Backstage pass to 103rd Indianapolis 500


INDIANAPOLIS – One of the greatest aspects of the Indianapolis 500 is the pageantry of the event. It’s one of the few sporting events on Earth where the pre-race pageant is worth the price of admission in itself.

Then comes the greatest thrill show in all of sports, the high-speed drama of the Indianapolis 500.

Follow along as NBC gives a “Backstage Pass” of some of the sights and sounds we encountered in the moments leading up to the start of the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on Sunday.

Fans come early and many stay well after the race concludes. The biggest reason for that is many of these spectators don’t want to get stuck in huge traffic jams. Getting crowds approaching 300,000 fans in and out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not an easy task.

Rather than sit in traffic for hours, it’s sometimes easier to get up at 4 a.m. and get to the track in time for the 6 a.m. bomb that is exploded signaling the public gates are open.

Yes, it’s an aerial bomb that explodes over the four holes in the golf course that are located in in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield.

Upon arrival at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s still dark as the sun begins to rise, but inside is a bustling city as hundreds and hundreds of workers have been at it all night. From security officials, to vendors tending their booths, to catering staffs and waiters and hostesses, it’s like watching a large city begin its day.

By 7 a.m., there are already lots of spectators in the infield and Brickyard Pavilion portions of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Others take their seats early to watch the annual “Cavalcade of Bands” as high school and college marching bands from around the United States get the honor of marching on the same race course where some of the greatest names in racing history have competed.

At 8 a.m., the Borg-Warner Trophy is moved out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and loaded onto a special pedestal on a Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car. The Gordon Pipers, a Scottish Bagpipe brigade that has been part of this spectacle at Indianapolis since the 1960s, leads this parade as the Trophy makes its way around to the track.

That’s when it is joined by the Purdue University Marching Band, giving the Borg-Warner Trophy a tremendous fanfare as it slowly comes down the frontstretch and is officially placed at the “Yard of Bricks.” BorgWarner CEO Fred Lissalde and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles pose with the trophy and wreath before it is placed onstage as part of the pre-race ceremonies.

Around 10 a.m., the Purdue band strikes up with the traditional “On the Banks of the Wabash.” If not for “Back Home Again in Indiana,” this would be the traditional song of the Hoosier State. But, “On the Banks of the Wabash” continues to hold an important tradition on Race Day at the Indy 500.

It signals time for the cars to be rolled onto the grid and placed in 11 rows of three. This is done by hand as crew members roll each car out of the pit area and placed in the proper position on the grid.

New to the grid this year, was a large outdoor stage and studio built by NBC Sports where host Mike Tirico and analyst Danica Patrick welcomed viewers for both the NBCSN Pre-Race Show at 9 a.m. and the NBC Pre-Race Show that began at 11 a.m.

As the cars take their place on the grid, the frontstretch fills quickly with celebrities and VIPs who have the precious access to actually stand on the grid next to the cars as they prepare to compete in the Indianapolis 500. This is one of the few sports where non-participants can be on the field of play in the time leading up to the big event.

Dan Luginbuhl, who was Roger Penske’s longtime public relations man, handed Tirico one of his famous coins with Penske’s slogan, “Effort Equals Results.”

On pit road, a long line of convertibles begins to drive down the track. Each convertible has one of the “Legends of the Speedway” in the back-seat waving to the fans. It’s the annual salute to the former Indianapolis 500 winners, from AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Rahal, Buddy Lazier, Kenny Brack, Gil de Ferran, Arie Luyendyk and Dario Franchitti, all riding in their own convertible waving to the fans who remember the days they won the race.

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb is on the grid, posing for photos and talking with his constituents.

As the crowds on the grid swell, team owner Roger Penske is sitting in the seat of the tire cart soaking in the atmosphere. Important people from business, industry and racing stop by to shake Penske’s hand and wish him well in the race.

One of his four drivers is three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who brings his daughter with him for driver’s introductions. After each driver in the field is introduced, three drivers per row, they pose for the annual “Class Photo” before heading to their cars.

Castroneves stands to the side of his car, just a few feet in front our location. After a brief chat, he talks with Penske as they go over a few pre-race instructions. The traditional pre-race ceremonies have begun with a large focus on remembering those who gave their lives in the fields of battle that are honored on Memorial Day.

It’s an emotional ceremony that includes a military honor guard, a 21-gun salute and a single military bugler playing “Taps.”

It’s a chilling experience to hear how quiet the massive crowd gets during this part of the ceremony as they take part in the moment of silence.

After the singing of God Bless America and the National Anthem, Castroneves begins to jump around, keeping himself limber and loose before he climbs into the race car.

This year’s Military Flyover was spectacular, including an F-16 hitting the “afterburners” and climbing into the sky.

Time to move off the grid as the race start is nearing. It was off to the upper stage in Victory Lane, a great place to hear Jim Cornelison, the famed national anthem singer for the Chicago Blackhawks who attended the Indiana University School of Music perform “Back Home Again, in Indiana” followed by the traditional balloon launch as multi-colored helium balloons filled the blue Indiana sky.

It’s always a touching moment, that puts a lump in one’s throat and a tear or two for those who are from the “Hoosier State” and continue to have a deep connection to the State of Indiana.

Tony George, the Chairman of the Board of Hulman & Company which includes the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR, steps up to the microphone, just a few feet away to give the command, “Lady, and Gentlemen – Start Your Engines!!!”

To experience that from this location was a tremendous moment. The roar of the fans could be heard with a raucous cheer as the engines come to life, ready to unleash a combined 26,000 horsepower in 500 miles of racing.

As George exits the stage, several guests and VIPs fill the area because it’s the perfect place to watch the start of the race.

One of them is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck along with his fiancé. He’s wearing a Stanford University cap and is enjoying himself as “Andrew Luck, Race Fan” instead of NFL star.

After the parade and pace laps, the green flag waved directly across from this vantage point and the 33 cars raced into Turn 1. After completing the first lap, they are at full-speed down the frontstretch dicing for position.

Luck has an amazed look on his face with his mouth aghast. He says to his fiancé, “Oh My God, did you see that move?”

It was unique to see a man who performs his sport under so much pressure from 350-pound linemen bearing down on him to get the pass off in time react to this ultimate sport that pits “Man versus Machine.”

By now, what happened in the race has been well-documented and Simon Pagenaud is the latest Indianapolis 500 winner.

The race was spectacular, but it was preceded by a fantastic “Backstage Pass to the Indianapolis 500.”

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).