Harris: 500 Miles, 41 Years, A Million Memories

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 26 2011

A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears. Long-time auto racing reporter Mike Harris says, thanks for the memories, boys. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Driving through the credential gate at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time each year brings back a flood of memories.

Today, as I drove through Gate 9a off Georgetown Road, I thought back to my first time here, in 1970. That day, I drove onto the massive speedway grounds and immediately got lost trying to find a place to park.

In those days, there was no actual media parking. You got a generic blue parking pass that allowed you into the infield and it was up to you to find a place to park your car, hopefully within a reasonable distance of the garage area.

That was also my first meeting with Indy’s infamous yellow shirts; the men and women who direct the traffic and guard the entrances to the restricted areas.

It was not a good start.

Me: “Excuse me, sir. Where do I park for the media center?’’

Yellow shirt: “Keep moving!’’

Me: “But, I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.’’

Yellow shirt: “Keep moving!’’

I quickly realized I was on my own and grabbed the first open space that I saw. I then trudged the quarter mile or so to the garages, found my way with great difficulty to the media center and was told I didn’t have the right credential to get in.

Me: “So, what do I need?’’

Yellow shirts keep the peace at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

Yellow shirt: “You need a media pass.’’

Me: “Where do I get that?’’

Yellow shirt: “In the media center.’’

Me: “Can I go in and get one? I’ll come right out and show it to you.’’

Yellow shirt: “No!’’

Eventually, I found a colleague who was able to go inside and get me the needed pass.

Over the years I, like most journalists who go to Indy for any length of time, had plenty more run-ins with the yellow shirts. But I did get the upper hand, once, thanks to A.J. Foyt.

I had left the track to run an errand and lost my good parking spot. When I came back in the early afternoon, the cars were running and all the parking lots were full.

The yellow shirts kept waving me on to the next lot and there were just no places to park.

I doubled back and noticed there were lots of spots in the drivers lot right behind the garage. I thought of some possible magic words and I pulled up to the entrance and waved for the yellow shirt blocking the way to come to the window.

Me: “Listen, I had to run an errand for A.J. I’ve got a package for him. Can I park here for a few minutes while I deliver it?’’

Yellow shirt (with a widesmile): “A package for A.J.? Sure, no problem.’’

I figured, even if they eventually towed the car, at least I was back inside where I needed to be. But the car was there, safe and sound when I finished for the day.

I’m not sure, but intoning the name A.J. here might still open some gates, depending how old the yellow shirt is.

This being the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, I’ve also reflected on all the greats, near-greats and not-so-greats that I’ve met, interviewed and traded stories with over the year.

Some of my all-time favorite memories:

Eating breakfast with Mario Andretti and his family in the old speedway motel

Mario Andretti.

restaurant and listening to him describe what it’s like to crash at Indy as then teen-age son Michael listened wide-eyed.

Taking a pace car ride with two-time winner Rodger Ward and listening intently – and nervously – as he went down the back straightaway at 120 mph no hands, gesturing wildly as he described a huge accident he had avoided.

Sitting in a motorhome with Emerson Fittipaldi, hours after his second win at Indy, listening to him break down the race, nearly lap by lap.

Sitting in A.J. Foyt’s garage the day he announced his retirement as a driver and hearing Foyt tearfully explain his decision.

And my all-time favorite race memory – watching Michael Andretti make a breathtaking pass of Rick Mears for the lead on the outside in Turn 1 late in the 1991 race, and then seeing Mears do the same thing to Andretti in the same place a lap later to take the lead and go on to win the race.

As much as Indy has changed over the years, it remains the greatest venue in racing.

There’s no other place quite like the speedway.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 26 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terrell Davis says:

    Mike, I whole heartedly agree. Indy is the greatest venue in racing. While I haven’t had very many run ins with the “yellow shirts” over the years, I have had my troubles with parking. My car still bears a dented front bumper from running over a metal post in the pre dawn one morning as I arrived early….too early as it turned out.
    Driving through the tunnel my first time there was more memorable than any other track, including Daytona.
    There is nothing like it in all of sports, in my opinion!