[Editor's Note: This story has been revised for better accuracy from an earlier version that ran in May 2014]
First-time Indy 500 drivers must pass a "Rookie Orientation Program" before they can take to the track with other racers. As a point of reference, there are no other venues in American racing which require such a precaution. Zero. That is because there are no other venues that can WRECK YOUR SHIT faster and in more imaginative ways than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The R.O.P. is a safety measure, really, meant to reduce the risks of grave physical and psychological harm to everyone involved. It is a fitting testament to the formidable nature of the place.
First-time Indy 500 spectators, meanwhile, have no such Program.
That is why year after year, innocent and naïve first-timers bop along en route to the Speedway, their minds filled with excitement and sugar plums, totally oblivious to some of the ugly realities awaiting them – the inherent, unavoidable realities of cramming 800,000 people or whatever into a 2.5 mile POWDER KEG OF INTENSITY AND/OR BEER. Unpleasantness and emotional scarring can ensue if you're not prepared, if you're caught by surprise.
Do not get caught by surprise, Mr. & Mrs. 500 Freshmen visiting from Des Moines. Learn from me. Learn from my mistakes. Learn from my reckless Jello-shot poisoning(s). Let me be your instructor.
(Clutches podium in a scholarly manner, accidentally stabs self in the eye with it.)
Let me fill you in on some of the more – shall we say – potentially untoward aspects that you're largely unaware of, but for which you should be prepared.
Ever been to a crowded goat market in Nairobi? No? Well you will be, at roughly 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 am on the morning of the race, should you choose to drive there. 30th Street ... Georgetown Road ... 16th Lafayette Road ... for a 3-mile radius surrounding the track, they're all the same level of ENDLESSLY GRIDLOCKED TYPE-9 RAGE DIABETES.
Ideally, you'll require the following to cope:
• A four-hour block of time,
• a horse-strength Xanax injection straight into your spinal cord, and
• a sawed-off shotgun.
It's an epic battle, that pre-race traffic. A battle between time, your dangerously elevated blood pressure, and those drunkards in the back seat who need a restroom every 85 feet. Facial tics abound — as do f-bombs & violent rants against tyranny, for some reason. These are tense times and stakes are high.
Of course, your sanity will be most tested when a police-escorted motorcade inevitably zings past your car at 75mph. You'll find yourself momentarily championing Communism, where classes are equal and nobody can just buy their way through horrendous, stroke-inducing congestion. But alas, you must resist. Do not side with Communism. And do not toss a full 32-oz. bottle of Mickey's through one of their fancy windshields; that is a crime of some sort. Serenity & Democracy must prevail. So merely do as I do: keep your calm, roll your window down, and respectfully wish them well on their journey by hurling insults & deli meats at them.
The unholy carnage of the Saturday night festivities
Thinking of parking in the Coke Lot on Sunday morning, are you? Or maybe the fabled North 40 Lot? Some other lot, perhaps? No matter. They're all reasonably similar. And by that I mean each will resemble the fucked up aftermath of the Battle at Antietam — provided, of course, that naked Union survivors were grilling omelettes and bonging anti-freeze atop the bodies of the dead.
Let us be clear on this, Indy Newcomers: you will see things along your journey to the track that you cannot un-see. Disturbing, unnatural things that will forever challenge your sense of reality. You will see slaughtered woodland creatures and blood-stained javelins and the charred remains of some hideous sofa. You will see at least one person sprawled out atop a makeshift surfboard who you genuinely fear is in need of immediate medical care, but yet is widely ignored. You will see troubled 12-year-olds brewing their own whiskey in a hollowed-out engine block — and they will nod confidently at you when you pass. You will see spent artillery shells and severed tentacles of some sort and a tired-eyed hooker named "Lady" who's chewing tobacco.
In short, you will see more than enough evidence to lead you to one inescapable thought: that WHATEVER went down here last night, it was exceedingly grandiose & filled with unimaginable danger. Which is mostly true, I think. For there is no Law in these parts. And there are no rules. Except for one:
This is not for your children's eyes.
