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.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.