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IndyCar Indianapolis 500

Karun Chandhok's Indy 500 adventure and why every fan should experience it

Karun Chandhok’s mission to tick one thing off his bucket list each year led him and his father to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. The former Formula 1 driver and pundit recalls his first experience of the iconic event, the surprises he found and why he wants every racing fan to go at least once

 Karun Chandhok

Like everybody else, I have a bucket list of things that I keep creating. And, like most people, the rate at which the list grows generally exceeds the rate at which we actually do the things on it. With work and family commitments, time is the most valuable commodity for society today and, unless we proactively decide to do something, that bucket list is going to only go one way.

In the past year, my mum passed away quite suddenly when she was just 65 and I also turned 40 in January. These two events have been a catalyst for me deciding to set the realistic goal of ticking off just one thing from my bucket list every year.

Top of the list was to go to the Indianapolis 500 and I thought it would be a cool thing to do with my dad as he had never been to the race either. The last time we went to a race meeting together purely as fans on a father-son day out was the 1996 Formula 3000 race at Silverstone won by Kenny Brack. Weird sidebar – we ended up sitting next to Kenny at Indy and watching the race, which amused all three of us!

Fortunately, three-time Indy 500 winner and my official trip advisor Dario Franchitti gave me a heads up that coming to ‘Carb Day’ was an absolute must. He also offered the excellent tip that, while flights to Indy could be astronomical, flying to Chicago was a much cheaper option with an easy three-hour drive down.

‘Carb Day’ is the final practice session before the race. It’s the last time that the teams and drivers will have a chance to test their race engines and gearboxes while finding a set-up that works. It’s also known as a ‘general admission day’ for the fans so irrespective of what ticket you have, fans are free to wander into any seat in any grandstand around the oval. It really was quite something to see 100,000 people turn up for what was essentially a warm-up session.

The fan access on the whole was one of the biggest surprises of the weekend for me. The paddock was completely open for fans to wander around and see the cars in the garages and the drivers were regularly at different tents in the fan zone, which was just adjacent to the paddock.

The thing that blew my mind was that fans were also able to buy tickets to go into the pitlane during the live session! We were wandering around with hundreds of other people literally 10 feet away from where the cars were driving in for their fuel and tyre stops.

After the sad passing of his mother and turning 40, Chandhok and his father Vicky made it their goal to go to the Indy 500 this year

After the sad passing of his mother and turning 40, Chandhok and his father Vicky made it their goal to go to the Indy 500 this year

Photo by: Karun Chandhok

As the weekend unfolded, I got the sense that the 500 is more than a motor race to these fans. It’s a family tradition, almost an heirloom that gets passed down and they’re very protective of its position in the world of sport. The fans weren’t there for the selfies and ‘Insta-tweeting’ – they were truly emotionally invested in the sport.

The guy next to me in the grandstand said he had been in the same seat for 42 years, someone else told me they used to sit in the same seats with their dad and now had their son with them, while the family behind us proudly showed off their icebox with stickers from the winning driver for the last 18 years that they had been bringing it in.

I was also very pleasantly surprised with how many women were in the stands, wearing the merch of their favourite team or driver. It seemed like a 60-40 split of men and women in the stands, which is a much closer ratio than we see in other forms of motorsport.

The special tribute to Gil de Ferran was particularly moving as his friend Simon Pagenaud led a parade of former winners in Gil’s 2003 race-winning, Penske-run G-Force machine

We headed up to the outside of Turn 1 for the session and it really is a breathtaking sight to see the cars hurtle down the straight and launch into there at 235mph on full throttle. I noticed where the spotters were on the roof of the grandstand and figured it would be a smart move to sit just below them.

Watching how the draft worked from up high was fascinating as you can truly see how the cars not only get dragged closer and past their competitors into Turn 1, but also how that momentum gained carries all the way to Turn 3. Heading down to stand by the fence at the lower level of the stand gives you an incredible sense of the speed and energy coming from the cars, which reminded me of standing on the bank at Becketts at Silverstone.

PLUS: When Indycar beat F1 at Silverstone

The pitstop challenge in the afternoon sounded like a bit of silly showbiz but I was completely wrong. The atmosphere was utterly brilliant, with the drinks flowing, music blasting and the amphitheatre around the pitlane going wild.

The teams also take it seriously, with the top ones using separate road-course spec cars with special set-ups to focus on the start. I got the impression that the morale boost for the mechanics ahead of the big race seemed to be worth much more than the $50,000 prize. Josef Newgarden’s winning crew certainly carried that confidence into the race.

With insider tips from Dario Franchitti, Chandhok  experienced the key parts of the Indy 500 and what makes it so special

With insider tips from Dario Franchitti, Chandhok experienced the key parts of the Indy 500 and what makes it so special

Photo by: Marshall Pruett

I spent the day off from track action on Saturday wandering around the paddock. All day long people kept walking up to me and saying, “Welcome to Indy”, “Great to have you here”, “Thank you for coming”, which was quite confusing to be honest – but in a good way. You never hear drivers, mechanics or engineers from F1 or World Endurance Championship teams proactively welcoming people from other categories into the paddock and offering to show off their cars or talk you through the challenge of racing at Indy.

