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I'm a car guy, but I have never been a race guy. I don't begrudge those people, and I understand the importance racing has always held for the entire industry, but it's never held my attention that much. I use the RAM in my brain for other information.You can only imagine the innocent insults I cast over drinks when I mistook an Indy car for an F-1. What? They're not the same thing? It was as if the sky had fallen.So I approached Chevrolet's invitation to attend the Indy 500 with a little apprehension. I mean, it was Memorial Day weekend, and I could just enjoy a three-day weekend at home. And although I'm not a racing fan, I do appreciate its importance, and even I can understand the hallowed Brickyard and significance to the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Wow. I was wrong. Racing, and Sunday's race in particular, is incredible. The drama of the last 100 laps was nerve-racking, and I didn't even know which driver I was really pulling for. (Turns out it was Tony Kanaan, whose pit crew fixed the understeering problems his car experienced at the beginning of the race, and he found the wall just outside of Turn 4.)
Better yet, the crowd at the race was incredible. Their constant cheering sometimes drowned out the roar of the engines. Everything was thrilling about the race. Chevrolet was particularly thrilled, as well, taking the top four spots and eight out of the top 10.Before the race, I walked down to the pits to watch the crews prepare their vehicles. There's an Indy tradition that some people in the crowd get to walk among the cars as they move into their starting positions. The crews never stopped tinkering, adjusting, testing. I watched one engineer trace his finger over every edge of ever seam on a car. He was looking for even the slightest uneven space. Something that might throw off the car for the tiniest of moments is checked with surgical diligence.In pit lane, some crewmembers practiced connecting the fuel connector. Another rehearsed connecting the compressed air valve to the car to actuate the lifters. No one wants to be the guy to screw up and cost the team a second in the pits.I returned to the pits during the race and watched the crews in action. Seeing it live is incredible, especially the way they let out a collective sigh after the pit runs smoothly. But then it's back to work. Measuring tire wear, discussing aero adjustments, and figuring out anything that might give their driver the slightest advantage.
Al Oppenheiser, the chief engineer of Camaro and a race junkie, was standing down in the pits and watching with a master's eye."I love just listening to the engineers," he said. "They're just looking for ways to go faster. It's exactly what I do."It really is.The pit crews have to change wheels of Indy 500 cars about every 33 laps. That means they'll go through six or seven sets of tires during the 200-lap race. When the wheels go on, they are smoother — and stickier — than a baby's bottom. When they come off, they're smoking hot, chunks of rubber thrown off them. Someone will then measure the tire and see if there's anything they might be able to do to help with the next one.Fans know all of this. They know the drivers. They understand the stress of 200-plus miles per hour puts on a person. The fans slather themselves in sunscreen and roll their coolers from campgrounds to bleacher seats, where they watch the race with as much passion as any other sports fan. With more than 250,000 fans at the race, it is truly a spectacle worthy of all of its fanfare. Next year will mark the 100th Indy 500, it will be even that much more thrilling.I don't know if I will ever become a race guy. There are a lot of other things I like to devote my energies to. But I do have a new appreciation for Indy racing and the people who follow it.