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Kligerman: The perfect racing event happens to be the biggest with the Indianapolis 500

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Growing up a motorsports fan in the Northeast in the early 2000s was as antisocial as it comes.

In attending two elementary schools, I met only “racing fans,” and both were fans because of their dads. They both grew out of it by eighth grade.  Girls.

Racing is a niche sport — always has been, always will be. It’s not the first BBQ, water cooler or social gathering topic. It doesn’t cause fan riots that shut down cities as a result. It’s far more insulated.

That is why it’s so astonishing that the largest single-day sporting event in the world occurs in the Midwestern United States and is a race  —  the Indianapolis 500.

The day of the Indy 500 starts early — really early. Some working at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar actually will sleep at the track the night before the race. The teams will arrive bleary eyed and full of butterflies, around 4-6 a.m. And the fans will start emerging, either from a night of debauchery or a simple Midwestern chain restaurant dinner, from 6-11 a.m.

We (my girlfriend and I) arrived at the track for the 101st running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing around 8:30 a.m. And do know it is the greatest.

As you step off the plane at Indianapolis International Airport, you are reminded many times it is “The Greatest.” Walking out of the terminal, you are told that you are “The Greatest Fans in Racing.” I was waiting to run into “The Greatest Urinal in Racing.”

After a seemingly short Uber ride from a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, we hit dead-stop traffic 2 1/2 miles from the speedway. We only could listen to our Uber driver drone on so long, talking about how only an hour earlier there was no traffic.

So we ditched the car and started walking. We weren’t alone. At this hour, it was a march of the early and dedicated.

People were in the usual patriotic attire celebrating Memorial Day and their societal-imposed idea of how to dress for a race: Sleeveless T-shirts, jean shorts, cowboy boots, flip-flops and (my personal favorite) shirtless.

As we arrived to get our credentials, we experienced the first signs that the speedway has done this 101 times. There was no line. And not in the context that you would expect a line at an event of this magnitude, but that there simply was none.

Multiple times, I used bathrooms that were completely empty. I’ve been to events with 100 people that seemed more overrun.

We headed into the infield and the garage. But in doing so we walked amongst the general admission, the Snake Pit and grandstand ticket holders.

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What is the Snake Pit?

Well, in a move that blurs the line of genius and lunacy, the speedway has decided to legitimize the college and youthful overindulgence that the infield has harbored for years.

Welcome to the Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

The Snake Pit is now a full-on, all-day EDM festival inside Turn 3. Starting at 7 a.m. and coming to a fireworks-exploding, bass-booming conclusion just before the race ends at 3:30 in the afternoon.

It is the truest example of an old joke about big races: “It’s a party where a race broke out”

Inside the Snake Pit, you can’t even hear the race cars. This is an attempt at introducing young people to the race, which would have you believe it would be easy to separate the Snake Pit attendee from the race fan.

The problem is aside from an obsession with a girl named “Molly”, Snake Pit attendees and race fans coexist impossibly well among the crazy attire and obvious signs of intoxication.

Which brings me to the race fans.

What first strikes you as you look at the fans or “attendees” as we should call them? They are in normal clothes. No team jerseys, favorite driver hats or sponsor-laden attire. This is unlike a NASCAR race, which is full of shirts signifying allegiances to a driver or team.

These attendees are not IndyCar fans. They don’t even know many of the drivers’ names. They are Indy 500 fans. This will be the only race they attend, and they will not watch another on TV for the rest of the IndyCar season.

But come May 2018, they once again will walk through the gates of this hallowed ground amidst hundreds of thousands. To sit, sweat and watch their favorite race.

To put this in perspective, the IndyCar series’ second race of 2017 occurred at the much-vaunted street course in Long Beach, California. Only 321,000 people watched on NBCSN. There was an estimated 300,000 in attendance for the 2017 Indy 500.

