doctors and nurses have their jobs and must record all details about your health. Then Dr Kunz comes along and picks up the clipboard to read the notes and approve the work before moving onto to the next patient in the adjoining bed. Quite remarkable.
From the spick and span cleanliness of KKM, we changed tact a little when we arrived in Bloomington at the home and race shop of the King – Steve Kinser. His brother Randy had kindly arranged for the visit in conjunction with good friend Ian Speed. He did this for our group last year too, but unfortunately Steve slept through the visit after a huge storm had blown down a tree on his property and severed all power! The outage had caused all six rather large garage doors to go up in the middle of the storm so Steve sat there protecting his race shop all night.
So it was with my fingers fully crossed under the steering wheel that we undertook the 80 minute drive to Bloomington hoping that Steve would be awake this time. I just wished I had had a video camera ready for when we got there. There are eight acres of lawn surrounding the house and race shop. It is immaculately kept by Steve and from the last visit I had determined that because he doesn’t drive sprintcars anymore, the ride-on lawnmowers get a huge workout from the King’s right foot. Or is right hand?
As we drove up, we could see a ride-on out there in the distance. As we stopped, it stopped. The operator put his hand up to his eyes to shield the sun to see who it was. Then it started to move forward directly headed for us. Alongside the mower almost as if to guide the driver, ran two beautiful dogs. As it grew closer we realised who it was. I’m not sure whose welcome was more sincere. The dogs’ or Steve Kinser, the greatest sprintcar driver ever. Full stop.
He apologised for last year’s absence and then settled into showing us around a shop which his team worked out of for 40 years. And yes, there is still evidence of stuff in that shop that he used 40 years ago. Keith Kunz would have thrown it out. But Steve Kinser keeps those memories. Probably fair to say that even Steve would have to look hard to find what he was looking for, but eventually he would locate it.
Although his hearing is now relatively poor, no doubt caused by the unmuffled sprintcars he drove for 40 years, his recall is still sharp as he and Randy recounted plenty of memories from their trips to Australia. I asked Steve if he knew what an esky was? “Shit yeah” he said, so it seemed the ideal occasion to retrieve it from the Chevy outside and take it into the shop. It was placed it in the middle of the circle we had formed to listen to Steve’s adventure stories.
The beers were many and ice cold, while the reception we received from Steve and Randy was genuinely warm and friendly. As I gazed around the Aussie group, cans in hand lapping up the stories and asking questions of a man who won 20 World of Outlaw championships, 690 feature races and took the chequered flag at the Knoxville Nationals 12 times I realised just how big an occasion this was. The many and varied expressions on their faces were fabulous. And if I had had a mirror I’m sure mine would have been the same.
An obvious question to ask of Steve was whether he would be going to the track tonight for Round 4 of Indiana Midget week. With a shrug of the shoulders he replied “I might. You know in all my life I’ve never seen midgets run at Bloomington. I’ve always been away on the road.”
I wasn’t sure how to finish what was happening, but Steve did that for me. When he’d had enough beer he put the Bud light down, graciously thanked us for coming and returned to the saddle and rode off to some far corner of the property to mow a bit of lawn he hadn’t yet got to. Strangely the dogs remained with us as Randy concluded the tour of the shop. And he said to us, “Steve won’t be there tonight.” And he was right. Steve just doesn’t go to the races anymore unless it’s to sell T-shirts with Dana.
We piled into the Chevy and headed for Bloomington Speedway which is about a four minute drive from the Kinser house. Thrilled with what had just transpired. On the way I let Dave Argabright know that Steve Kinser is ready for the call that will start the Kinser biography.
Tonight’s racing wasn’t up to last night’s thriller. But then again it may have been if we could have seen it properly. Without any doubt Bloomington has the worst lighting of any track we go to on our tours. Now that USAC are promoting races there, just maybe they could outlay some capital expenditure for new LED lighting? Just a thought …..
Tyler (Sunshine) Courtney won to become the fourth different winner in four nights. A usual phenomenon of Midget week, such is the level of competition. Logan Seavey was second, thus maintaining his points lead for the series and Chad Boat was third.
Day 19 Saturday June 8th
Shopping at the Premium Outlet Stores here in Edinburgh took precedence this morning. Much to the tour members’ disgust, shops don’t open here until 10 o’clock so they had to wait around keeping their credit cards warm in their pockets until they could be put to work at 10.01am. See, men are good shoppers too …..
