By TJ Buffenbarger
Wednesday afternoon around Noon Indiana time I was taking a left onto Georgetown road and headed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for one of the biggest thrills of my life. Myself and Mike Strevel from the New 96 Speedway got to drive around the Speedway. This honor wasn’t reserved for VIP’s, track owners, or media members because it was Community Day at the Speedway.
The experience starts entering the gates at the north end of the Speedway and being guided to the middle of the back stretch where the lap begins. I called my Mom and Dad on the cell phone and told them I was in turn three, and they just about fell over. Aunts and Uncles were phoned after that to be delivered this great news. Half of them didn’t believe what they heard. Also got to call my Dad to rub in how he didn’t use one of his vacation days to come down. This was revenge for calling me at work from Limaland two years ago with 50 sprint cars and 40 360’s on hand for a Ohio Speedweek show during hot laps as I could hear the roar of sprint cars in the background. Paybacks are hell:-)
I wasn’t at Community Day as any kind of media member, I went just to play a little and check out what I saw on television last season. Walking through Gasoline Alley, it was quite an experience being able to walk on some of the most hollow ground in all of Motorsports. Seeing all of the garages, crew members, cars, and being able to walk down pit road was a real thrill.
Drivers were everywhere signing autographs, giving away posters, and even letting kids sit in the backup cars. The best implementation of this was at Tri-Star Motorsports where kids received a certificate saying they were able to sit in Tony Stewart’s Indy Car. Heck, I wanted to be a 21 year old kid sitting in that ride!!! I settled for a autograph card signed by Larry Curry, as Tony Stewart was off qualifying to attempt his daily double at Indy and Charlotte. Many media members seemed shocked Stewart would want to drive both races in the same day. Anyone who has seem him jump from midgets, sprints, silver crown, stock cars, and even a TQ to entertain the hometown fans in Rushville are not.
I started thinking about everything around me. The pit area open to the fans, drivers out signing autographs, kids sitting in the cars, and being able to walk all over a facility. The entire thing was a scene taken from any ordinary Saturday night at a local sprint car race. Many of the IRL drivers that come from short track racing are used to this fan friendliness, and don’t even blink an eye at the premise of giving one day with no racing activity to the race fans. This has even rubbed off on some of the old CART drivers and Non-Short track open wheel guys. Even Lyn St. James and other teams that didn’t not make the race stuck around to hand out autograph cards and let the fans see their race cars.
For one day the IRL turned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into the world’s largest short track in the country. Many of the drivers that stood in the mud after to sign autographs and sell tee-shirts to fans were now standing in the most famous garage area in auto racing doing the same thing in a nice polo shirt supplied by the team’s sponsor. Even though the look and surroundings were different, the drivers were just as humble and friendly as ever. I overhear veteran fans talking about how different this is for them. For myself, it’s seems more normal than any other kind of format.
Last year the Speedway tried the same thing with NASCAR, and many of the biggest name drivers didn’t even bother to show up. A large number of fans were so upset they demanded refunds from the Speedway, and IMS did give people their money back. At least the stock car set tried a Community Day, as many of the CART drivers were probably too busy with other matters to hold such an event.
Even though there might not be as many sprint car and midget drivers in the 500 this season as short track fans want, our influence is clearly there. Hats off to Tony George, the IRL, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this wonderful event. I believe with the tight field on Sunday we’re going to see a 500 mile Saturday night shoot-out with some of the best drivers in the world. I actually watch the Indy 500 now that the CART drivers are gone. Many people have the same mentality, but it’s too bad most of us are to busy to be as vocal because we’re out covering the future stars of the race still at the Saturday night short tracks in the mud, watching them sign autographs, and realizing there is now a better shot of seeing one of these same drivers doing the same thing in Gasoline Alley in a nice polo shirt.