You have been warned.
It does not ring well in the capitalist ear of American sports, but Indy 500 spectators are allowed — nay, encouraged — to bring our own coolers stuffed with whatever fine cuisines and spirits and Purple Drank we deem fit. It is so far beyond the pale of every $9.00-per-beer sports venue in this country that it hardly seems real. Yet I assure you, Mrs. Indy Newbie, it is most assuredly – most wonderfully – real.
This is not bothersome or untoward on its face. But like Spiderman said, with great quantities of Reubens & whisky & yogurt-shots comes great responsibility. For you see, there are grave consequences for over-indulgence at the 500. Namely, the bathroom stalls do not have doors on them. They are open STALLS OF SHAME, the inhabitants of which are forced to dejectedly sit and stare downward, too embarrassed to make eye-contact with the wandering masses peering in with judging eyes. Those stalls are utterly terrifying.
Another, not-as-worrisome consequence? You can die of alcohol or meatloaf poisoning. Because when you're not forking over $200 for every concession-stand-run, an otherwise upstanding person can quickly become drunk on POWER. And Bloody Marys.
Tread lightly here, Rooks.
Perhaps you're knocking off bucket-list items two at a time – like, say, pulling the old Kentucky Derby/Indy 500 double dip. Neat! Good for you! Now know this (it is a biggie):
Indy is not flowery hats and seersucker suits and polished $400 wingtips. In fact, it is the exact opposite of that.
Unbeknownst to you first-timers, one of the greatest traditions of this blessed realm is how otherwise reputable and accomplished Indy residents sport greasy track 'staches and jorts and fishnet tank-tops as we proudly rock a style all our own — "dirtball chic" — for the entirety of Race Weekend. That is how it has been done for GENERATIONS, since AJ Foyt and Beowulf built this heavenly Speedway out of bricks & sorcery some 2,500 years ago. Don't believe me? Well, believe this: significant, widespread ridicule awaits the dope who climbs the Turn 3 bleachers wearing a fucking linen suit and a pork pie hat – and by "ridicule" I mean "stab wounds."
You see, an inner dirtball lives in us all, for good or ill, and once a year it gets to roam free and unshackled, its greasy hair blowing in the figurative meth fumes of poor choices. And that time draws near once more. That time is simply, unimaginably glorious.
The men's room urinal troughs
I regret to inform you, Mr. 500 Virgin, that you inevitably will — at some point — find yourself standing cheek-to-jowl with some shirtless brute named "Horseshoe" as he lets loose with a mighty piss into what is basically a long sink that you're also supposed to be pissing in simultaneously. And to your immediate left? Why that's just some 68-pound hobo who smells of moonshine and felonies – he's quite eager to strike up a spirited discussion with you regarding how much money is in your pocket. He may or may not be holding a dagger. Pay them both no mind.
OH, AND HURRY THE FUCK UP AND GO ALREADY.
The 600 people standing two feet behind you have no patience for your timid lollygagging. They can sense fear, and fear causes delay. This displeases them greatly. They will beat you with their wallet chains if need be.
Make no mistake, my gun-shy little friend – the urinal trough is not for the faint of heart. It is the tightest of tight quarters, and it can mentally shatter you if you let it. It feasts on the unassertive, bludgeons the cowardly.
But conquer it without incident, and it will have made a man of you. A real man. A man impervious to all forms of disorientation and pressure and being waterboarded.
My advice? Look straight ahead. Do NOT avert your gaze. Speak to nobody. Be quick. Be smart. Get out. And crack yourself a beer, cowboy. Welcome to manhood.
The occasional — inevitable — waft of marijuana smoke
You will not know from where it came. Nor from whom. But rest assured, it will come. It will gracefully float through your section like a long tattered scarf on the Ghost of Snake Pits Past. That is how it has been, and how it will always be.
Now, understand this, Rookie: your opinion on the practice is irrelevant. Whether you condemn it or condone it matters not. What matters is how you react to it. This will speak volumes.
