Motorsports

The Longest Day: 28 Hours, Three Races, One Most Embarrassing Moment

We go from sprint cars to the Indy 500 to NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, with the help of a private jet

The Triple? Yeah, we did it, so belly up to the bar and we’ll tell you all about it. What is it, you ask? First we attend the Little 500, Saturday night on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a 69-year-old, 500-lap sprint-car race around a quarter-mile track, and if it isn’t on your bucket list, write it down, before it jumps the shark.

Then we attend the Indianapolis 500.

Then we hop on a private jet to Concord, North Carolina, 585 miles southeast, to watch NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, made even longer by NASCAR’s decision to divide the race into four segments, plus an hour and 40-minute rain delay.

To those non-motorsports types, it likely seems like a nightmare, a 28-hour “Groundhog Day” of going in circles. Or, more precisely, ovals.

But to the truly dedicated race fan — and by “dedicated” we mean so committed to racing that involuntary commitment may loom in their future — doing the Memorial Day weekend Triple is climbing the motorsports Mount Everest.

To me, it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

Race 1: The Little 500
Saturday, the night before the Indianapolis 500, head about an hour north of Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Anderson, Indiana, home of Anderson Speedway. Its website describes it thusly: “The quarter-mile Anderson Speedway was built in 1948 by legendary promoter Joe Helpling and a large group of men working for 25 cents per hour.”

A year later Helpling, whom you might recall as being a legendary promoter, held a press conference announcing he was going to run a race called the Little 500 on the eve of the Big 500. Helpling’s race would feature 33 cars going 500 laps around the high-banked asphalt oval.

That’s crazy, they said. Don’t do it, Joe, nobody’ll finish. Helpling would not be dissuaded, and the first race, held in 1949, featured 33 “Roaring Roadsters.” Stunningly, 18 cars actually finished, and perhaps even more stunningly, five drivers never made a pit stop.

Fast forward, literally, to 2017, and the 69th Annual Payless Little 500 Presented by UAW GM. Instead of Roaring Roadsters, it’s now USAC-style non-wing sprint cars, competing at a track late driver Dick Trickle said was akin to “racing jet fighters in a gymnasium.”

The fastest cars this year qualified at just more than 11 seconds a lap. Imagine 33 of them, starting three across, just like the Indy 500, and you have a race every sprint-car driver wants to win — or at least finish.

This year, that driver lineup included three-time NASCAR champ Tony Stewart, who retired from Cup Series racing at the end of last season — so he could do more racing. Such as, for the first time in his career, the Little 500, now possible since his presence is no longer required driving in the Indianapolis 500, in which he competed five times, or in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.

With native son Stewart there, as well as his pal, former NASCAR driver Kenny Schrader, the always-sellout crowd sold out a lot earlier, with hundreds of fans turned away at the gate. A downpour the night before turned the regular parking lot into a mud bog, sending most fans to a distant grass field where a kid on a tractor was mowing as fast as he could.

Stewart, 46, had not driven a pavement non-wing sprinter in 22 years. Schrader, who would turn 62 two days later, was also a long way removed from his sprint-car days.

My informal survey, taken while waiting on one of the two infield porta-potties, and standing in line for 35 minutes for a Gatorade and sandwich with a huge fried patty of some sort of unidentified meat, suggested that Stewart was unlikely to finish the race. And Schrader? What was he thinking? Stewart qualified 18th, Schrader 21st.

On the front row, three very good drivers you never heard of: Caleb Armstrong had fast time, followed by Kyle Hamilton and Kody Swanson. The race started promptly at 8 p.m. Not long after, Austin Nemire crashed his No. 16 sprinter into the turn one wall, shearing off the right front tire and wheel and absolutely pancaking the right side of the car, flattening the chrome headers against the engine. Then it caught fire.

Because sprint cars must be push-started by a truck, officials are reluctant to red-flag the race, but this seemed like a good time. They didn’t. Instead, workers threaded their way through the still-circling sprint cars, and Nemire was OK. Lucky. It was the worst crash of the night, including a comparatively mild rollover by Nemire’s teammate, Aaron Pierce, which did bring out the lone red flag.

The sprint cars made about a half-dozen pit stops during the race, which are downright terrifying: Anderson Speedway has a figure-8 track in the middle, and teams are crammed on both sides of the X. Refueling is done from elevated tanks, some of which are 55-gallon drums on stilts. The lighting is terrible. Once refueled and with a change of tires, crewmen frantically wave their arms, calling for a push truck, one of a battery of new Chevrolets. The truck pushes the sprint car onto the speedway, then actually drives around for a hundred feet on the lower paved part of the oval, then darts back into the infield. This is perhaps the only race you’ll see where action in the infield seems as dangerous as on the racetrack.