Remember Peter Greenwood’s job on tour? Loading the luggage in. Well he made it difficult for himself this morning with another suitcase purchase. “Now where will I put that,” he wondered? The Chevy was eventually loaded to the hilt and it took off out onto I-65 for yet another Wal-Mart visit and, not surprisingly, another stop at Verizon in Greensburg for Russell.
No sooner than we had driven three miles than a message popped up onto the driver’s dashboard. Without a word of a lie it said. “Air pressure too low in left rear tyre. Please inflate”. Yep, even the Chev could feel the extra weight on board.
Wal-Mart gave us a some laughs when buying Subway for lunch. Simpsons’ fans will know Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. (You’re right I didn’t know his last name either, but Wikipedia did.) Apu ran the Kwik-e-Mart in Springfield and was famous for his catch phrase “Thank you, come again.” Well I’m here to tell you that Apu’s brother runs the Subway store inside Wal-Mart at Greensburg. And his wife Manjula assists him by cutting the rolls in half for Apu to complete the order and then take the money.
In the case of our Greensburg Apu, he must have gone through 20 sets of plastic gloves while we were there. Insisting on making the sandwich, removing the gloves, taking the money, putting new gloves back on, make the next sandwich, then repeat ……
Meanwhile back at Lawrenceburg (we were here two weeks ago for the World of Outlaws) we once again parked next to Mike and Laura in their RV and enjoyed friendly conversation with them and whoever dropped in. Unfortunately it was a poor crowd for Round 5. A little chilly and with rain threatening, the show went ahead and it was completed before the rain came down. It wasn’t surprising that Chris Windom won the feature (the fifth different winner) but it was surprising to find out that it was his first ever USAC national midget win. Chad Boat was second and the consistent Logan Seavey third.
By the time the rain did start we were back in the hotel with the laptop hooked up to the big TV in the foyer and a crowd of folks watching live streaming of racing from across America. Racing from Pennsylvania, Minnesota and California got our attention on a Saturday night deep inside Indiana. What more could you want? Well that last question was satisfied when Stu McCarthy, who was guest commentating at the Peter Murphy Classic in Tulare, gave all the people in the Quality Inn in Lawrenceburg watching the live stream with us folk from Global Speedway Tours Australia a big shout out.
“Huh? Where did that come from?”
Day 20 Sunday June 9th
Tiredness got the better of all of us last night when we crashed before the 410 feature in the Peter Murphy Classic. We had set the laptop up to the big screen in the Hotel foyer (with permission) to watch live on Speed Shift TV and Dirtvision, the races still to be completed around America on Saturday night.
The esky was brought in on the luggage trolley, visiting American race fans staying in the Hotel asked if they could join us and together we all watched the heats from the Peter Murphy Classic in Tulare, California, the second of two 410 winged features from Port Royal in Pennsylvania, then the World of Outlaws A Main from Granite City in Minnesota and then returned to the re-run of the previously rained out Peter Murphy Classic to watch the Pole Shuffle and the 360 A Main. By now it was 1.00am and enthusiasm had waned. In fact after I woke up on the couch to notice there was only two hardy souls still left watching, it was agreed we would pack it up.
This morning at breakfast the speedway websites were reporting that Rico Abreu had won the 410 A Main in a barnburner of a race.
For us it was an 8.00am start this morning in the direction of Dayton. I know the tour goes here every time, but the Dayton Air Force Museum is one of a kind. If you’re within 150 miles of it you should go. And once again it didn’t disappoint.
Whilst writing the Blog in the cafeteria, which is par for the course every time we visit here, the dreaded e-mail came through from USAC that heavy and persistent rain in Kokomo had left the promoter no choice but to completely cancel Round 6 of Midget week. It will not be re-run. Hence the Midget week champion was declared to be Logan Seavey who was leading on points after R5.
So be it I guess. Not what anyone wants, except those who need to catch up on sleep before Chicago and then do it all again next week in Illinois for the POWRi speed week.
We still drove through to Kokomo as that is where our accom was for the night. Given that the races were rained out, dinner (or at least the first US$25 of it) was free for everyone. Global Speedway Tours picked up the cost of what would otherwise have been admission tickets into Kokomo. The Texas Roadhouse had our custom tonight and it was fantastic. Surely they could legitimately claim to have the best steaks in America?
