Traditions Of Old: Indy 500

The grandstands along the front stretch, the oldest in the facility, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the Indianapolis 500.

A friend of mine once quipped that I needed to quit living in the past. Admittedly, I could be diagnosed as a low-level nostalgia addict. I love studying old photos of familiar places, both ones I’ve found and ones I’ve shot long ago. Old videos, well, those are even better! The layers of sound and motion make those images come alive, a veritable time machine transporting my mind with each push of “rewind”.

There’s only one thing more intriguing to me than visiting old images with my eyes, and that’s visiting old places in person. There’s a certain aura that fills every nook and cranny in the structure of old places, especially historic ones, that I find fascinating.

I can still vividly remember the experience of visiting the old Pastrick Library here in East Chicago as a young child before it was remodeled. The air was saturated with the heavy, sweet smell of leather book bindings. The muffled squeaks of hardwood floors, slightly sloped from their age, sang from beneath worn carpeting. The haunting, neoclassical characters in a mural along the ceiling gazed down upon my toddler-sized frame, their eyes seemingly following my every move.

It’s amazing how many of these interesting qualities vanished from the room when the library was remodeled in the mid-1980’s. The texture of hand-plastered walls now jarringly transitioned into flawless, smooth drywall. Poured concrete floors tended not to squeak as much either, which I suppose was a good thing for concentrating readers. Still, the charm of the old library was lost for this boy still in the single-digits of his life.

Over 20 years later, as I strolled alone along the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before 7 a.m. on the morning of the Indianapolis 500 Race, I was certain that the ghosts of the past century of racing were already filing into the empty grandstands before me. Even though parts of the speedway are nearly brand new (such as the garage area and “pagoda” command center), the track has somehow managed to hold on to its historic aura. There’s no mistaking the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is hallowed, sacred ground for race fans from around the world.

A commemorative gold brick marks the start / finish line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a yard of exposed bricks which once paved the entire racing surface, prior to the Indianapolis 500.

Looking down at the original yard of bricks sandwiched between 2.5 miles of modern asphalt, I closed my eyes and imagined how many dreams – how many lifelong efforts – were made or broken on this very spot. Long before that old wing of the library from my childhood existed, tears of joy (and frustration) were shed in a contest with this very geographic spot, a judicious, exacting line on the ground. Man and machine – one moment existing in harmony, the next, at polar odds with each other. Even to this casual observer of sports, the emotional heaviness and importance of this old place is hard to ignore.

I’m confident that the nearly half a million spectators who attend the Indianapolis 500 each year share in my nostalgia for places of yesterday. Traditions of old (such as the swig of milk for the race victor), to those of a more recent era (Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana”) carried out in the same place year after year lend a comforting feeling of certainty to many in a world that often seems like its sliding out of control. Though these traditions could certainly be carried out at any venue, I’m not sure they’d feel quite the same in a squeaky-clean, modern racetrack named after some faceless corporation.

Every corner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway tells a story. From the paint-chipped rivets holding up the oldest parts of the grandstand roof on the front stretch, to the odd clean, silver poles in a catch fence dominated mostly by rusty ones. The reward of telling stories visually in and old venue like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one that I don’t take for granted, and one that I’ll always welcome throughout my career.

The pagoda at dawn prior to the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Racing tires stacked in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area at sunrise stand ready for the action ahead.

Crew members push the car of IndyCar Series driver Tony Kanaan toward the fueling and inspection areas prior to the Indianapolis 500.

Sarah Richardson of Marlborough, England, carries on what has become a yearly tradition for her family by decorating a table dubbed the “Brit Corner” prior to the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Race fans walk along pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the start of the Indianapolis 500.

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, IndyCar Series driver Dario Franchitti, during Carb Day for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Fans of IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick wait for a glimpse of their favorite driver near the garage area at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the Indianapolis 500.

I used a small Go Pro Hero HD camera atop a 12′ microphone boom pole to capture a unique perspective of turn three at the start of the race. IndyCar Series drivers ready for the first green flag during the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As luck would have it, photo editor Andy Lavalley from the Post-Tribune was enjoying the race with his family from the north vista and spotted me deploying my Go Pro camera atop the mic boom pole. If you look closely, you can see the camera just above the man in the yellow shirt near the top of the frame. (Photo by Andy Lavalley)

What can I say? I’m a sucker for graphic compositions in photos that tell no story whatsoever. Lock me up and throw away the key! Balloons rise into the air following ceremonies at the start of the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar Series driver Dario Franchitti (10) leads a double file restart during the Indianapolis 500. The double file restarts, a new rule for 2011, were a hot topic at this year’s 500. Drivers used to going green in a single-file line were concerned about the safety of having to jockey for position so close to fellow racers.

This was the only crash action I saw on my side of the track this year between turns three and four. IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe crashes into the wall during the Indianapolis 500.

Race fans in the infield near near turn three during the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This was also shot on the Go Pro rig, armed out over the fence separating the fans from my shooting position. I certainly wouldn’t try this with a heavy SLR.

IndyCar Series driver Alex Tagliani, the pole sitter for the race, during the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar Series driver Dan Wheldon during the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wheldon would go on to take the checkered flag.

The Borg-Warner Trophy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indianapolis 500.

Posted in Photography, Photojournalism, Sports, Thoughts On Life by Guy Rhodes on June 1st, 2011.

6 Responses to “Traditions Of Old: Indy 500”

  1. Jahaira says:

    So they drink milk if they win? :) I enjoyed reading you blog and now i would like to experience it for myself.

  2. Jack Megaw says:

    Those GoPro shots rock! Awesome stuff! Great idea!


  3. Tony petrovich says:

    I have several old indy photos. A1936 Firestone brothers . How do I find out what they are worth.

  4. Guy Rhodes says:

    I’m not sure, but they sound interesting!

  5. Tony petrovich says:

    Could you tell me who to talk to please

  6. Guy Rhodes says:

    I have no idea, I’m sorry.