Daily Archives: October 22, 2006

Gentlemen, start my engine?

While in Indianapolis this past week to attend a conference I asked a couple of folks if there were any “must see” places. All agreed I should to the Speedway and so I did Friday afternoon as I had a couple of hours before my plane was due to leave.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the “Indy 500” is a uniquely American institution. I haven’t followed it closely since I was a child in the mid 50’s. The only driver’s name I remember from that period is Bill Vukovich; he won in ’53 and ’54. We didn’t have a TV in those days so my only memories of the race are from listening to it in the radio. It was then always held on Memorial Day and I usually found time to listen to at least part of the race.

My first thought when I saw the track was its immense size. I knew the oval was 2.5 miles around, but I had no idea just how big the stands were. I have been to Belmont and Santa Anita race tracks, and the stands at Indy have a similar look from some angles, but they are much bigger.

There is a museum at the Speedway, inside the track oval. After I parked my car in the parking lot I could see just part of the track oval. The museum itself was wonderful. There was a twenty-minute movie about the history of the race. I learned that about a century ago Indianapolis was a regional center for automobile production in the days when many autos were largely hand-built; for example, Studebaker and Duesenberg. The roads were so bad in those days that it was impossible to test the cars at speed, so a track was built and it was decided to have an occasional competition. The race was 200 laps, or 500 miles, long; that distance was chosen so the race would take about 7 hours. Today, the cars go much faster, so the winning time is under three hours.

The museum has about 100 automobiles, most of which actually were in one of the races. Some are over 100 years old. The fastest can go over 200 miles per hour. It is a unique collection. What is most striking is that while in films and on TV the cars look pretty much alike, close-up it is clear they are hand-built.

The people running the museum — the Speedway is a private company — were very friendly and I told a few of them of my weak connection to the Indy 500. You see, a legendary family of auto racers, the Unser’s, hails from my home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, as does one of the owners of some of their cars that raced at Indy, Richard Galles. I’ve always known Mr. Galles as “Ricky” because he was a classmate of mine in elementary school. Indeed, in the sixth grade I was given a choice of being either the last player on the first-string Little League team, or the best player on the second-string team (I chose to stick with the “big boys.”) Ricky was the 4th grader upstart kid who bumped me down. He was indeed a much better ballplayer and went on to play football at Kansas. Many of them recognized Ricky’s name.

Part of the tour was a bus ride around the track. It looks much larger in real-life than on TV. It took 10-15 minutes. The driver pointed out that if we had tried to drive at that speed during an actual race, we would have been lapped about 20 times!

The stands are immense; they seat about 280,000 people. Over 400,000 people attend the actual race itself. That is a lot of people in a small space. For example, when I moved to Manhattan forty years ago I computed that if Manhattan (with about 1.5 million people in 20 square miles) with about 75,000 people/square-mile, were populated at the same density as New Mexico, (when then had 1,000,000 people in 125,000 square-mile), or about 8 people/square-mile, then Manhattan would have had just over 150 people. On Race Day the Indy track has around 400,000 people in less than four square miles, or about 100,000 people/square mile.

Last Friday when I was at the track I saw less than 100 people at the speedway; so on race day there are about 4,000 people present for every person I saw.

Just before the race starts someone selected by Speedway management utters the famous phrase, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Being there for that, among 400,000 spectators when the engines of about 40 racers come to life, must surely be one of the great moments in sports.

But I had my own great moment at Indy, though it was much quieter. I don’t travel that much so when I do I find myself driving a car I have most likely never seen before. On this trip the sign of that was the windshield wipers were on most of my time driving around Indy; I learned to lower the speed but somehow found it hard to get them to stay turned off. And when I tried to start my car after leaving the museum, I heard just a click-click as the engine tried to start, and soon confirmed that I had left the lights on, so I was stuck in the lot with less than three hours to go before my flight was due to take off.

I walked back to the ticket counter and asked for help. Within a few minutes a gentleman from Indy security drove up and with his help my car was soon running. I thought of giving him a tip, but he had that innate kindness and good-nature so often found in the interior regions of our country that I felt he might be offended, so I just said thanks and shook his hand.

My good friend Chris Abbey reminded me in the first comment to my previous post about a promise I made to myself in late ’98 in the Jikes Coupon post:

So from now on, when asked to speak about open-source licensing matters my response will be silent and simple — a pleasant nod and a smile.

I get it Chris:


The folks who run the race at Indy also know over the course of a year they will hear similar words from a few hapless souls such as myself who leave their car lights on. They might even suggest to the kindly ladies dressed in red who run the help desk at the Indy 500 Museum that when the next hapless soul comes to them, they should say, with a pleasant nod and a smile, “You mean, you want us to start your engine? Of course, we’ll send someone right out.”

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