The rain continued to thunder down in Kokomo and for about the first hour of our drive to Chicago. But by the time we reached the northern end of the Meadow Lake wind farm on I-65, the rain and clouds had gone and a beautiful spring day emerged. This wind farm by the way is enormous. 414 wind turbines dot the landscape on either side of the Interstate. Dot is probably not the right word as each turbine is 125 metres (412 feet) tall, and each of the three blades are 54 metres (178 feet) long. At maximum speed the tip of each blade is travelling at 288 kph (180mph). The 414 turbines produce sufficient electricity to completely power 220,000 houses.
The greenies like these things because of the renewable clean energy they create, but equally they then complain about the roughly quarter of a million birds that are massacred each year by the blades. That’s a tragedy of course, but they overlook the fact that 2.4 billion birds are killed by domestic cats each year in the US alone!!
The usual stop in Merrillville at Hooters was again on the agenda. The birds here are still alive and serving the fellas hamburgers and chicken wings. Merrillville is about 40 miles out of Chicago and serves a useful purpose in delaying our Chicago arrival until 3.00pm when hotel check-in is allowed. It also provides a way to use up the extra hour gained when crossing into Illinois.
The big Chev negotiated the immense traffic on I-80 and I-94 which join as one during their journey through the south side of Chicago. In some places on this road(?) there are 32 lanes (16 each way) to cope with the volume of through traffic. Note that by traffic I mean trucks! Eventually we arrived at The Tremont Hotel, an historic establishment on East Chestnut Street, just 100 metres off the Magnificent Mile, aka Michigan Ave. Now to find somewhere to park the Chevy, but the memory genes came in handy as I took it to the exact same place as last year. An outdoor vacant lot for US$38 / night. And there it will stay until Wednesday morning.
Tour members went their separate ways for a few hours before re-grouping for dinner at “Dick’s Last Resort”. We keep on going here because a) it’s good fun with the servers encouraged to abuse you and they encourage the same back: b) the food and drink is good: and c) it’s absolutely the best spot to sit out on the balcony and watch the passing traffic on the Chicago River right next to you.
Day 22 Tuesday June 11th
A variety of choices were made today with splinter groups being formed. I sat on the fence and stayed in the hotel writing the Blog and Facebook updates plus Movie #2 of the tour so far. All worthwhile enterprises for the folks back home.
In the evening we took the Red line subway (nicknamed the L Train because of the word elevated would you believe) to the baseball. Most tracks are underground, but some in the city and the burbs are on elevated steel platforms. I’m sure you must have seen them in various movies and TV shows set in Chicago. It was rush hour (peak hour for us) so the trains were packed with weary commuters heading home to sleep before getting up again tomorrow and doing it all again.
Sox-35th is the station to get off at. It’s 35th Street where Guaranteed Rate Field is, the home of the Chicago White Sox baseball team who play in the American League. (The Chicago Cubs who play across town are in the National League.) We were one man down for the baseball with Barry retiring hurt after a strenuous day of exploration. Those who backed up for the baseball had a great time.
It’s an event to go to a ball game. There is never a moment when something isn’t happening. Something that speedway promoters can take heed of over here. With maybe a maximum of 15,000 in the 40,000-seat stadium, the Washington Nationals took an early 2-0 lead in the first innings, but the Sox came powering back in the bottom of the first with a grand slam from Castillo to go 4-2 up. It soared over the centre field fence. The home side then maintained their lead through to the ninth to eventually finish up winning 7-5.
The trip home in the L train was an eye opener with the locals putting on a show. Not that they knew they were. It was just a regular night out for them, but for some touring Aussies it was a fun thing to do some people watching.
The weather in Chicago had been 10/10. Warm crisp days and zero wind. For us the town could have been called the Sunny City, rather than the Windy one. It was faultless. We weren’t to know it however, but the worst week of speedway touring yet was about to confront us, thanks to the incredibly wet spring the midwest had already had. And it wasn’t about to get better anytime soon.
We left the terrific Tremont Hotel around 8.30am ready for a huge day which would culminate tonight at “Little Belleville” in the Belle Clair Fairgrounds east of St Louis for night 1 of Illinois Midget week. Last year’s race there was probably the best of the tour, so expectations were high that 2019 might be the same.
