Everything You Need To Know Before Your First Indy 500

April 15, 2020

Recently, this Tweet came to my attention, and I viewed it as my moral imperative to help:

I’ve been to 18 Indianapolis 500s and a funny thing happens once you cross about a dozen races.

You join a club without knowing it. This group of race veterans takes pride in the number of races they’ve attended, and they all have their secret tips and tricks to make their race day great.

Our conversations always look the same… One of us casually brings up the race, the other mentions their number (most people I talk to are between 30 and 50 Indy 500s under their belt). That’s my cue that you’re in the club, and we dive into details.

Unfortunately, the Indy 500 is a hard sporting event to attend for the first time. It’s the largest single-day sporting event in the world, cramming over 300,000 people into just over 250 acres in the small town of Speedway, Indiana, with a population less than 12,000 people.

That’s why this fraternity exists. We share our secrets with one another, and today, I’m going to share some of those secrets with you.

At 18 races, I’m a baby in this club. A lot of folks have a ton more tips and tricks than I do. If I missed something that you do, make sure to drop it in the comments or tweet at me @timhickle.

*Note: What follows is my email to Adam, who was coming from Zionsville. Your route and parking situation will vary.*

What To Bring

So, let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. Bring a drawstring bag or small backpack where you will have sunblock, one poncho for each person, and two sets of ear plugs for each person (just to be safe… they’re cheap as hell and you won’t regret having extras). Wear sunglasses and a hat, even if it’s not sunny. Wear shorts and a tank top, but bring a light jacket if you’re concerned about getting chilly. Not usually an issue, but good to think about. Pack your favorite brand of granola/granola bar/dry snack in the backpack.

Buy a copy of the IndyStar that morning and pack it in your backpack so you can read up on the drivers. Their coverage is usually top notch.

Now, let’s talk cooler strategy.

You’re going to want a minimum of two coolers… One for the track, and one for the car. DO NOT OVERLOOK THE CAR COOLER. It is the linchpin of our cooler strategy.

For the car cooler, you want to bring the biggest cooler that anyone in your party owns. This should be the kind of cooler you put on your back deck at a barbecue. The bigger, the better. In this cooler, you will pack the following:

Now, let’s talk track cooler. Your cooler must be 18”x14”x14”. MEASURE IT BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE HOUSE, even if you’re SURE it’s small enough. You can NEVER be too careful. You don’t want to go without your cooler because it’s SLIGHTLY too wide.

This means that space in your track cooler is at a premium, so talk to your party beforehand about how much everyone plans to drink. Winning the Indy 500 is about fuel strategy. You don’t want to run out of gas, but you don’t want to cross the finish line with half a tank. You want to end the day on E. Do the math. You won’t regret it.

One track cooler is TYPICALLY sufficient for two people, so for a party of 4, I’d bring two.

You CAN NOT have glass containers, so ensure that everything is in a can. I recommend Sun King beers for that reason, but you can obviously drink anything your heart desires. If you don’t mind domestic light beer, this is the ideal time to bring the aluminum pints with the screw-top caps, because they’re highly portable and you’ll be moving a lot.

Once you’ve packed the requisite amount of beer, you need to fit in water and lunch. I recommend a MINIMUM of one water bottle for every two beers in the cooler. Depending on the amount your party wants to drink, the cooler could get tight FAST. That’s why I recommend freezing half of your water bottles. This reduces the amount of ice you need to put in the cooler and ensures that you’ll have some really cold water waiting for you at the end of the race, when you’ll need it most.

As for lunch, avoid anything salty or anything that can melt. Ideally, go as minimal as you can. You have granola in your backpack and a ton of food waiting for you back at the car. Honestly, a 6–8 inch sub from Subway or Jimmy John’s is perfect. Filling, but space saving. If you want more food, and you have the space, get a 2 pound tub of a side (potato salad, pasta salad) at the deli and bring a few plastic forks.

When To Leave

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU LEAVE LATER THAN 7 AM. Budget an hour to get from your house to parked. You won’t need it if you’re leaving between 6:30 and 7, but you will appreciate it. This should leave you parked by 8, walking for about a half hour, and in your seats no later than 8:30.

How To Go

Google Maps will lead you astray, so don’t listen to them. See here, it wants you to take 465 south and west of the track. This is a terrible idea. Don’t do it.

Instead, you’ll want to navigate yourself to the northwest quadrant above the track. I’d estimate that around 34th and Georgetown would be ideal. See below:

The majority of your drive time will come once you hit Lafayette, but as long as you’re hitting that traffic by 7:30 AM, it won’t really be that bad.

