We gather to load the truck at 3:15 a.m., and I know that sounds insane, but as the only non-Indiana resident in my group of nine — not to mention a first time attendee —decisions regarding tailgating at the Indy 500 are not mine to make.
And this year is the tailgate to end all tailgates: 2016 marks the 100th running of the race, and the first time in 20 years that the entire track sold out, meaning upwards of 350,000 people packed in and around the track. It’s the highest-capacity sports venue in the world —so gigantic there’s four-holes of an 18-hole golf course on the infield
Fitting in coolers, a grill, a folding table, chairs, a tent, a blanket and bags and bags of chips in our truck is like a game of Tetris. About half the group cracks open their first beers of the day before 3:30 a.m. One member of our group, Andy, tries to fit in four containers of raspberries and blackberries into the beer coolers, and gets mocked for five solid minutes for bringing fruit.
We’re off and headed towards the speedway. We have a front-row parking pass, meaning that we can to the inner ring near the third turn of the track (notoriously a crazy party area), but we still want to be one of the first among those in the gate so a few guys can jump out with chairs and blankets to claim space on the mound of grass overlooking the track. So that means queuing up for a few hours until a cannon goes off at 6 a.m., which signals people can go in.
On the street in the dark, people get out of their cars and start drinking. I’m overwhelmed by the smell of bacon and wander over to a nearby parking lot, where a group of about 20 people have a full breakfast buffet spread kept warm with sterno burners.
I grab a piece of perfectly crispy bacon and head back to our truck. The cannon sounds. Everyone is cheering as we drive through the tunnel to get to the infield, and rush to get a spot. We pass a full party already in motion dancing in a tent with a DJ spinning. Steve Stout, the party organizer, told me it’s because they were able to sneak in at 5 a.m. because they were friends with an Indy Lights driver (a developmental racing series that leads up to the 500). Stout brought along 120 brats, 200 hamburgers and 30 handles of liquor to keep the party going.
I spot three women walking by with backpacks they’ve made from Franzia boxes and containers for tiny Dixie cups for people to sip from.
“I saw the idea on Pinterest and thought it was genius,” Megan Joseph, one of the intrepid DIY drinkers, explains.
Bravo, you wine box engineers.
Wandering around we see guys setting up a giant Jenga board and go over to play. The rule is you have to complete the action written with sharpie with whatever wooden piece you pick. Andy pulls “shotgun a beer with a stranger,” so he obliges with a group full of Honda engineers we just met. It’s almost 7 a.m.
Our group has started making “track eggs” with spicy sausage on a propane grill, but the urge to check out other set ups is too strong, and a few of us wander around and meet Jim Burnett, who has been coming to the race for 58 years, and is cooking up four and a half dozen eggs, bacon, and sausage gravy. He makes a point to feed the “Yellow Shirts,” which is what everyone calls the Indianapolis Motor Speedway safety patrol, who wear, you guessed it, yellow shirts, and they help him get in and set up every year before it gets too crowded.
We see a group Saran wrapping a tent and think it’s totally crazy until we find out that they’ve brought in a generator and an air conditioning unit. Groups of college kids are filling up kiddie pools with giant jugs of water, while others use hoses and to syphon water from the bathroom. With the dust already kicking up from the track and the empty beer cans piling up before 8 a.m., those pools will soon look like Superfund sites.
We get back to home base and having totally missed out on the Track Eggs, so my brother fires up the Quesadilla maker and plugs it into the power outlet in his truck bed, a feature which shocks me as a subway-riding New Yorker.
As we sit on the tailgate eating, pedestrians start filing into the track, lugging coolers and bags. Nearly everyone is wearing something with the American Flag, with slogans like “USA is BAE” and “It’s Time to Get Star Spangled Hammered.”
My cousin, who works in advertising, has a couple of pit passes to get people back to where they are working on cars and we head over, crossing the infield, walking past a few hundred teepees where “glampers” paid $1,000 for four nights to stay on the grounds for days of pre-race partying.
As we get closer to the main pagoda, the vibe changes, as do the wardrobes. People are dressed up — these are your corporate sponsors and hardcore racing fans. We manage to get to the center of the grid as Mario Andretti comes out with Lady Gaga, who is a last minute celebrity guest, filling in for Keith Urban who has back injury. Gaga flirts a bit with a group of Pearl Harbor survivors who are being honored, and then they introduce all the drivers. Two World War II-era planes do a flyover, meaning it’s time to clear the grid – but not before my brother demands I “kiss the bricks,” an Indianapolis Motor Speedway tradition typically undertaken by the winning driver who quite literally kisses the brick starting line. We crowd into one section of the track as Florence Henderson (aka the mom from “The Brady Bunch”) comes out and gives a wave as the Grand Marshall, and Darius Rucker (aka Hootie,) sings the national anthem. A formation of four F18s do a heart-stopping second flyover. Even if you know nothing about cars, you’re amped up. The crowd is cleared from the track, and we try and race back to catch the first lap from our spot at the third turn.
Gaga and Andretti
After watching a few laps from the mound, we start walking around the tailgating tents, which in the heat and chaos of day drinking has started to feel like walking through a snow globe made of American flags. A man who dubs himself “Raceway Jesus” wearing a long white robe poses for photos. A group has set up a makeshift wheel of fortune where almost every option involves either showing your boobs or taking a Jell-o shot. Already, people are lying passed out in the sun amongst piles of trash.
“I know this depresses some people, but it gives me hope,” my brother, who has attended a few races, tells me. “It could descend into total chaos, and it doesn’t.”
Back at the tent, Andy’s fruit is covered with a quarter inch of dust. The race ends, and around me I hear people asking who won (Alexander Rossi, a rookie, kissed the bricks this year), but for so many there, the actual race is just a footnote to the outdoor party.
We pile back in truck and join the line of traffic to leave the speedway. Another tailgating neighbor pops his head in and asks if we want donuts from Long’s Bakery, “the best donuts in Indiana.”
We’re behind guys sitting in a truck bed, blowing constantly on vuvuzelas—exhausted, sunburnt, covered in a layer of dust and munching on donuts from a stranger.
Rob, another member of our group lounges in the back seat. “I’m so happy,” he says. “I’m in the perfect place right now.”