The Frontstretch: Life at the Track: A Long Day in Indianapolis by Mike Neff -- Tuesday May 16, 2006

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Life at the Track: A Long Day in Indianapolis

Mike Neff · Tuesday May 16, 2006


Since it is May, it is time for another Indianapolis 500 Life at the Track story. The year was 1986, and as always, it was time to head to the track for pole qualifying. My buddies and I jumped in the car and headed from West Lafayette to Indy. It was early, so there weren’t any liquor sales available when we left. That was OK. We had six cases of beer in the mega-cooler, and a half gallon of Jim Beam in case anyone wanted to really have some fun.

The trip to Indy was uneventful, and we pulled off the Interstate and headed towards the track. When we got to Georgetown (the road that runs next to the Speedway) the place was a parking lot. It was around 8:00 AM, so we had plenty of time to get there though. Since we were sitting there and barely moving, my buddies Ernie and Chumly decided they would jump out and walk up to a gas station at the next corner and pick up some more beer. In hindsight, it seems stupid, but at the time it seemed very logical.

We saw the guys go into the store and the traffic started moving. No big deal. It will stop again. We’re still moving. We go past the store. No problem, it will stop. Um dudes, we are still moving. Next thing you know, we go all the way into the track. Probably two miles without stopping. That had never happened in the history of going to the track, and has never happened since. So now we are in a quandary. We park the car and hang out for a little bit. The odds of the boys finding where we parked are slim and none. They know where we sit every year, in the upper deck at the start/finish line, so we decide to head to our seats. Mind you, qualifying is general admission so there are no assigned seats.

We make it to our seats and settle in for a long day. Beers are opened, Jim Beam is passed around, and before you know it, practice starts. That means it is 10:00 AM and still no sign of Ernie and Chumly. Remember, this is 1986. Cell phones are not common place at all. I don’t even know if they existed yet. So we have no way of figuring out where the guys are. Now mind you, if you have ever been to Indy, the place is enormous. We can rule out that they won’t be past us on the frontstretch, and they won’t be in turns one or two. They probably wouldn’t go to turn three either since that would require walking further than necessary. So the assumption is that they are somewhere between us and the short chute between three and four.

Qualifying begins and everyone who wants to take a shot does. By now it is the heat of the day. Around 3:00 the track is open for practice and activity is pretty slow. So a couple of us decide to take a walk and see if we can find Ernie and Chumly. We walk in front of the seats so that they would hopefully spot us. We make it all the way through turn four and are just about to turn around when I hear someone yell "Myron!!!" my nickname since grade school. Seeing as we are in Indy, it could be any of several hundred people I know yelling at me. I look around and sure enough, Ernie and Chumly are sitting about halfway up the grandstands. Everyone is glad to see each other and we sit down to partake in some of the fine hops based beverages they have brought from the gas station.

The interesting part is that the beers are sitting in a rapidly melting pile of ice. We are pretty sure the boys didn’t carry the beer in a pile of ice, so we inquire as to this unique method of cooling their refreshments. It turns out they saw the traffic flowing and knew they were going to be stranded, so they purchased a Styrofoam cooler and a couple of bags of ice. They filled the cooler with beer, put in one bag of ice and carried the other one. They trekked the roughly two miles to the track and were worn out, so they plopped into the first seats they could. Now for the humorous part: as Chumly was sitting the cooler down, he thought he had it on the stands and let go. Unfortunately, the cooler was an inch or so from on the stands. That slight drop was just enough force to exceed the tensile strength of Styrofoam. When the cooler hit the stands the sides of the cooler failed and the beer and ice dumped all over the stands.

Fortunately, only a couple of beers fell below the stands. Being college students, that was unacceptable, so Ernie flagged down an usher and directed him to the two wayward fermented beverages under the stands. With the lost children found, the guys sat back to watch the action. The plan was to move over to our normal seats once practice was completed. Unfortunately, with their transportation vessel out of commission from the mishap, they were forced to stay in turn four.

Now when ice is not in a cooler and is sitting out in the midday sun, it tends to melt rather rapidly. We couldn’t possibly allow the refreshments to be appreciated at anything but optimum temperature, so we were forced to consume them at an accelerated pace in order to keep the waiting soldiers clothed in a comforting blanket of ice. Within a couple of hours, we were able to put the last of the exposed cans of light, crisp, clean, Anheuser-Busch products away. We were then able to meander our way back to our normal seats and finish off the day with the whole group intact.

It goes without saying, in the subsequent years, we were always sure to have our full compliment of beverages secured before we ever went to bed on Friday night before Pole day. But this story will bring a smile to everyone’s face who was a part of our little piece of history from the 1986 Pole qualifying day.

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