Backstage pass to 103rd Indianapolis 500

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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 Sports.com 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.”

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

Honda Photo
Honda Photo
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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500