My Name is Kyle, and I am a Racing Junkie...

Standing in the stands on the front straight at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am with my family. We are all excited as the cars are leaving the pits to be lined up on the grid. We know that we are less than fifteen minutes away from the start of the race. The atmosphere is buzzing (or perhaps it is just the air horns).
   The long weekend was coming to an end, but what an exciting end it would be. In what seemed no time, the cars were released for their formation lap. The cars took off, one by one, going up the front straight. We watched them all drive off and paitently waited for them to return, coming around Turn 13 and back onto the grid.

**********

For me, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a landmark. It is like unburied treasure, a source of joy and happiness. To knowledgable race fans, it is among the greatest race courses in the world, along with Daytona International Speedway in the United States, Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in Italy, the Nordschleife at the Nürburgring in Germany, and Silverstone Circuit in England, to name a few. To those who pass by it unknowingly, it is just a collection of bleachers, pavement, and concrete on a plot of land between 16th and 30th Streets, and adjacent to Georgetown Road.
   But, to me, this is my home away from home. This is the place I like to go to whenever I have the chance. Even if there is no race, I will go just because I can. I have been there just to go to the museum, to watch testing, to watch Grandma ride in an IndyCar, and to just drive past.
   If I go for a May without going to see Indy 500 practice, I feel like I have ditched a good friend. Left a family member stranded. I begin looking forward to the Indy 500 in November! (Well, actually I look forward to it on the day following the race.)

**********

The first time I saw a car race around the Speedway was so long ago I have forgotten it. It is part of my being, but I cannot remember any details. But, I ask you to forgive me — I was no more than 3 years old at the time.
   While honestly, I do not know when I made my first trek to the Speedway, I do know that I was there when NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) performed their test to determine if they would like to race at Indianapolis. Race fans know what happened because of that test — the creation of the Brickyard 400.
   Mom, who feels like I do about the Speedway, took us out to the Speedway. She knew that Richard Petty, known as “The King” in NASCAR, would be driving that day. The year was 1993. Although I did not get a chance to meet him, I distinctly remember Mom dragging me and my younger brother Corey to the garage area and holding us up so we could see through the crowd of people to see “The King” in person. Although I do not remember a single car running laps that day, I remember, and always will remember, that moment.

**********

Perhaps the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is my drug; my one addiction that I will never break...
   I say this because of the fact that my experiences at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have influenced my life. Going someplace when you are young and vulnerable always has that effect.
   I actually devoted my life to racing when I was younger. OK, maybe devoted is a little too strong a word... no, I don’t think it is. I devoted most of my life to racing — I was a good student and football fan in spite of my devotion to racing.
   At school, I was always finished with my in-class work before the other students, so, to amuse myself, I would grab a piece of paper and start drawing. Most of the time, my drawings were of overhead shots of the Speedway. Sometimes, I would get creative and draw fans, cars, and the “groove” (a racing term meaning the path in a lap of a track that most cars follow during a race).
   Other times, I would imagine that I were a race car driver. I would draw my car on the track. Of course, I always drew myself winning. (I was an arrogant little kid!!) Or, if I had had enough of drawing (really, I wasn’t very good), I would practice signing my name!