That said, DO NOT seek out a police officer to demand a criminal investigation into the matter. He hasn't the time for your indignant outrage. For on this fine day, his jurisdiction begins and ends with violent felonies, and nothing less.
Conversely, DO NOT gleefully belt out Bob Marley lyrics lines and otherwise make a scene. Don't be "that guy." Everybody loathes that guy and secretly wants to slam his neck into a steel girder.
Instead, act like you've been here before. Keep your head. And take notice of those around you. For when that mysterious plume comes wafting through, the seasoned and savvy 500 Veteran remains unfazed, casually sipping his lager, completely at peace with the martial-law-like atmosphere that surrounds him.
The mysterious Underworld beneath the grandstands
Listen here, Indy 500 Neophytes, and take heed. Heat stroke and inebriation do not mix well — they can screw up your Race Day in a hurry. And while there are various precautions that should be taken to avoid just that, some of you will foolishly drink your way right past them. Fair enough. It happens. Just know that at some point, you will be tempted to seek refuge in that cool and shady oasis beneath the grandstands. You will be enticed by its moderate temperatures and relative tranquility — a seemingly fine respite from the chaos you've endured over the last six hours.
DO NOT seek shelter there.
Untold dangers await you there in that lawless and heavy darkness, none of them particularly pleasant. For there are babies are being made and fat men sobbing and well-heeled housewives passed out cold. There are troublesome thieves frolicking about, as well as mythical creatures in shiny armor. Only the catastrophically drunk will urinate down there, but they do it often and with little regard for accuracy or decency. There are strange and foul substances constantly raining down from above, but the families of Gypsies quietly picnicking and playing flutes atop plaid blankets don't seem to mind. They never have.
The list goes on and on indefinitely, frankly. For there is nothing off the table down there, and nothing ever will be. Witnessing ANY of these things — much less all of them — can lead a man to ruin. It is incumbent upon you to regain your clarity, withdraw yourself from this primordial Crazyland, and reach exit velocity to once again rejoin your compatriots for the conclusion of the Race. Heat strokes are temporary, friends, but debilitating psychological traumas are forever.
I know this because ...
90 degrees is simply 90 degrees on most days in most parts of the world, but 90 degrees at the Indy 500 may as well be 9,000. Or higher. This is because many doomed & melting souls will be sitting atop a goddamn hellscape of hot-plated aluminum. (I'M LOOKING AT YOU, G- STAND IN THE SOUTHWEST VISTA!) The sun there – and in other sections no doubt – doesn't just punish you one-dimensionally, from above, like any decent/non-asshole sun tends to do. No, because what doesn't microwave you from above goes straight down into the Solar Intensifying Death Reflectors at you feet and instantly SHOOTS UP THROUGH YOUR INNARDS like a bad shock of electricity. Or so it was in aught-8 or -9, I cannot recall exactly, my brain has deleted much of the non-essential data from that day. Oh, it was awful! Just awful! My Norwegian ancestry is not equipped to handle such things, and an ugly scene grew worse when I foolishly chose to hydrate with MORE beer (bad idea) and then a bottle of cold Italian dressing for some reason that I've since forgotten. (MEDICS!)
So on that wretched day, I ultimately took the Walk of Remorse. I walked my charred ass right down into that dark Netherworld below the grandstands, if only briefly — just as I pray you never shall. Yes, I admit: it was so wonderfully shady & damp down there! Like a cool, welcoming, varmint-filled icebox in a world of stifling jungle heat. And even the cold foulness raining down atop my head was delightful — almost exhilarating! I regret nothing! (Except for the fact that I got rabies and PTSD down there. I very much regret that.)
And there it is. Let this be your guide, Indy 500 Virgins. Your bible, your atlas, your GPS through the descending circles of Dante's Inferno (if Dante had added really loud engines and tube tops). Go forth now and make merry and indulge in all manners of poor life choices, for it is Race Weekend!
But do NOT seek shelter beneath the grandstands. Ever.