It was about the 35-mile marker on 1-55 that my phone buzzed with the old car horn text noise. It was from Laura Henderson who had been monitoring the POWRi Facebook page only to discover that tonight had already been cancelled because of the weather. “What the f#*@”? It was overcast where we were 220 miles away, but surely they couldn’t call it this early. But true enough, from down the back of the bus, Barry grabbed his phone and verified the info. Hands punching seats and slapping windows could be heard as a bunch of midget fans expressed their disappointment. No doubt the same would have been happening for the Kiwis on tour with Bryce Townsend. We run into each other everywhere we go. But not tonight it appears ……
If there was any consolation (there couldn’t be) it was that we now had more time up our sleeve to complete what was always going to be a busy day. First stop was at the Joliet Welcome Centre to collect literature about Route 66, see the Edmonds midget on display from the days of racing at the old Joliet Stadium and have our photo taken with Jake and Elwood. A quick drive around the now modernised stadium threw a little light on how they would have fitted a track in there. Much like the old 16th Street baseball stadium in Indianapolis.
The massive complex that is the Chicagoland NASCAR track, Route 66 Raceway (the drag strip) and the half mile dirt oval looms large on the left as you motor along historic Route 66 out of Joliet. Heading up the Dragway operations is Charlie Lindsey who I met by accident nearly 10 years ago when we called in unannounced. Charlie was kind enough to allow us entry into the drag strip and the dirt oval which back then was only used for demolition derbies. Since then, with a more formalised arrangement, we now get guided tours of the enormous NASCAR grandstands and media area and go right to the top where the spotters stand. Today there were three NASCAR teams doing tyre testing.
At the drag strip we presented Charlie with a 10-year appreciation plaque as we had previously done with Dave Argabright and Ganassi Racing last week. He was rapt.
The next three hours were a hoot. Entirely unexpected fun with a capital F. 60 or so miles away in Illinois is a town called Streator. For non-speedway tourists I doubt that Streator would ever appear on their itinerary. But for someone who is a midget racing fan of the baby boomer era, then Streator is well and truly known to them as the home of Bob Tattersall. Tatts died in 1971, not from a racing accident, but from lung cancer. Just one year before he died, his earnings from racing brought him and his wife Dee a home in Streator which she still lives in today. It has a small well-maintained trophy room committed entirely to Bob’s exploits as a USAC midget driver and a regular visitor to Australia every summer. The memories in here are endless and 87-year-old Dee loves having visitors from Australia to wander through it.
A neighbour of mine back in Sydney is Steve Raymond, who together with his brother Mike, became synonymous with the name Tattersall at the Showground and Liverpool Speedways in the 60 & 70’s. Although it was Kym Bonython the promoter at Rowley Park in Adelaide who first brought Tattersall to Australia, it’s fair to say it was in Sydney that he had his biggest fan base when 35,000 would pack the Showground whenever Tatts was there to challenge the locals.
To bring Dee closer to Steve again I recorded a video interview with her which instantly went back to Australia via Facebook. The connection was a good one and I hope they meet face to face again one day.
We took Dee for a ride downtown to visit the large mural that is now on the wall of the Hombakers NAPA Store in Sterling Street. It was dedicated by the town in his honour and is truly a fitting reminder of how good Bob Tattersall was as a fearless driver in the era of non-roll cage midgets and speedcars. Not to mention his ability as a showman to whip the Australian crowds into a frenzy every Saturday night. I should say at this point that for age 87 Dee is as agile as a 37 year old. She swung in and out of the big Chevy van with an ease that none of the passengers travelling with us can!
After visiting Bob’s grave, we set sail for O’Fallon and drove through heavy rain in doing do, although we were still 150 miles from the Belle Clair Speedway. As we neared our destination the clouds thinned and lifted and there was no sign of water on the roads and surrounds of our Hotel. We began to wonder out loud just whether the Promoter had gone too early with his decision.