**********

When I was younger most of my in-person experiences were at NASCAR races. I can remember going to Brickyard 400 practice or qualifying nearly every year from the début in 1994 until 1999. I have collected a number of souvenir programs, which stretch up to 2002.
   I was born just a tad too late to really experience and enjoy the glory days of IndyCar. The series split into CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) and the IRL (Indy Racing League) in 1996, when I was 8 years old. So, for much of my early life, I thought, “why would anybody want to watch open-wheel racing, save for the Indianapolis 500?” I believe that is one reason why my early experiences were with NASCAR.
   However, that does not mean we did not go out to the Speedway during the Indianapolis 500, it just means we were not as regular as with NASCAR. One distinct memory I have from the period between 1994 and 1998, was going to the Speedway in 1996, the first year of the split of IndyCar. This year was significant not only because of the split, but because of some on-track occurrances, also.
   The most significant of those at the beginning of the month was Tony Stewart. NASCAR fans now know Tony Stewart as a multi-time champion of that series. However, before making his move to stock cars, he raced open-wheeled cars. Tony was a young rookie from Columbus, Indiana, not too far from Indianapolis. I don’t remember exactly, but given trends, I would assume the local media were ga-ga about him.
   The event that will ensure that the 1996 Indianapolis 500 remains in my head is an on-track incident at the end of the second week of practice. This day was a Friday, and we had gone to the speedway. The whole family (Mom, Dad, Corey, and I) had gone. Getting there early, we enjoyed much of the running. Being the day before third Qualifying day, those who had not yet qualified were trying their cars in “quick [or qualifying] trim”, the set-up of the car that would ensure the fastest laps possible. Those who had qualified were running in “race trim”, or, in other words, they were trying to get their cars to be good for a long period of time, like in a race.
   Since we had arrived early, by noon, we were ready to go. We packed up and returned to the car. As we drove out of the Speedway’s infield parking lot, I saw on the big screen the words, “Accident!” We wondered what was going on, and as we drove out of the infield (no turning around now) we tried to get something on the radio. Nothing. So we drove to a Dog and Suds for lunch, and still tried to get anything on the radio. Finally, we gave up and ate lunch.
   Later that day, we found out that Scott Brayton, Tony Stewart’s team-mate and pole sitter for the Indy 500, had been killed at the track during practice. The accident was the one that we saw the big screens at the track announce.

**********

In spite of the danger of death, racing has always had a big appeal to me. Some of my most favorite Christmas presents were given to me in 1995. A young kid of 7, I knew I wanted to become a race car driver — I had made that my life goal. So, Mom and Dad, as wonderful as they were, unable to afford a race car, gave me the next best thing. I woke up on Christmas morning to the largest present box I have ever received. Inside the box was a new Apple Macintosh computer. I was surprised and amazed by the present, but it was only the beginning. As the morning went on, I also received a NASCAR game for my Mac and a steering wheel, with which to drive.
   After that, and although it did not include Indy (I was rather upset then), I played that game whenever I had a free moment. I actually wanted to get home from school early so I could play (half-days and snow days were my favorites!). During the summer, I spent my time inside racing.
   I must have raced too much, because within a span of five years my steering wheel was kaput. But, that did not stop me! Corey had also gotten a steering wheel that same Christmas. He did not use his, nor did he have a desire to ever do so, so he let me have it. With his, I got a little more time of racing pleasure — before I broke it, too.

**********

The year 1999 saw another first for me at the Speedway. That year, I had the pleasure of attending my first race in person — the Brickyard 400! We arrived early, really early. We were so early, we saw all of the pre-race activities and had to wait on those! However, it was worth it, as we saw a great race.
   We were disappointed, however, as one of our favorite drivers, Bobby Labonte, failed to win, because of a late-race caution. We enjoyed the race, as well as the after celebrations of Victory Lane.
   By this point, I wanted to always buy tickets and never miss another NASCAR race at Indianapolis. I did not do so, however. In retrospect, having been to other venues since then, and having seen other series’ events at Indianapolis, not to mention some big changes in NASCAR that would occur just two years later, I am not sure that not buying the tickets was such a bad thing...

**********

By the time the second steering wheel broke, I was already ingrained in the whole PlayStation and console video game fad. As much as I hated giving up my NASCAR game and steering wheel, I knew also that game technology had evolved, new tracks had been added, and Indianapolis was now available.
   I have never felt the same way about NASCAR video games (or racing games in particular) the way I have about my first NASCAR game. Perhaps it is true what people say, you never forget your first love.
   Unfortunately for me, my first love has always been and always will be racing. I have tried to hide that fact from myself, especially after what I had perceived to be the “upper age” for a beginning racer had passed me by. (Most race drivers start before they are 10 years old.) I tried to pursue other careers, such as doctor, engineer, and other academic careers. Briefly, I settled on fighter pilot, and even prepared to join the US Air Force — later, I found out that my eyesight was too bad.
   After trying to kid myself, I realized how much I wanted to be a race car driver, and I have tried to strike a balance between need for a “realistic” career and passion for becoming a professional race car driver.

