Lesley Weidenbener: Enthusiasm at IMS, parade was infectious

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I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it has been a few years since I’ve spent much time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sure, we almost all had an unwelcome hiatus of at least a couple of years. But mine stretched a little longer—not because I didn’t love the track or the Indianapolis 500 but because, well, I’m a bit of a wimp.

I don’t like heat. Or crowds. Or noise. Three things in abundant supply at IMS in May.

It doesn’t help that, for some 15 years or so, going to the track was a part of my work. In two of my previous reporting jobs, writing about either the race or the fans was an annual assignment, one that could be absolutely exhilarating or exhausting, and most often both.

So, when I changed jobs and no longer had to be at the track, I took a bit of a break from going. For the most part, I have been watching qualifying, the parade and the race from the comfort of my couch—or, in many cases, listening on the radio.

This year, though, I couldn’t wait to get to 16th and Georgetown. I wanted to see the improvements in the grounds I’d heard so much about and drink in the excitement of having fans at the track again.

Fortunately, IBJ hosted a Forty Under 40 Alumni meet-up at the track on an Indy 500 practice day, which meant I got to hear Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, Senior Corporate Counsel Jimmie McMillian, driver Graham Rahal and other IMS leaders talk about motorsports and the business of running the largest racetrack in the country. I spent part of that afternoon sitting in the stands, soaking up some not-too-blistering sunshine and taking in practice.

Just a couple of days later, my husband and I were back to watch qualifications. We started the day at Breakfast at the Brickyard, a fun event for Indiana’s mayors that is hosted by the not-for-profit 500 Festival. After, we had a few hours of beautiful, breezy weather to watch qualifications and walk through the garages before heading back to our car before the rain.

And finally, we went to the Indy 500 parade, an event my husband—an Indianapolis native—hadn’t attended since he was a kid and I had never really done at all. It was kitschy, a little slow-moving at times and still absolutely delightful, from the precision of the Purdue marching band to the not-quite-the-Rose-Parade floats and the rousing cheers for the drivers.

Two things stood out at these events, particularly those at the track: the elation of fans at having the Indy 500 back at full capacity and the care Roger Penske and his team are taking to ensure those fans have an amazing experience.

I could feel both of those the minute I turned off West 16th Street and drove under the stands and into the infield. The speedway looked incredible and everyone around me—the fans, the ticket takers, the yellow-shirts guiding traffic—was smiling. That spirit was everywhere—with the drivers on the track, among the fans watching the action, at the merchandise and food stands, in the garages.

It was almost enough to lead me back to the track on race day. OK, not really. There’s still the heat, the noise, the crowds. And there’s still my couch, sitting in my air-conditioned house. That’s where I enjoyed every minute of 500 miles, thinking just maybe I’ll go to the race next year.•

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Weidenbener is editor of IBJ. She can be reached at lweidenbener@ibj.com.

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One thought on “Lesley Weidenbener: Enthusiasm at IMS, parade was infectious

  1. You’re SO right. The racing spirit was everywhere, infectious, and exhilarating. The venue was dressed up for company and ready to go. The fans were delighted to be back, so friendly and helpful, and smiles were everywhere. “Back Home Again” wasn’t just in Indiana but AT the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Thank you to Roger Penske and all the IMS smiling staff who made us feel welcome, safe, and ready to be entertained. I can hardly wait til next May.

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