Because of the jumbling pit stops, the only way to tell who’s up front is by the scoreboard, which shows the top five positions. Stewart has been holding his own, moving up gradually. He’s in the No. 69 Hoffman Racing car, a team with a decades-old history and a who’s who of sprint-car drivers. Stewart’s car won in 2016, with Kody Swanson aboard.

Tonight, Swanson is in the No. 4, definitely the car to beat until he fades in the last 100 laps. By then Stewart is on the scoreboard — fifth, then fourth, and suddenly Swanson and Kyle Hamilton, in the No. 5, make light contact and Swanson spins to a stop. Swanson battles to fourth, as Hamilton wins, followed by Bobby Santos III.

And in third, Tony Stewart. The top three drivers stop on the front straight, and Stewart is clearly beat but elated. “This race is everything they said it would be, and more,” he says. His friend and sometime sponsor, Rusty Rush, comments, “This is the happiest I’ve seen Tony in a long time.”

It would also be a long weekend for Stewart and his posse: He would be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday as part of a tribute to his hero and namesake, A.J. Foyt, driving one of Foyt’s cars on some parade laps. And that afternoon, he’d board a private jet to fly to Charlotte, to keep an eye on the four-car Stewart-Haas team in the Coca-Cola 600.

Likely his trip from Indy to Charlotte was less eventful than mine. More about that in a moment.

The Little 500 ends after 11 p.m. After victory lane interviews, I get back to my rental car after midnight, deliver it to the long-closed rental car office in downtown Indy by 1:30 a.m., and after a 20-minute walk to the hotel, I’m in bed by 2:30 a.m.

At 8 a.m., I’m in the lobby of the JW Marriott to meet up with the Shell oil company folks, who will take us to the Indy 500, then to the Coca-Cola 600, as part of a promotion called Instant Gold, a loyalty offering for new and current members of the Fuel Rewards program. Sign up at FuelRewards.com! End of commercial. Hey, it was their private jet that made The Triple possible.

The tie-in was that two Shell-sponsored Penske drivers — Helio Castroneves in IndyCar, and Joey Logano in NASCAR — were driving gold race cars that advertised Instant Gold. Fortunately, they are both easy guys to root for, especially Helio.

Race 2: The Indianapolis 500.
Our police escort, led by a typically fearless Harley-riding Indianapolis police officer, has us at the track in no time, except for an unusual dead-stop delay we suspect is due to the arrival of Vice-President Mike Pence, the former Indiana governor, whose presence causes the closing of an entire entrance gate for the race’s duration.

Amid the early pageantry are periodic checks of the weather radar, as storms are inevitable — it is just a matter of when they will arrive. Fortunately, they hold off until well after the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, the machine that is the Indy 500 pre-race festivities rolls along, minus Florence Henderson and Jim Nabors, who frankly cannot be replaced.

Right on time — such is the power of live TV — the 101st Indianapolis 500 goes green before an impressive crowd. Shortly before the race, we’d spent 10 minutes with Castroneves, and while I can’t say I always pull for him, I’ve never pulled against him. He’s a gentleman, wonderful with the fans and the media and sponsors, and managed to get a couple of Shell Instant Gold mentions in. He seemed focused, and very pleased with his Chevrolet-powered car.

We figured he might do well, and indeed he does, leading frequently and never far from the front. He dodges crashes all day — his drive under polesitter Scott Dixon’s airborne car is chilling — with Dixon, Jay Howard, and Castroneves all later pointing up the need for some sort of genuine head enclosure for their cars. It’s time.

In the end it comes down to Helio and Andretti Honda driver Takuma Sato. The Hondas have been grenading, but when they are fast, they are fast, and Castroneves can’t run him down. Good for Sato, a disappointment for the Shell Instant Gold people. On to Charlotte, where the campaign is now in the hands of Joey Logano,

Well, not so fast. We had a brisk walk from the Shell suite to a waiting van, complete with another police escort, to take us to the Millionaire FBO at Indianapolis International Airport, where a sparkling Cessna Citation Sovereign business jet and two pilots wait to take us to Charlotte.

