A night at the races

Come out to Indianapolis Raceway Park, they said. Come and see the Midgets. It's free for anyone with a Formula 1 pass. It sounded like a good idea. Midgets are great to watch - particularly on tarmac - and there was not much else to do. When I thought back I remembered that I had visited IRP once before to watch "The Night Before The 500" in 1988. I had good memories of the place. I had watched Supervees (a bit like Formula 3 cars) lapping the five-eights of a mile paved oval at impressive speeds. I remember being in the infield and getting dizzy trying to keep track of the action.

I wanted to go back and so dusk found us heading out to IRP on the back roads, dodging the deer, and looking forward to seeing the USAC Midgets under floodlights and having a hot dog.

My pal was on some kind of VIP list and so we headed for Gate 2. The credential office was manned by a pair of oldsters who had probably fought side by side in the American Civil War.

"What is your name, sir." one snapped with all the charm of a car compactor. His finger skimmed the list.

"You're not here." he growled.

"Yes, I know that," I replied in my best Queen's English. "But I have this pass thing here and that lets me in for free. Look here is my picture on it."

The dinosaur was not impressed.

"That ain't no good to me sir," he said. "If your name ain't on the list. You cannot come in."

"...but they said at the Speedway."

"I don't know anything about that," he snapped. "That will be $30."

"But..." I said pathetically.

He gabbled away like a turkey about how it was more than his job was worth to allow me in and, in the end, I gave up and paid. One doesn't like to make a fuss. I concluded that I just wouldn't bother writing about my visit to IRP. I would have an evening off. They obviously did not need good publicity.

Mr. Grouchy adjusted his teeth and insisted that I sign a series of waivers which meant that if choked on a hot dog I would not be able to sue the management of IRP, the manufacturer of the tickets or anyone from New York to San Francisco. I signed.

"Well thank you for that warm and wonderful Indiana welcome," I said sweetly as I left the shack. I was not going to let a silly old fool ruin my evening. And off we went. Inside the speedway fences I found it crawling with F1 people, all of whom had gone to Gate 1 and been allowed in with a pleasant wave of the hand and some sweet down home greeting.

Oh well, never mind, I said. I shall not let it spoil my evening.

Then I discovered that the general public were being admitted for just $20.

The Gods were definitely trying to ruin my evening. Well, I was not going to let them. I would remain sweet-tempered in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous pricing.

We headed for the hot dog stand to get into the swing of things.

"We're outta hot dogs honey," said the lady. "Will a bra-a-at-worst do?"

Sure, why not. I was not going to let it spoil my evening. No way. The racing was about to begin. We were sitting in the grandstand chomping away on our Bra-a-a-rtwo-o-orst (is that singular or plural?) and checking out who was walking by. We noticed a striking woman approaching. She sat down a few seats in front of us. She looked vaguely familiar and for a while we were trying to figure it out. Who was she? And then Tony George appeared and sat down next to her, in the grandstand.

Ah yes, we said. Mrs. George.

"Isn't it great," I said. "Here we are watching a Thursday night bash at IRP and the billionaire who owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway (and most of Indiana) is here in the public grandstand with us. The next thing you know Bernie Ecclestone will be sitting in the grandstand watching Formula 3 races at Brands Hatch."

"Not very likely," said my pal, chomping on his hot dog.

The racing was on and it was as we knew it would be, a whirl of speed and excitement with these tiny little cars, weighing 900 lbs and pumping out 350bhp whizzing along at 135mph, just inches from one another.

There was a lull in the action and we watched the people coming and going. And suddenly I spotted Andrew Craig, formerly the man who ran CART, who was involved in the early battles with Tony George's Indy Racing League.

"Hey, this will be interesting," I said and watched to see what T.George would do. The two men waved and then Tony beckoned Andrew up into the grandstand. And they sat together chatting and watching the racing.

So now, I said, we have Bernie Ecclestone and Ron Dennis sitting in the public grandstand at Brands Hatch watching a Formula 3 race.

"I don't see that happening," said my pal.

The thing that struck me was that here were two men who had been at daggers drawn a few years ago, linked by a common bond. They were there because they like racing. IRP is for racers. Then Mark Webber came on the tannoy. He liked midgets too and had rushed out to see the action after a sponsors function.

Patrick Head wandered by in front of us, unrecognized in the crowd.

The evening was about two races. The Indianapolis Twin 25s. The goal was for the winner of the first to try to win the second. If he could do that he would take home the biggest prize in the history of Midget racing. $50,000.

The first race was a cracker and was won by a guy called Dave Steele, who we dubbed "Man of Steel". He was clearly a talented racer.

The catch was that for the second race the grid was reversed and Man of Steel had to start at the back, a yellow bandana tied to the rollhoop of his car so that we could keep an eye on his progress. Before the race began we decided that we would change position and wandered down to the grass bank on the outside of Turn 1. There we were greeted with a shout from Patrick and we joined him on the hillside to watch the fun.

"This is where we see the people who really like racing," he said, in a very jolly mood, while tickling small babies under the chin in an avuncular fashion.

The second 25-lapper began and Man of Steel was awesome. The guys at the back just got out of his way for fear that they might ruin his day. In the midfield one got the impression that one or two of the drivers were helping him out - not, of course, that they ever fix races in America.

Fixed or not, Man of Steel had to get down to some serious work once he got up into the top 10 but such was his speed and skill that with five laps to go he was in the lead. The crowd were cheering him on, willing him to win the money. As soon as he crossed the line we were off to the car park to get out before the traffic became an issue. It had been a great night out. So good, in fact, that I even forgot to stop to abuse the old crock on the gate as we powered away into the night.

But, what the hell, it was worth $30...

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