Further thoughts clouded our judgement later that night when we went to the local Texas Roadhouse for dinner and discovered that not only was game 6 of the NBA Playoffs on in Toronto, but game 7 of the NHL Ice Hockey Stanley Cup playoffs was also on from Boston. Of course, both were on TV and the joint was packed with not basketball fans, but ice hockey devotees from the St Louis Blues who were up 2-0 at the end of the second period when we arrived. They went on to take a miraculous victory 4-1 to win the Cup for the first time in their 52-year history. The Texas Roadhouse went berserk with delight.
Permit me to tell you a little about that achievement. The NHL season overlaps years. ie This season started in 2018 and ended in 2019. On Nov 20th 2018 the Blues sacked their coach of two years and replaced him with interim coach Craig Berube. The Club announced at the same time it would conduct a world wide search for the new Head Coach. At the time of Berube’s appointment the Blues were 30th on the NHL standings. Two weeks later they were rock bottom at 31st. Poor old coach Berube was not on solid ground. They remained 31st, even as the calendar flipped over to 2019.
The turn around was all about Berube treating every member of the team equally, no matter the money they earn. It is said he never looks at the back of the Blues’ playing strip where the names are. He just looks at the front where the team emblem is. But one team change made all the difference apparently. He sacked the goalkeeper and put in a kid named Jordan Binnington. He was the fourth best goalkeeper on their roster and was out on loan to a Minor League team. But Berube figured he was the best and called him up to the bigtime.. Instantly the Blues started winning and gradually commenced their rise up the ladder. Mind you they had 30 places to go to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For the balance of the 2019 St Louis won 30 games and lost 10. Binnington is credited with helping them win 24 of them by virtue of his goalkeeping exploits. The keeper was named Rookie of the Year in each of February and March and is a shoe in for the season Rookie of the Year to be announced shortly. All of that on the minimum wage of $650,000 / season.
The Blues finished the regular season in third place in the Central Division, thus giving them the right to start on the post season march to the Stanley Cup. It took them 16 winning games in various stages to earn the right to play the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup best of seven. And, as you have read above, the playoffs were tied 3-3 before tonight’s game.
This team will be worshipped forever in St Louis and their story should offer hope to every underachieving club in any sport.
Maybe all this was why the speedway promoter in St Louis didn’t want to run tonight’s Round 1 of Illinois Midget Week. Maybe he figured no one would turn up? Employees, drivers or fans.
To add further weight to our theory about last night’s cancellation, the Chev took off from the hotel in the direction of Belle Clair Fairgrounds. They were open. The gate wasn’t closed so the Chevy drove in to at least show the guys the track to say they’d been there. To our surprise we found a perfectly manicured racing surface that didn’t look like any rivers of rain had fallen anywhere near it.
Still bemused we headed into downtown St Louis for the trip to the top of the Arch. That was all the guys could do as 10 days before I had received the news that the Tom Sawyer Riverboat was marooned on the Mississippi with people unable to get to it to board. So that relaxing ride on the mighty river was canned. But they enjoyed the view from the very top of the Arch which is 630 feet (190 metres) above the river. Although its fair to say it’s a touch shorter than that at the moment. The Mississippi is currently at 41.33 feet, the seventh highest point in history following the constant spring rains the midwest has been having. The historical worst was in 1993 when the floods hit 49.58 feet high. For the record the lowest it’s ever been is 5.32 feet on Boxing Day in 1989.
The St Louis Flood Wall can cater for a level of 54 feet so there is no danger that the city is going to go under, but it will need to continue to do its job for weeks as the river isn’t expected to recede any time soon. I-55 Speedway down at Pevely in Missouri is currently underwater and hasn’t yet staged a race in 2019. Let’s hope it clears enough to race the Iron Man in August for our Month of Money tour members.
The Budweiser Brewery isn’t underwater, but their free tours were mixed up with the next one not until three hours after we arrived. Hence the guys missed out on a fun experience.
The weather as you can see in the above photograph of the Mississippi at the Arch was beautiful today, so there were no problems with Night 2 of Illinois Midget Week going ahead at Fayette County Speedway in Brownstown. Logan Seavey won from Tanner Thorson and Jesse Colwell, a clean sweep for the Kunz Motorsports team.
Day 25 Friday June 14th
Last night at Brownstown we again caught up with the incomparable Joe Dooling. The Dooling family has run midgets and sprintcars for decades. Since 1963 in fact. Easily rememberable because Joe and Darlene used the year of their debut for their car number. Their son Joe Junior took over the team as Joe Senior got older and Darlene passed away. However, their dalliance with these frightfully fast cars has now ceased following Bryan Clauson’s death in one of their midgets at Belleville, Kansas in August 2016. Nevertheless, their race shop and Joe’s house remain a wonderful memory of their 53 years of competition.