**********

After the 1999 race, I settled in for what would be another long year of waiting. However, something in the 1999 souvenir program from the Brickyard 400 intrigued me: Indianapolis would be welcoming Formula 1 (aka F1), a European racing series, in 2000. The track had been under construction for about a year to add the necessary requirements for F1 to come. The major addition was the infield road course (F1 does not race on ovals).
   After receiving a brochure in the mail either late-’99 or early 2000, I became intrigued. However, my pro-NASCAR, anti-open-wheel attitude precluded me from wanting to admit I was. However, I eventually admitted it, shortly before the race was set to take place.
   The inaugural running of the SAP Formula 1 United States Grand Prix (wow, long name!) was September 24, 2000. I remember it was a rainy day in Indiana. I remember thinking during the afternoon (the race was tape-delayed in Indiana) that the race would not be run and would be pushed off until the next day. I was surprised (and immediately a fan) when we turned the TV on to watch the tape-delay — they were actually running the race!
   I don’t remember much of the race, except that it was wet; the cars had awesome rooster-tails; and immediately after, Corey and I rented an antique F1 game (circa 1998) from the local video rental store!

**********

In my quest to strike a balance, I have tried to tell myself that I would never make it as a race driver, and Mom has tried the same thing. I never listen to reason, I guess. Even now, I must admit, as a college senior, 22 years old (almost 23), I still think about it. Yes, becoming a professional race car driver. I have never lost the belief that I could become a professional race car driver. I guess everybody needs a dream.

**********

In 2001, Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest drivers (I say that now) in NASCAR, ever, died in an accident at the season-opener in Daytona. After that day, the relationship between NASCAR and myself began to unravel.
   NASCAR started to become a highly rule-oriented sanctioning body, the drivers began to become somewhat whiny. The racing became less good. In my opinion anyway.
   I began to lose interest in watching races, and for the first time in a long time, I decided to not go to the Speedway for practice during this time. (However, I cannot remember if it was 2001 or later.)
   What I do know is that during the period between 2001 and 2010, I have been to the Speedway for a NASCAR event only a handful of times, and once was outside the gate, never walking in. (I did, however, get a really cool Dale Earnhardt floor display!)
   By 2005, my obsession with NASCAR, and my anti-open-wheel racing bias, had gone away.

**********

My belief is rooted in the fact that nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. I have gotten close many times. In fact, I was $3000 away from actually getting to test a Formula BMW USA car (a feeder series for open-wheel drivers). However, money problems and the lack of safety gear have precluded me from doing so. (I still have the card for the team owner, however.)
   More recently, I have joined the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) in an attempt to become an amateur racer. I figure that if I can get experience maybe I could have the good fortune to be discovered. However, it is also a way to help strike the balance between real job and racing dream mentioned earlier.
   Now, I have purchased the safety gear... I like to put it on when I am feeling discouraged and pretend I am a race car driver, it does help a little. I want to be ready when my next opportunity comes along. And I still have faith that it will.

**********

My first experience with F1 in person was in 2002. In an attempt to learn more about the sport, Mom, Corey, and I decided that we would check it out in person.
   I have a problem: I am sure that it is some sort of mental condition — perhaps I am crazy, I don’t know — however, when I see a car in person, I immediately fall in love.
   That said, the first car I saw pass us by, with its beautiful 19,000 RPM song (think IndyCar as a soprano!), I was immediately in love.
   We took in the racing from many different angles. We saw Michael Schumacher, the winningest driver in the history of F1, spin — just for fun! His car ended up in front of us, and he “posed” for pictures! After a good amount of time, he corrected his car and drove off as if nothing had happened.
   We also learned that at F1 events, they race other series of cars, too. So, we were acquainted with the Porsche Michelin Supercup Series. I am not sure, but I think this was my first time seeing a Porsche in person. I am sure this is unnecessary to say, but I want a Porsche 911 GTR race car. So beautiful, I am so in love!
   We left the track, after about 5 hours. We would have stayed longer, but had to pick Dad up at the airport. We were immediately hooked. However, it took us a little longer to start watching the races on TV.

