The Frontstretch: Sneaking into Indy...Back in the Day by Mike Neff -- Tuesday April 18, 2006

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Sneaking into Indy...Back in the Day

Life At the Track · Mike Neff · Tuesday April 18, 2006


I hope the statute of limitations has run out on my efforts to attend the 500 in 1982. Back then, I was a senior in high school, working with a guy who lived right around the corner from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I didn’t have a ticket that year, but he told me that he would get me into the track for free. With my love for the 500… I jumped at the chance.

Before I continue…may I point out the night before any race at Indy is a blast. It is like a giant street festival all around the track. People are walking around, partying and having a good time. You meet people from all over the world who have traveled to see "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Three of my buddies and I drove out, parked at my friend’s house, and wandered the area for hours. We hit the White Castle and downed 50 "sliders." We stopped and talked to hundreds of people who were camping and having a good time. By 3:00 in the morning though, I was getting antsy. I went back and woke up my friend. He told me to chill out and wait until 5:00. I tried my best, but I knew the track opened at 5:00 and I wanted to get a spot right at the fence. So, at 4:30 I couldn’t take it anymore. I woke my friend up again and told him we had to go.

Reluctantly, he got up and walked us over to a spot in the fence outside of turn three, where a drainage ditch went under the fence. He told us that was the way in. We thanked him and headed under the fence with a couple of coolers and a blanket. As we walked across the golf course, a helicopter with a search light headed our way. We scrambled to the nearest grove of trees and ducked down. The helicopter circled a couple of times, and then headed on. It was a very surreal experience…like we were breaking out of jail or something. We headed on towards the tunnel that goes under the short chute between turns three and four…just as another helicopter started heading our way.

There was only one big tree close by, but we made a sprint for it, and all of us stood as close to the base as we could get. Lucky for us, the chopper flew over and kept on going. Whew! We had survived another one.

As we got to the tunnel, 5:00 arrived. A cannon went off and the gates were opened; people were running into the tunnel for all they were worth. It was a mad rush, and we sprinted to get to the other side of the tunnel in time. We climbed the wall and ran to the fence. We were able to get a spot right at the fence at the entrance to Turn 4. It was sweet!

It was now just after 5:00, and we had six hours to burn before the race started. I tried to take a nap, but I was way too pumped up about being at the Indy 500. I decided to take a walk instead. The infield at Indy back then was an interesting place to say the least. I walked the entire infield… I saw school buses that had been converted into "party wagons." There were observation decks on the top, generators to run huge stereos, and full blown kitchens. There were sofas and recliners on top and in front of them.

There were also pickup trucks with scaffolding on the beds for observation decks. Unfortunately, back in the 70s, one of the homemade contraptions collapsed and several people were seriously hurt. So the speedway now limits the scaffolds to a very low height. It was amazing how huge some of those things used to be. I made my way up to the frontstretch grandstands and was amazed at how few people were in the area. I guess when you have such good seats, you don’t worry about getting to the track too early. There were already teams working in the garages, and I spent a couple of hours just watching all of the activity. It was extremely cool being so close to the machines that would be screaming around the track in a few hours. I was really wishing I had brought my autograph book. It would have been very easy to get quite a few signatures that I had been trying for years to get.

I made my way to the museum in the infield and actually took the time to attend the morning church service that they held around 8:00 in the morning. It was the first time I had ever been in that area of the track at that time of day. After the service, I made my way back to the garage area and waited around and watched them wheel all of the cars out of the garages and under the walkway with the Gasoline Alley sign. I then went by the tent where they have all of the balloons that they release at the beginning of the race. There were quite a few very tired people there who had been up all night blowing up the balloons. It was quite a production to fill up something like 5,000 balloons. The tent that held them was very cool too. It has a seam through the middle of it that "unzips" with a couple of ropes to release the balloons.

As I finished up my walk, I made my way back to our spot, where my buddies were just waking up. By this time, there were a couple of photographers next to us from Arizona. They traveled around and covered all of the Indy car races. I don’t know why they chose to sit inside the fence at Turn 4, but they had some great stories to share with us about all of the things they had seen over the years.

The stands filled and the festivities began. All sorts of bands and dignitaries paraded by, Jim Nabors sang "Back Home Again", someone butchered the National Anthem, and then they fired the engines. A.J. Foyt was on the outside of the front row. He was going to win #5 this year…I was sure of it. The parade laps were completed, and the cars headed for the green flag. I remember watching the lights because we couldn’t see the frontstretch. The light blinked green and went back to yellow. I could hear on the radios that were playing in the cars around us that Kevin Cogan had run into A.J. Foyt as the green came out and caused a big crash that took out Cogan and Mario Andretti. Foyt came screaming by with a tire mark on the left side of his car.

Oh no! I couldn’t believe his race was going to be done before it even began. After a red flag to discuss what should be done, the grid was reformed without the cars that were in the wreck. Luckily, Foyt’s car was ok, so he was on the front row with Rick Mears and no one in the middle. They came around again and this time the start was clean. Foyt came by the first time and was leading by a couple hundred yards. It was the first time A.J. had ever lead the first lap of the 500. Could he really recover from a first lap crash to win the race? Unfortunately, A.J.’s car got stuck in gear when he was trying to leave his pit after his third stop, and that put him behind the wall.

The finish of the race came down to what was the closest finish in history at that time, with Gordon Johncock beating Rick Mears by .16 seconds. It was redemption for Johncock, whose first win was the 1973 race that was marred by a first lap crash, Swede Savage’s death, and was shortened by rain on a Monday when it finally was completed.

My first and only time sneaking into the 500 was now complete. I was chased by helicopters, attended mass in the infield, and got to see an awesome finish to the race. From then on, I decided it was time for me to have tickets for the race; but I’ll never forget the stress of having to crawl under a fence, run in front of motorcycles, and climb fences. All for the love of Indy.

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04/19/2006 07:24 AM

Talk about “bringing back some memories”! That was my first race! We had tickets for infield bleachers. My brother wouldn’t let me go to the restroom by myself because the infield crowd was ‘wild’. Also went to ‘83 which Sneva won and ‘84 where I’m sure Mears won! Drove up and went back in ‘02 for time trials. That place calls a person back.

Your Mom
04/20/2006 09:11 PM

Mike, you never mentioned this story to me before. I believe I will continue to hold on to your autograph book until you share a few more of these wild things you did. (But nice to know you did go to Mass.)


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