After a short walk in a dispersed crowd, our gracious passes allowed us to join the famous, the elite, the Hall of Famers and the fat wallets of the race grid. Much like being invited onto the red carpet of the Oscars, it’s a who’s who of the Indy 500.

The cars sit guarded by team members as they are engulfed by sponsors, family members and a famous actor or two. This year, it was Jake Gyllenhaal, who at one point was 10 feet from me. We never made eye-contact or acknowledged each other’s presence. He looked like he does in the movies.

It was about an hour from the ceremonial “Drivers, Start Your Engines!” Slowly, the grandstands were filling until suddenly, I looked and all I could see were people.

Here come the drivers!

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I was very curious to hear who would get the largest cheer during driver introductions as I failed to see a single fan representing any of them.

I was convinced it would be the man of the month, two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, or maybe an American such as Ryan Hunter-Reay.

But the loudest roar occurred when a muscularly compact, one-time winner of the Indy 500 stepped up. Brazilian Tony Kanaan had a level of cheers I have heard only at a Drake concert.

Soon, the Memorial Day prerace patriotism started.

The view on the frontstretch grandstands. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

I stood at the back of the grid where there was a tunnel running under the track for fans to reach the infield, and many were obvious Snake Pit attendees. But as the national anthem started, many came to a stop and stood hand over heart. A young man in a Donald Trump sleeveless tank top stood beside an African-American and his lady friend, side by side.

The patriotic displays were not an American eagle gripping a machine gun-patriotism but a more respectful American flag off the front of a colonial house, golden retriever with a Stars and Stripes collar-patriotism.

On a grid full of nationalities, my girlfriend would remark at the incredible amount of different accents and languages being spoken amongst the crowd.

Soon, we were being ushered off the grid by the famously obstinate “yellow shirt” Indianapolis security with a stark reminder “We can’t start this race if you’re still standing here.”

Thanks for clarifying that.

I got one last up-close look into the grandstands to notice the predominant demographic in the crowd.

It was the 35-year-old-and-older male and his family.

On the weekdays he wears the badly fitting, never-tailored suit and is a regional salesman with a Starbucks card. A white collar in a blue-collar pay grade and upbringing. His order request each weekday morning is “The usual” with an anxiety-filled laugh.

This is his off-weekend, a chance to ditch formalities and experience the unplanned and unpredictable, sans Excel sheets. He has been coming for more than 20 years, and it is tradition. The Indy 500 is the Coachella of the Midwestern worker. One of his kids joins him in the stands; the other is in the Snake Pit.

That’s not to say the crowd is homogeneous. As we reached the suite we were provided, I was continually amazed at the diversity in the stands.

It’s not full Brooklyn diversity of pink hair, funny socks, skinny jeans and half-shaved heads. But it’s 9 to 5 Middle America diversity. It’s inclusive as they come, young to old, black or white, natural born or immigrant.

There is a place for you in this event. There is a driver for you to root for.

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If the Daytona 500 is the The Great American Race, the Indy 500 is the race for America.

And the thing is, you get the sense the Indy 500 is trying to impress you. Not in the gaudy intent of a rich kid pulling up to a nightclub, but in the endearing pose of a child trying to show his or her parents a new trick or skill. From the pomp and circumstance to the constant reminders you are at “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.”

Add in the tons of activities that have nothing to do with the race, and you feel it’s an event that so badly wants you — the attendees and the first-timers — to enjoy themselves. And to return.

Even the drivers know this is their opportunity.

The iron is in the fire on a stage bigger than the rest of the year combined. If they impress, it could mean millions in winnings and thousands in new fans, renown and career stability.

Takuma Sato takes the checkered flag. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

They race like it, too. Nothing is held back, no move is calculated twice. It’s go hard, make moves and hope it all comes out straight and shiny side up.

Because of this, the race itself is perfect. A balance of skill and death-defying speeds, mixed with an aerodynamic draft that allows almost 30 cars a chance to win the race. Its unpredictable nature along with thrilling speed makes each crowd reaction a feeling of intensity you can’t experience anywhere else.