**********

Many times I have dreamt that I am a race car driver. Sadly, this is not just in bed. I shouldn’t admit it, but I treat my wonderful little ’94 Saturn SL1 as if it were a sports car. “Plum” as I call it, is a good sport. It has lived through Dad who is rough on cars, and me, who drives it like a sports car. (I think it enjoys it though!)
   I have found that this is a great way to relieve stress after a long day at school. Living in a slightly rural, hill-laden area, the roads are quite curvy. More than once have I thought of myself as a racer in the 24 Hours of Daytona or the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Plum has lived up to all my dreams, and I feel like if it is not my first car raced, it will be a tragedy.

**********

Despite going to practice in 2004, it wasn’t until 2005 that I got to the Speedway to watch an F1 race in person. Dad got a deal on tickets; somehow he discovered a program where he and Mom would take part in the pre-race ceremonies of the race. Because of this we all got in for free.
   We had Friday free, and spent the day together. We loaded up on merchandise, too! By the end of the day, at which we had been present for about 95% of the proceedings, we were all excited to see the race.
   On Saturday, problems were brewing on track, but we had no idea. Mom and Dad did their flag practice thing, and Corey and I watched the cars practice. By qualifying, Mom and Dad were back. We watched qualifying and were excited. We then stuck around for a Formula BMW USA race and the Porsche Michelin Supercup series.
   On Sunday, we arrived in time to watch the end of the second Porsche Michelin Supercup race. Corey and I saw Dad and Mom in the pre-race ceremonies, and enjoyed ourselves.
   Before the race started, Mom and Dad were back in the stands with us. In order to see Mom and Dad, Corey and I had staked out seats on the front straight — not optimal for F1, but it would do this time. We were able to see all the action in the pits and around the front straight before the race. We were excited about the start of the race. As the last cars left the pits to line up on the grid we began to grow ever more excited. Finally, the cars were off on their formation lap.
   We knew we were less than two minutes from the start of the race. As the cars rounded Turn 13, the entire crowd prepared for the excitement that is the start of an F1 race. And then, suddenly, the atmosphere changed. Fourteen of the twenty cars entered in the event pulled off the racing surface. All fourteen were drivers using Michelin tires.
   Nobody, not even the PA announcers, knew what was going on. We all assumed that the race was being postponed. The six remaining cars, all on Bridgestone tires, took their places on the grid. Sadly, the race was not postponed; the five red lights lit up and extinguished, signalling the start of the race.
   Many fans were furious, and threw debris on the track, and walked out on the race. We decided to stay — it was our first Formula 1 race, we wanted to see it. Although it was only six cars, and only two were on the lead lap at the end of the race, it was pretty exciting.
   It was revealed later that Michelin’s tires were unable to withstand the pressures introduced by the banking on Turn 13 (IndyCar Turn 1). After an injury to Ralf Schumacher (Michael’s brother) on Friday, the Michelin teams tried to work with the sanctioning body, the FiA, and the Speedway on a compromise. Unable to reach one, they boycotted the event entirely. The race in Indy was called into question, would it remain or not? It did, but only for two additional years.
   We missed the 2006 race, but we were able to make the 2007 race, the final one in Indianapolis. We really enjoyed the event, in spite of the fact a driver we don’t like won. It is, in my mind, not as personal or near as the 2005 race, because all the fans were present at the 2007 race. It was fun, nevertheless.

