SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Wearing a green “ I Call In Sick for Carb Day ” T-shirt, Rick Leppert took a gulp of beer and studied a scene he didn’t quite recognize in his first trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway since before the pandemic.
A betting lounge where bros hang out and need no bookie to place a legal bet. A pack of midriff-baring women snapping selfies at the Instagrammable art fit for social media likes.
What in the name of A.J. Foyt is going on in Indy?! It is suddenly too modern for a two-decade Indianapolis 500 veteran like Leppert?
“I just hope they keep the same traditions they always had,” he said Friday, two days before the big race.
Well, about that. The release of thousands of colorful balloons, first done in 1947, to kick off the Indianapolis 500 was shelved this year because of environmental and wildlife impact concerns.
Still, a day at Indy evokes the very essence of Americana, from the singing of “God Bless America” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” to the 33 drivers hurtling over a yard of bricks, and the winner bathed in milk and fans partying in the Snake Pit.
“In 1947, a balloon launch was probably the coolest thing in the world,” IMS President Doug Boles said. “In 2022, a balloon launch isn’t necessarily that. It represented a lot of things to a lot of people. but it wasn’t as cutting edge now as it was in ’47.”
Yes, balloons, the empty Indy from the 2020 pandemic and reminders of the reduced crowd a year ago are buried in the past. This year, Indy is running on full horsepower.
It’s not only track officials — and Indy-area businesses — who gleefully welcome the full-throated return to the track of 300,00 roaring fans, twice the total from a year ago. Younger drivers can’t wait.
Like Rinus Veekay, a Dutch driver whose only two Indy 500s were the last two years.
“It’s been a more fun month already just having a lot of normal activities come back that we didn’t have the past few years,” driver and team owner Ed Carpenter said. “It’s Rinus’ third but it’s really his first 500. He never experienced the parade, the public drivers’ meeting, full-field autograph sessions, things that have just been on pause. It’s kind of fun to see him go through some of the things that he’s missed and for me the energy that it brings, not only on race day but every day that we’re here on track.”
Jimmie Johnson won four times at the Brickyard in his NASCAR career.
But this is Indy in May.
Johnson, who covered the race last year for NBC Sports, makes his Indy 500 debut Sunday in front of a packed, freaky scene worthy of the race’s billing as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“The energy that I experienced was unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it was only half full,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait for race day to feel the full energy.”
Veteran driver Romain Grosjean has tried to stay “calm and quiet” in his first Indy 500.
“Obviously the crowd is great down there,” he said of the 50,000 fans who turned out Friday.
The Indy rookie caught just a glimpse of what’s ahead, according to a pair of Indy 500 champs who would know.
“You haven’t seen anything,” 2013 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan said.
“This is like nobody showed up today,” two-time Indy 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya added.
The dress rehearsal on the 2.5-mile speedway was a blast. As pit lane opened Friday for cars just after noon, the first “Carb Day” crowd in three years erupted in cheers for the Indy 500′s final practice. A little rain couldn’t dampen their spirits. Colton Herta’s frightening end-over-end crash only briefly chilled the mood (Herta was uninjured). They mostly stuck around for the pit road challenge and then jammed out to a concert headlined by Rick Springfield.
Country music star Blake Shelton is the grand marshal. There are no Top 40 hits for Jim Cornelison, but the singer who followed Jim Nabors to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” will do it again for a sixth straight year. He kept the tradition alive of singing the unofficial anthem of the Indy 500 even in 2020 in front of not much more than drivers and staff to listen.
“It doesn’t have that feeling of emptiness,” he said. “Last year you would look behind the pagoda and there’s nobody. It’s going to be a lot of fun to have everybody back.”
Some traditions aren’t for the revelers, like a quiet moment on race day eve when the track is dark.
“You have a truck with some beers on the track,” Cornelison said. “You just kind of sit there in the middle of the track and have a beer with Doug Boles. All right, the bulk of the work is done. Here we go. It’s kind of a special moment the night before, having a beer in the middle of the track.”
Don’t worry, plenty of cold ones will get guzzled Sunday in the Snake Pit.
And that’s not going anywhere.
“The negative pushback I’ve heard is less about the removal of the balloons and more about, is this just the first thing and we’re going to start removing a whole bunch pieces that are part of the tradition,” Boles said.
No way, he said. Plus, Roger Penske won’t allow it.