Excluding Le Mans, which, although it still has magic, is now so familiar that I can no longer treat it with such romanticism, the three circuits that sit in my memory with a very special feeling are Indianapolis, Monaco and Monza. Over the next few weeks, I thought I would share my impressions of visiting these icons of motor sport – surely places that all fans should try and get to before they shuffle off this mortal coil.
First, Indianapolis, which I have visited only once, for the 500 in 1991. A work colleague had been given complimentary tickets for two seats in the grandstand at Turn 4, and he happily let me have them, although I can’t remember now whether any money changed hands.
It was a very brief visit – I arrived at the Motor Speedway early on the Sunday morning of the race, but could not make time to visit the museum – although I did walk past its entrance on my way to my seat, ready for what was scheduled to be an 11:00am start for the 75th running of the 500 mile race. To call the place a stadium is not quite right – but that word at least it conveys the image of many tiers of seats surrounding the amphitheatre of the track. Try to imagine Epsom Downs on Derby day, with grandstands surrounding the whole thing, and you get an idea of the scale of the place. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but there is something a bit special about being part of a crowd of 400,000 – the largest single-day attendance for a sporting event in the world.
The weather in Indiana in late May is usually good, but there are no guarantees, and there was light rain on the morning of the race, which resulted in a doubt about when the start would be. Announcers kept us informed that no further rain was expected, and that the track should dry out quickly enough for the race to go ahead. In true American style, there was entertainment, but that did not involve any support races: it was mainly marching bands and celebrities.
Under each seat in our section of the grandstand was a coloured board (mine was plain red), somewhat larger than an A4 piece of paper and during the rather long wait for anything to happen on the track, we were instructed how to hold it above our heads by a sort of cheerleader chappie at the front. General Norman Schwarzkopf (Stormin’ Norman, the American hero of the Gulf War) was there, in the role of Grand Marshal, and was due to do a lap of the track in a convertible. As the General came around the signal was given, and we all raised our boards. The General raised his right hand and returned us a salute – those more experienced in such palaver than I knew about it all along, but I hadn’t realised we were portraying a giant-sized stars and stripes flag for him. Very, erm… patriotic, but very memorable too.
Schwarzkopf wasn’t the only celebrity there – so was the then FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre, invited by Tony George, and setting speculative tongues wagging in the process about where Indycar racing might be headed. Vice-president Dan Quayle, who had served as Grand Marshal the previous year, was also there; and Carroll Shelby was driving the pace car. Make no mistake; the Indy 500 was one of the most significant events in the USA sporting calendar. It is (was) big; very big, and lived up to its self-proclaimed slogan “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.
Because of the damp track, the start of the race was delayed by nearly an hour, but when it finally got under way it was impressive stuff. The initial sensation was the speed. At turn four, the cars were coming past in excess of 220 mph – at first I couldn’t turn my head fast enough to see the numbers on the side of the cars, which made keeping the lap chart rather tricky.
At the time, I was going through a ‘no camera’ phase in my life, so I don't have any photos of my own from the event, but I bought a programme, of course, which featured a rather arty painting depicting the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1921 for the cover.
And inside the programme was an extremely good fold-out section, showing the grid positions - an early version of an ‘Andy Blackmore Spotter Guide’?