**********

My life is and always will be defined by racing. In my room as I write this, I look around and see the pictures and posters hanging on the wall. I have autographed souvenir programs, other autographed memorabilia. And, I have some very unique items, too (like the floor display). I have amassed a huge collection of 1/64th scale die-cast cars (I used to play with them), and other collector’s cars. I even have some racing trading cards. I carry my SCCA membership card everywhere I go, although I have never needed it outside an SCCA event!
   I am diligent about watching races, and I get upset when events beyond my control preclude me from doing so. I have only two seasons in my life, racing season (which starts unofficially in late-January, officially in mid- to late-February) and winter.
   I read racing books, both technical books on car design and driving techniques, as well as biographies of teams, drivers, etc. I watch old race clips on YouTube, and have even watched classic races on ESPN Classic! And, finally, I know many intimate historical details about many racing series. At one time, when I was younger, I could give a person any statistical detail he could want to know about NASCAR drivers, including name, car number, marital status, if they had kids, wins, poles, and the like.
   I will never shake this habit, and I don’t try anymore. I have resigned myself to being a race junkie.

**********

Since the 2007 United States Grand Prix, I have been back to the Speedway. Three times for racing activities — more if you count trips to the museum. I tried to go in 2008, but it was too rainy to watch Indy 500 activities, so I never made it in the gate. However, I made it in 2009 for Indy 500 pole day, less than a week before I was to depart for Austria to study abroad for six weeks. (I was upset that I missed the Indy 500 because I was on a university field trip to Salzburg and could not find a TV.)
   I was able to make it to Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car testing in the Fall of 2009. It was my first time watching sports cars that had competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona (the United States’ equivalent of the 24 Hours of Le Mans). It was called a “feasibility test”, but in two years, the series has not returned. If they do, however, I will be at the track to watch that race!
   My most recent trip to the track was in May 2010. We got to the track for a practice day and two qualifying days. We also attended Community Day (a day when fans can prowl the garages, and get drivers’ autographs). I was quite successful last year in getting autographs, between the practice day (standing at the entrance to Gasoline Alley and stopping drivers on their way to/from the track) and Community Day, I got almost all the entered drivers’ autographs, and one legend’s autograph (Johnny Rutherford — a “yellow shirt” pointed him out to me and walked me over to him).
   No matter how many times I get to the Speedway, I am always amazed at how lucky I get. Who knows what will happen this year? or even next year?

**********

I realize as I write this, and look over it, how crazy about racing I must be. I never thought when I first became a racing fan that my life in racing, and really, just my experiences at Indianapolis would fill so many pages.
   I have to think that in my eighteen or so years of attending events, I have seen quite an amazing amount of things. I have met drivers that later will be spoken of as legends. I have gotten their autographs. I have had crushes on a few women drivers.
   In my twenty-two years of life, I have been blessed to have a family who is so supportive of me that, even though I know they don’t always want to, have always accompanied me to the track. They have experienced the same things as I, and have similar memories. They may not be as passionate about them as I, but it is our common theme. It is one of the things that makes us a family.
   I can only imagine, however, that if my first eighteen years of attendance have provided me with this many memories, how many more are to come in my lifetime? It boggles the mind really.
   This is why I have accepted that I am a racing junkie, this feeling of love. I feel more at home at the Indianpolis Motor Speedway than I do most anywhere else. I am ingrained it its history, and it in mine. We are in a symbiotic relationship, we both give positively to each other. It has given me all the joy and happiness any man could ever want, and in exchange I give it reason to exist.
   In my dreams of being a race car driver, my one recurring dream is to be a champion at Indianapolis. It has changed from Brickyard 400 to Formula 1 to Indy 500 to all three at one point. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get prepared for that big opportunity that will allow me to achieve my dream.


Return to Works page

This article is copyrighted by Kyle Gottfried; do not reproduce without written permission.

Return to Kyle Gottfried.com

Copyright © 2006–2020 Kyle Gottfried. All rights reserved. Copyright is for entire site. The Kyle Gottfried.com logo copyright © 2006–2020 Kyle Gottfried.