And as the winner crossed the finish line, it didn’t matter that it was a driver whom few knew. Everyone rose to their feet in applause because it is tradition to do so.

Which is why more than 250,000 have attended this race for so long: tradition.

As we were walking out a mere two and half hours after the race, the track was shockingly empty. And as an evening shower engulfed the track, we were under the tunnel in between turns 1 and 2, where a random man helped us find our way to the Uber pickup zone.

He was shirtless, with a rolling cooler behind him, very sunburnt and alone. It seemed as if a coherent word would have been a struggle, but he spoke with the eloquence of a college professor.

His phone had died, his Apple watch had died, and he was walking home.  I asked him, “How long have you been coming here?”

“Fifteen years. All of my friends make a big weekend of it. It has become our tradition.”

Which is exactly what makes it the perfect racing event.

It’s the Indy 500’s tradition to impress you and make you want to keep coming back for more.

Alonso, Vandoorne’s Azerbaijan GP grid drops grow through Saturday

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Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 grid penalties for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix grew through Saturday as the stewards confirmed both McLaren drivers had taken additional power unit parts ahead of qualifying.

Vandoorne and Alonso entered the Baku race weekend anticipating grid penalties after replacing parts on their Honda power units, which have lacked both reliability and performance throughout the season.

Both drivers were handed 15-place drops on Friday ahead of practice due to initial changes, only to receive further drops in the lead up to qualifying.

Alonso currently sits with a 40-place drop to his name after an overhaul of his power unit, while Vandoorne is to drop 35 places after also taking a gearbox change before qualifying.

McLaren ailed to its worst qualifying display of the season so far in Baku as both Alonso and Vandoorne dropped out in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively.

However, Alonso was not too disheartened by the result, saying it has set McLaren up nicely for the race on Sunday.

“We did a good job today in terms of preparing for the race: we only used one set of tires, put in low fuel and did some checks,” the Spaniard said.

“We know we’re not competitive around here, but the race is going to be long and demanding. We’ve seen many mistakes from almost every driver, and we need to avoid making any of those tomorrow.

“In these kinds of grands prix, we need to try and finish the race, get some data for the team, and keep developing the car.

“We need to make sure we keep away from the walls tomorrow. Let’s also hope we can end up in the points.”

Due to a strange quirk in the regulations, Alonso and Vandoorne will not share the back row of the grid in Baku – and the latter will, in fact, gain a place.

As Renault’s Jolyon Palmer failed to post a time during Q1 and therefore did not qualify for the race, he will start P20.

By virtue of having a greater grid drop than Vandoorne, Alonso will take 19th on the grid, with the Belgian starting just ahead in P18.

Stroll feeling ‘comfortable’, ‘confident’ in car after Baku Q3 run

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Lance Stroll delivered the most impressive qualifying run of his fledgling Formula 1 career so far in Baku on Saturday, charging to eighth place on the grid for Williams.

Stroll, 18, made his F1 debut at the beginning of the year with Williams after stepping up from Formula 3, but endured a baptism of fire as he failed to score any points through his opening six outings.

The Canadian charged to his maiden points finish last time out at his home race in Montreal, finishing ninth overall, and carried that momentum through to qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Stroll reached Q3 for the second time, beating his Chinese Grand Prix display by taking eighth spot, as well as outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time.

“It was a good day, and it has been a good weekend. I am comfortable and confident in the car,” Stroll said.

“I like the circuit and today everything fell into place. I missed a bit in Q3, and I think there was some more that was possible there, as we were four-tenths off compared to my lap in Q2.

“In Q3, because the track temperatures had dropped, it was hard to get the tires ready in one lap and also because of the red flag, we only had time to do one push lap.

“Sometimes around here it is better when you do one push lap, then another prep lap and then another push lap. But it is still a great result and I am just happy for the team.”

Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.