Lunch was with Joe at Chubby’s. Uncertain of what Chubby’s might be, we inquisitively followed Joe in his truck through various streets, many of which were lined by levee banks built to protect the suburbs of St Louis from the rising floodwaters. But no such concerns should have been flagged as outside Chubby’s were numerous restored cars and magnificent hand built hot rods. Finished ones, not like the street rod in the Dooling race shop which is nearly finished for Joe Junior.
The owners of all these superb vehicles were inside eating $2.50 cheeseburgers and assorted other ‘cheap as’ All-American food. “They bang on the doors at 11.00am” said Joe. “Pity help Chubby if he’s more than one minute late in opening.” The hot rodders, as we were to find out when Joe introduced us to them in the car park, are all retired businessmen who drive their rods to a different Diner each day of the week. Friday is always Chubby’s turn.
We were running behind schedule to get to Jacksonville tonight for R3 of midget week. But even so we had to stop at Staunton for the Country Classic Cars. An hour was enough before pointing the front wheels back onto Route 66 and taking it to Litchfield where afternoon tea with cake and pie was the priority at the Ariston Café.
It hadn’t rained yet, but it was going to. Not really fair really when all day the rain holds off to give you hope that it will continue to stay away for the night’s racing. But almost like clockwork, it starts around 5.30pm like it did again today as we made the 32-mile drive to Jacksonville from our Springfield Hotel. Kenny Dobson, the promoter at Jacksonville is one of the sport’s heroes. He tries and he tries to bring the best to his town and if it rains, he does his utmost to keep the show running until he can do no more.
Tonight, we saw him at his best standing out in the rain directing the heavy equipment onto the track to open it up to allow the water to soak into and not lay on it. A break in the weather came and he got racing underway again, but only for an hour or so before another shower was too much and this time there was insufficient time to work more miracles before his curfew came into play.
Speaking of miracles, he’s very good at finding lost Chevy van keys as well. Yours truly couldn’t find them when it was time to leave and around 15-20 people looked high and low for them until someone figured they should ask Kenny. After all, he does everything else at the track. With a big smile he produced them in an instant. Apparently, I had left them at the counter of the hamburger shop and in the hectic moments of trying to get the races back on he hadn’t had a chance to call it out over the PA. So, if you’re reading this Kenny, thank you for your efforts to get the racing finished and for finding the keys.
Day 26 Saturday June 15th
I didn’t even need to peek through the curtains to check out the weather. I could hear it. The rain was pounding the windows, the thunder was cracking sharply before descending into a slow rumble that lasted 30 seconds every time. Here it was. A typical American thunderstorm that deserves to be experienced …. but not on a race day. It didn’t take long before the news came through on Facebook that R4 at Macon tonight had been cancelled. Exactly the same scenario as last year, which also saw Lincoln rained out the next day.
But at least POWRi’s announcement this morning of Macon’s cancellation was followed with the news that they would advise on Lincoln at a later date. A plan for watching racing tonight was developing however.
Last minute visits to Walmart were taken advantage of before our departure for home on Monday. Every hotel we stay in is carefully chosen to ensure that it has something around it which can give those who don’t want to sleep in on any given morning, something to do. In Springfield’s case it was a gigantic shopping mall across the road which included the inevitable Walmart. Mind you it was raining that hard we had to take the Chev for the 400-metre trip.
While they were shopping, I headed off to Binny’s, a massive Liquor Store much in the mould of Dan Murphy’s. Certain supplies were needed to finish of this tour and to start the forthcoming Month of Money one with on July 15th. The only reason I mention this is because on the way back through dense traffic on a suburban street, a white-tailed deer pranced out of nowhere and began running across the 4-lane highway. A deer can run at 45 kmh and jump three metres high, but this guy wasn’t doing that. He was taking his time making cars swerve to miss him while at the same eyeing off the other side. That “other side” consisted of the same shopping mall the lads were at. I guess it too had an urgent need to get to Walmart.
