LIKABLE AND LEGENDARY DRIVERS

Plaza OverviewIt’s A.J. Foyt day Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the place is thronged. The plaza is filled with camera toting, Sharpie wielding fans eager to catch a glimpse of the Indianapolis 500 legends, drivers who have participated in the event over the years. Note to self – suggest any future staged photo ops have higher platforms for the celebrities, so they can be easily seen. I gave up trying to take a photo, but no doubt, professional photographers will have plenty for viewing.

Briefly, Foyt has an impressive Indy 500 history – raced/team owner for five decades, raced 35 consecutive races, and won a record four Indy 500’s.

The weather started out cold and overcast, with a stiff breeze. As the day wore on, the sun made a valiant effort to get through, but it never reached the predicted 77 degrees F. But that didn’t faze or stop the crowds.

After the initial session, the fans were invited to the public Drivers Meeting for the IZOD IndyCar Indy 500 racers. There were awards and presentations, and introductions of all 33 drivers.

Among the presentations were awards from the previous year. Fortunately, the driver and team are the same and still together. DARIO FRANCHITTI and his team owner, CHIP GANASSI received their 2010 Indianapolis 500 Baby Borg (minature replica) of the traditional Borg-Warner Trophy. It was presented by JAMES VERRIER, vice president of Borg Warner. That trophy has brought up some interesting comments this month, with the IndyCar rules saying it is the car which qualifies for the race so drivers can be interchangeable; but, the trophy has bas-relief likenesses of the winning driver, name and average speed. The two also received their winner’s rings. Franchitti also received his Louis Meyer Award for winning the race – the Milk award.

From my perch high atop the Media Center looking down through the huge plate glass windows, I could see and hear the grandstand crowds and their reaction to the various drivers who came to the podium to receive their Indy 500 starter rings. To my untrained and somewhat deaf ears, it seemed to me that the loudest applause went to SIMONA DE SILVESTRO/No.78 Nuclear Clean Air Energy HVM. Others getting loud reactions, in alpha order, JOHN ANDRETTI/No. 43 Team Window World Richard Petty/Andretti Autosport; HELIO CASTRONEVES/No.3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team Penske, TONY KANAAN/No.82 GEICO-KV Racing Technology – Lotus, DANICA PATRICK/No.7 Team Go Daddy Andretti Autosport; pole sitter ALEX TAGLIANI/No.77 Bowers & Wilkins/Sam Schmidt Racing, and PAUL TRACY/No.23 WIX Filters/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

When A.J. FOYT was introduced as Pace Car Driver and received his ring, he got a standing O from the crowd. Clearly, a popular figure among the race fans. JIM CAMPBELL, the General Motors U.S. vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports, gave Foyt a presentation plaque with a steering wheel from the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible Pace Car.

Dan Gurney received the STP Unsung Hero Award from ANDY GRANATELLI.

MARI HULMAN GEORGE, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chairman of the Board, received a special presentation plaque with two Chevrolet steering wheels from Campbell.

AL UNSER, Jr, IndyCar driver coach, read the notes from Friday’s official Drivers’ Meeting, including the controversial double-file restarts – not a popular plan among the drivers. The double file restarts were moved from the front straightaway to the entrance of Turn Four. Cars will line up two-by-two on the backstretch and will begin racing as soon as the green flag flies as they approach the restart zone at the entrance to Turn Four.

Unser said “As it will be double-file, you have to make sure to take care of each other as you enter and go through Turn Four and head down the front straightaway into Turn One. There will be a great deal of congestion in that corner. This race is won by survivors and smart thinkers, not just the fastest race cars. Control your own destiny, make good decisions and respect this racetrack.”

Unser punctuated his scripted notes with some occasional humor.

After the Drivers Meeting, all 33 of the drivers took shuttles downtown to participate in the annual parade, which is quite the production and, of course a tradition, as are all things associated with the Indy 500.

Plaza QueueWhile the current drivers were parading around, many of the racers who had previously raced in the Indy 500 were having their afternoon autograph session. All 270+ still living former racers were invited to attend the race. As that group is quite international and spread all around the world, not all were able to attend. Of those that did, they were divided into two groups. Each group had two separate hour-long sessions, and they alternated.
Autograph Crowd
The crowd was massive for those who stood in line to get their wrist band and to queue up for the sessions. The snaking lines were all over the Plaza, while inside the Chalets were the drivers at tables in groups. IMS yellow shirts and IZOD staff helped keep the lines moving.

Saturday night there will be another tradition – The Night Before The 500 Race, at nearby O’Reilly Raceway Park. The bill includes USAC Midgets as the feature event, with two of the Mazda Road to Indy Series as support events – USF2000 and Star Mazda Championship. This year the event is called the NOS Energy Drink Night Before The 500 presented by Comfort Suites of Brownsburg.

Hot, humid weather is forecast for Sunday. Whoo Hoo!