There were also plenty of former European racing engineers and mechanics who have made the trip across the pond, so it was nice to catch up with familiar faces.

I never had to learn about the challenge of getting a car dialled in for Indianapolis in my driving career. To think that the teams get a car from Dallara, an engine from Chevy or Honda and away they go is too simplistic. It was fascinating to understand about the level of detail in terms of getting the car set up right, the huge range of options on suspension geometries and aero, the complexity of choosing the correct tyres and measuring every single tyre to 1/32 of an inch so you avoid any manufacturing tolerances as well as the detail in taking out any friction from the gearbox and drivetrain. Teams such as Penske run a car on a seven-post rig pretty much all the time and have their own full scale wind tunnel – facilities to rival any F1 team.

Race day started cloudy with the prospect of a thunderstorm looming. The F1 rage has clearly spread wildly across America and the number of people gathered around phones, tablets or televisions dotted across the paddock for the start of the Monaco Grand Prix was a strong indicator of that.

One of the nice things about the Indy 500 weekend is that there are several points at which they pay respect and honour their past winners. Videos are constantly playing on the big screens of the Andrettis, Unsers, AJ Foyt or Rick Mears, and throughout the week they are treated with a god-like respect by the organisers and fans that their achievement truly merit.

Dario kindly invited me to hitch a ride in the back of his pick-up truck for the winner’s parade, which was a very cool way to do a lap around the 2.5-mile track. The special tribute to Gil de Ferran was particularly moving as his friend Simon Pagenaud led a parade of former winners in Gil’s 2003 race-winning, Penske-run G-Force machine.

While clearly a concern, the weather predictions from the organisers were incredibly accurate, with the big screens around the track telling people about the window of when they had to avoid the grandstands due to lightning. They predicted that the storm would be from 1230 until 1400 and unbelievably it went from 1228 until 1357 – wish I had that level of accuracy when going for my bike rides in the English summer.

Roger Penske and his eponymous organisation took over the IndyCar series and the Speedway a few years ago and the meticulous planning with clinical execution was incredible to see. As the last raindrop fell, the jet engine drying machines instantly hit the track.

Not everyone gets to ride along with a three-time Indy 500 winner before the race!

Not everyone gets to ride along with a three-time Indy 500 winner before the race!

Photo by: Karun Chandhok

I was told that Roger had made a pre-emptive move to rent six of these beasts from NASCAR when he saw the forecast. A small insight into a brilliant man who runs an empire of 70,000 employees producing a group-wide turnover of more than $39billion per year!

By the time the cars rolled onto the grid, the track was dry, the sun came out and, most importantly, all 349,000 fans cheerfully took their seats despite their wet socks.

The energy on the grid of an F1 grand prix or at Le Mans is truly special and is the one thing that never gets old, no matter how many times I’ve been fortunate to experience it. But that moment at Indy when the American national anthem begins was unlike anything I’ve ever felt.

The biggest sporting arena on the planet had 349,000 people in absolute pin-drop silence while the anthem was sung, turning to an explosion of cheers from the crowd and the fighter jets doing their flypast above. Quite extraordinary.

There’s a positivity to the Indy 500 that is unique. When I went to Le Mans, I found too many people in the paddock or media centre or fans constantly saying, 'This is real racing – so much better than F1' and I’ve always hated that

The race itself turned out to be worth the wait, with a brilliant four-car scrap for the win in the final 50 laps. The radio scanners make it a fun way to follow the race if you’re a geek like me who wants to listen to the strategists and team radio chatter. The fans are able to choose to listen to any of the 33 cars or the commentary, which makes it very easy to follow along with the big screens.

I was watching from the inside of the start/finish straight with a great view of Turns 1 and 4, and seeing Newgarden and Pato O’Ward duke it out just below us for those final five laps was sensational.

 

I’ve always had a lot of respect for the drivers in IndyCar as I think that anyone who races wheel-to-wheel at those speeds is very brave.

Watch: Newgarden Beats O'Ward To Go Back-To-Back - The 108th Indy 500 Review

I love the left-field stories that we don’t get in European racing, like the brilliantly talented Scott McLaughlin going from V8 Supercars with no single-seater experience to pole position at the Indy 500 in a short time, or NASCAR star Kyle Larson hopping into an IndyCar and running strongly in the top six.

There’s a positivity to the Indy 500 that is unique. When I went to Le Mans, I found too many people in the paddock or media centre or fans constantly saying, “This is real racing – so much better than F1” and I’ve always hated that. I’ve been lucky to race in F1 and Le Mans and they’re both brilliant but different and can co-exist in the world of motorsport together.

What I found refreshing about going to Indy was that people all had a huge amount of love and respect for F1 and there was none of the, “This is a much better race than the Monaco GP borefest” that I was expecting. They love the 500 but they also wanted F1 back at the ‘Brickyard’.

I came away from the weekend with a proper reminder of why I love this sport. Brilliant racing until the final corner, passionate people and a community in the paddock and grandstands who welcome outsiders in with open arms.

Chandhok was taken aback by the warmth and passion of everyone he met at the Brickyard

Chandhok was taken aback by the warmth and passion of everyone he met at the Brickyard

Photo by: Karun Chandhok

Watch: Newgarden Beats O'Ward To Go Back-To-Back - The 108th Indy 500 Review

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