But somehow, between the suites and the pool of vans and Suburbans, I become distracted by shiny objects, perhaps a butterfly, a nice t-shirt somebody was wearing, and Helio’s big-screen interview, where he apologized to Penske, Chevy, and Shell Instant Gold for letting everybody down.

And when I turn around, all the people in Shell Instant Gold shirts are gone. I flail around the compound for a moment, certain the proper Suburban was right there, and probably waited too long to make perhaps the most embarrassing admission since a college confession to the student-body physician — about what you don’t need to know, but Penicillin took care of it.

I ring Sam Brown, the patient, long-suffering race PR guy who is shepherding the cats who were the media members on this trip, and tell him I’ve lost them. Long pause. “What?”

Longer pause. The Suburban is already on the way out of the tunnel, and I’m 10 minutes from there. I still don’t understand how we missed each other, but bottom line, I was still on the ground inside the Speedway, and they were already en route to the airport.

As I make it outside the tunnel, I begin walking vaguely toward downtown, caught up in the thousands of race fans who are less vaguely walking that way. Brown and I discussed cabs: None. Uber: None. I kept pleading with him to go ahead and fly the group to Charlotte, I’d figure out something, but he subscribed to the No Journalist Left Behind program.

Eventually a decision is reached: I make it to an intersection that seems to be flowing slightly; Brown commandeers a black Mercedes from someplace, finds a kid at the FBO who used to live in the neighborhood and loves to drive fast, and they blast to my rescue. The kid, who may have mentioned an arrest or two for drag racing, gets us to the airport in an unimaginably short time.

And everyone is very nice. Lots of “Don’t worry about it!” comments. A few, “Hey, we’ve all done absolutely stupid shit, too!” The pilots get us out just minutes before a huge thunderstorm shuts down the airport, and a little more than an hour later, we are in a van on the way to the racetrack. As they would a toddler who had strayed off earlier, everyone quietly makes sure I am on every bus for the rest of the night.

Turns out we didn’t miss much at Charlotte Motor Speedway but noise and humidity — another storm was approaching fast. After a quick tour of pit road and the pit box for Logano, the Shell Instant Gold spear-carrier for the NASCAR race, it begins to rain, and we dash for a building called the Champion’s Pavilion where we eat sticky chicken wings and Rice Krispie Treats.

After an hour and 40 minutes, an unarmored battalion of jet dryers and Air Titans has the surface ready, and the race continues, well short of halfway. NASCAR, for the first time, breaks the race into four segments as an alleged excitement-generating innovation, awarding points to the top finishers in each segment, and it is gimmicky but unobjectionable.

It also makes for a long race for the Shell Instant Gold cheering squad, as Logano is having a bad night. Aside from Kevin Harvick qualifying on the pole, only two Fords — Harvick and Stewart-Haas teammate Kurt Busch — are in the top 10. Logano’s Penske Ford teammate, Brad Keselowski, was taken out early in a hard crash when he rear-ended a slowing Chase Elliott.

In the end, it looks like the Coca Cola 600 will become a fuel mileage race, and Logano stays on the track during a caution. Suddenly he is in third, and at least getting the gold Shell car some camera time. With a caution, he may have been able to make it, but he has to peel off for a splash of fuel, and ends up 21st. The winner is first-timer Austin Dillon, who also played the fuel mileage game. Good for him; Dillon is a nice kid who treats his fans well.

We pile into the last van of the night as the checkered flag falls, and there is a quick nose count—survivors to the end were five journalists and two Shell executives, a still-chipper Pam Rosen, company PR guru, and Sydney Kimball, vice-president of marketing for Shell Fuels Americas, who is from Calgary, Alberta, and consequently is not afraid of anything. The others had bailed early for the hotel.

And just as the van makes it to near-clear territory, the police simply stop all traffic, going in any direction, and stand there while fans take over the roads, walking in multiple directions. There is no effort to move any traffic along at all — which was a first in my very long racing career — and after sitting for 45 minutes, we bid adieu to our driver, and walk the three miles to the hotel, making a really long day just interminable.

In bed by 2 a.m., up early for the flight home.

For the Shell Instant Gold people, not a bad weekend: a first and second in Shell-sponsored Ferraris in the Monaco Grand Prix, a second place and very nearly a win in the Indianapolis 500, and a commendable Hail Mary in the NASCAR race that had their car in the top three for a while.

All three races are, of course, bucket list-worthy. But if you are making plans for next year, the Little 500 in Anderson should be at the top.