RT’s Mike Harris Has Seen It All At Indianapolis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 26 2016
The Pagoda has long been a symbol of the greatest race track in the world. (Photo Courtesy IndyCar)

The Pagoda has long been a signature symbol of the greatest race track in the world. (Photos courtesy IndyCar)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – The 100th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, the Indianapolis 500, has struck a chord among at least some of the sporting public.

After years of trying to regain the panache that made the Indy 500 the biggest single day sporting bugopinionevent in the world, the buzz is back at Indy.

All the reserved seats are sold, the local TV blackout is lifted, hotel rates have soared, reservations at the best restaurants are hard to come by and people are excited about the race.

It’s been nearly 20 years since one could say all – or any – of that.

It’s a great feeling for me, since I have strong feelings for the Indy 500 and for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where I have spent literally hundreds of days over the past 47 years.

I have been coming here since 1970, covering the race for The Associated Press until 2009 and for RacinToday.com since.

I did miss the 1976 race after being transferred from Indianapolis to Cleveland, but I was back the next year for A.J. Foyt’s fourth win and I haven’t missed one since.

I’ll tell you right up front that I flat-out love the sprawling speedway on the west side of Indianapolis.

The front straight at Indy is fast, fast, fast. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

The front straight at Indy is fast, fast, fast. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

I’ve had a lot of great times here, as well as some of the worst days of my life.

I can’t speak for those first 53 years of racing, but my experience here has run the gamut.

In my early years, the lead-up to the big race was a month long. There were no days off and the facilities were primitive. The infield media center was a tiny room tucked behind the garage area. But you still felt privileged to show your badge to the yellow-shirted security guard at the door and gain entry to the inner sanctum.

In those days, when an incident occurred on the track – and that happened a lot – a klaxon would sound in the media center and writers and photographers would dash out the door and to the safety area at the south end of the grandstands, where fire trucks, ambulances and media vans were parked.

If you got there fast enough, one of the speedway media reps would drive the van out to the scene of the accident, where you would observe as he measured the length of the skid marks and worked to recreate the crash in his notebook to be written into the pit notes for that day. There was no TV at the track back then.

As the years went by, closed-circuit TV was added and those rides were no longer necessary. But it

Not all of the memories of Indy are good memories. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

Not all of the memories of Indy are good memories. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

was quite an experience sitting in one of those media vans as they sped around the 2.5-mile oval toward the accident, wondering what you would see when you got there.

In the ’70s and into the ’80s, danger was an ever-present companion at Indy. Each day the track was open presented more chances for drivers to be hurt or killed each time they drove onto the track.

In 1973, I sat on the pit wall during an early-month practice chatting with longtime Indy racer Art Pollard, talking about his chance to make the race and where we were going to eat that night. His crew chief called Art to his car and a minute later, he was driving onto the track.

He never drove back to the pits, killed in a fiery accident.

I’ve definitely written about too many deaths at Indy, in practice and in the race, the last was Scott Brayton during a post-qualifying practice in 1996.

But, thankfully, advancements in race cars and safety technology, such s energy-absorbing barriers lining the concrete walls, have made the sport about 1,000 percent safer over the years.

The facilities have also changed drastically over the years I’ve been coming here, but it didn’t always

Fans have always been part of the show at Indy.

Fans have always been part of the show at Indy.

happen fast.

In the early ’80s, the Speedway doubled the size of the old media center and gave the AP and the two Indianapolis newspapers access to a trio of small offices next door.

To get to the media center, which we had to do many times each day to retrieve information or ask questions of the speedway officials, we had to leave our front door, walk about five feet, show our credentials to the guard and walk in the media center door.

I lobbied for a door to be cut into the wall between our office and the media center, even offering to have AP pay for it. It took five years and a change of Speedway public relations officers to get it done.

Eventually, the Speedway, which had been exclusively an Indycar bastion, allowed other series to come and race. First came NASCAR in 1994, then Formula One in 2000.

NASCAR, in particular, made some inroads, but THE race here has always been the 500, even after it lost some of its luster with the retirement of big names like Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Rick Mears and the internecine war between the Indy Racing League – the invention of then Speedway president and owner Tony George – and the established Championship Auto Racing Teams that began in 1996.

By the time the two sides merged in 2008, the damage was done. The speedway, which had drawn up to half a million people on race day in the post-World War II years, had eliminated thousands of grandstand seats and had alienated many of its most loyal fans.

At its low point in the early 2000s, there were often vast open spaces in the grandstands on race day. There were no ticket scalpers, hotel rooms were readily available at decent price and there was little excitement about the race.

Even as all that was happening, the Speedway was improving its facilities. The enormous press center, overlooking the front straightaway, was built for Formula One and continues to be state-of-the art.

Unfortunately, it’s like being in a hermetically-sealed environment on race day, with the roar of the engines muted and most everyone watching on the dozens of TVs hanging from the ceiling, rather than looking out the window.

It’s very different from my favorite days, when the press box was in the open-air mezzanine, hanging under the second deck on the outside of the main straightaway. You could see the entire pit lane arrayed in front of you, as well as deep into both the first and fourth turns. Eventually, the closed-

The Borg Warner Trophy is a thing to love. Just ask Tony Kanaan.

The Borg Warner Trophy is a thing to love. Just ask Tony Kanaan.

circuit TV even allowed us to see what was happened on the rest of the track, as well.

One memory I have is from the early ’70s when we would walk up the steel staircase outside the grandstands to the second deck, then walk down to the mezzanine. Having a bit of fear of heights, it was not my favorite thing to do.

But AP had a technician who was worse off than me. He hated climbing those stairs and finally couldn’t take it any more. He froze halfway up, holding tightly to the rails on both sides of the stairs, which kept anyone else from going up or down. It took several minutes to pry his hands loose and help him to his seat. And then we weren’t sure if we could get him down again after the race.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours at the speedway watching it rain and watching the fire trucks and safety vehicles driving round and round to try to dry the racetrack.

There were the streakers of the 70s and the days when it was not very safe to walk through the “Snakepit,’’ the area of the infield where anything was likely to happen, including a pink trailer that rumor has it was used as a brothel.

But all that is mostly a memory today, with the speedway generally a family-friendly place.

Most of all, though, I love Indy 500 race day.

Even in the worst days of the IRL-CART split, the atmosphere on race day was electric. The pre-race pageantry is legendary, with the the parade of vintage cars, the celebrities, the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana”, the playing of Taps on the bugle, the release of hundreds of balloons and the order to start the 33 engines.

No matter how many years I come here, that moment always raises the hairs on the back of my neck. The anticipation is almost overwhelming.

I can’t wait for Sunday. Gentlemen and lady start your engines.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 26 2016