In order to get out of the Hotel for a while we drove to Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. A stunning granite monument which houses his grave, his wife’s and those of three of his four sons. It’s in the Oakridge Cemetery if ever you’re in Springfield. Worth seeing. From there it was off to lunch at Jungle Jim’s near the Illinois State Fairgrounds and its one-mile dirt oval. Occasionally used for Silver Crown cars, ARCA cars and the Harley Davidson flat trackers. Needless to say it was saturated. Lunch at Jim Davison’s R66 diner is always a hoot. A very funny man is Jim who was a star sprintcar and sedan driver in his day on the short tracks of Illinois.
So, what to do tonight. Well this is what we did courtesy of live streaming from Speed Shift TV, Flo Racing and Dirtvision.
- Set up the laptop and connected it to the flat screen TV in the Hotel’s breakfast room
- Brought in the esky from the Chevy Bar
- Watched the Czechoslovakian Speedway Grand Prix from Prague in the late afternoon
- Ate pre-dinner snacks while watching Janusz Kolodziej win the SGP
- Ordered pizzas from Papa Johns for 7.30pm
- Watched the 360 heats from Lincoln Speedway in Pennsylvania
- Watched the USAC sprintcar heats from Port Royal in Pennsylvania
- Ate four of the most delicious pizzas we’ve ever had. Certainly the hottest delivered pizzas anyone has ever had.
- Turned over to watch the World of Outlaws at Knoxville, but they had been rain delayed for two hours
- Watched the USAC A Main from Port Royal
- Enjoyed a selection of glazed ice donuts from the bakery. 12 for $3.00
- Watched the winged 410 A Main from Port Royal
Missed the A main from Lincoln. Due to a clash
- Switched back to Knoxville for WoO qualifying followed by the heats by which time most in the room were happy to hit the hay
We learned the next morning that the A main at Knoxville didn’t get pushed off until 1.00am.
It was no surprise to anyone to read that Lincoln speedway (in Illinois) was canned for tonight. Disappointment crept in not surprisingly and it appeared the only way it could be handled was to visit Walmart again! But whilst they were there, Andrew Quinn (in Indianapolis) and I spoke about heading for the Speedrome this afternoon for the race that was meant to be held last night, but hey guess what, it was rained out. Now the Speedrome is a bitumen track so the rain can’t hurt it. You just need a little bit of wind, sun and time and it will quickly dry out. The drawback was that our pre-paid accommodation was in Lincoln tonight. Indy was a 3½ hour drive away, plus a further hour is lost due to the time change.
But I wondered would the group want to abandon the accommodation commitment and go to Indianapolis today for the Figure 8 stockcar racing? We had to go there tomorrow anyway as that is where our flights back to Australia will start from. One way to find out was to ask them by telephone. A unanimous decision was made to leave ASAP and pay extra for one night in an Indianapolis hotel.
It was a fast, but easy drive and surprisingly the rain held off the entire way and it remained dry for the Speedrome. I think the guys now realise why the Speedrome is never featured as a stand-alone race night on a Global Speedway Tours trip. But it’s always good for going to when there is nothing else on!
Our last night in America was at the Clarion Hotel, Airport. Now by airport, I mean the old airport. When it became necessary to build a new Indy Airport, (finished in 2008) what to do with the old one became an issue. That is until Federal Express put up their hand to make Indianapolis into the second largest hub for Fed Ex in the USA. Consequently, the existing runways are now utilised by Fed Ex, but the old terminal and associated multi storey car parking centres lie derelict.
Almost as derelict, but not quite, are the hotels built specially to service the old airport. Although the new airport is adjacent to the old one (the airport is a massive 7,700 acres) these hotels are now on the wrong side and surely are on their last legs. They are still in serviceable condition, but no one stays there, as we would find out at the Clarion. The rooms were large and comfy (especially the bed) but the absence of hot water was a problem! We were all given replacement rooms.
Day 28 Monday June 17th
Time to say our goodbyes to America. The weather was a disappointment with six rain outs on tour, but at the same time we got quite a few shows in where rain was forecast to stop them, but didn’t. The sightseeing was fabulous with something new to see and go to every day. It was certainly not just a racing holiday as this Blog will testify.
All tour members returned to Australia via Los Angeles and then subsequently to different cities in Oz.
Until next time, thanks for reading folks and see you on a Global Speedway Tours holiday one day.