Where To Park

Navigating to this corner will give you some good options for parking, as you’ll see below, but I’d recommend parking even further back if you don’t mind the walk. Between 38th and 34th on Georgetown would be ideal.

I recommend parking as far away from the track as you can. It will save you money and TONS of time. This is counter-intuitive, but you’re going to have to trust me here. Traffic is the day-killer here. You will CERTAINLY walk faster than you will drive within a mile of the track, so you should park AT LEAST a mile away.

Bring cash (I recommend bringing a $5 bill, $10 bill, and $20 bill so you have $35 total… saves you the hassle of someone not being able to make change for a $20) and TRY to park in a business’ parking lot for cash. They’re less likely to block you in than someone parking you in their yard. When you park, ask if you will be blocked in, and be kind, yet assertive, about your need to be able to get out before others. This is important. If you have to, lie and say that you have to leave before the end of the race. YOU DO NOT WANT TO GET BLOCKED IN. 10/10, they will move you to a place where you won’t be at risk of getting blocked in, if you’re not already in good position.

Getting To The Speedway

Once you’re parked, you’ll get your track cooler out, ensure that everyone has had breakfast and the requisite amount of coffee and water before you leave, then grab two road beers to drink on the walk. If you’re not down to have a beer at 8 am, I totally understand, BUT the benefit of road beers is that they reduce the number of beers you’ll need to bring in your track cooler, saving precious space.

A slightly more socially acceptable alternative to the road beer is bringing some Jameson and making yourself an Irish coffee with the cold brew that you brought as you walk in. Either way, having a drink or two on the walk in saves space and I’d recommend.

You’ll walk south on Georgetown for about a mile and then you can either turn left at the track to enter via the North Chute or go down to the Entrance off of Harroun Dr.

Enjoying The Race

Okay, so you’re settled in around 8:30 am. You have a beer in hand, sunblock is on, and earplugs are in. Now, sit back and relax. If the weather holds out, this is a GREAT time to get up and explore, especially Gasoline Alley. That area will be PACKED later in the day, so explore the main straightaway first thing. If you have an interest in going to the museum, this would be a good time to do that as well, since it will get crowded later. If you haven’t done so already, make sure that you’ve picked a driver you’re pulling for. For extra fun, pick a driver to hate as well. Doesn’t matter who.

If you want the full experience, rent one of the headsets that they have available. They’re big over-the-ear headsets that allow you to tune into the radio broadcast or to each driver’s pit crew. It’s really cool, but a little pricey IIRC.

Try to get back to your seats by 11, because that’s around the time the real fun starts. Previous years’ winners will go around the track, they’ll drive historic cars, etc. All good fun. The pageantry gets going by 11:45. You won’t want to leave your seat from 11:45 to 12:45 when the race starts, so make sure you use the restroom before you settle in around 11.

I recommend that whoever is DD-ing stops drinking by the time the race starts. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience, that’s more than enough time for someone to sober up before the end of the race.

Once the race starts, watch the first 50 laps. This will hopefully give you a good taste for the race. Around that point, the drivers will have settled into their mid-race strategy and things will get a little boring. That’s okay. Get up and explore again. I recommend circumnavigating the whole track and people-watching. Walk by the Snake Pit. Go near the grand stands. Check out the party decks in turn two and three. Go walk around the golf course in the middle. Explore and see what there is to see. It’s the largest sporting event in the world. There’s no shortage of stuff going on.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: If you plan to meet up with anyone, understand that you will NOT have cell service. Text them the night before and get their exact seat location. Plan to meet them outside their section at a specific LAP, not a specific TIME. Say “I will meet you outside your section at lap 100.”

Work your way back to your seats with 50 laps to go (There are 200 laps, so you should be back by lap 150). Spend 10 laps figuring out what happened while you were gone… Who was knocked out, who is leading, etc. That should ensure you know what’s going on for the end of the race.

Once the checkered flag flies, make sure everything is packed up and watch as much of the celebration as you’d like. Then, start working your way to the exits.

Getting Back To The Car

Once you’re back to the car, have everyone drink from their respective gallon of water and eat some food. Ideally, they should be PRETTY hydrated and not STARVING, but you’ll probably have a few minutes before you can get out of your spot anyway, and this is the best way to kill that time. Eat and hydrate, hydrate and eat.

Getting Home

Because you’re parked further away, you shouldn’t hit a TON of traffic on your way out. The first 15, maybe 20 minutes will be slow-going, but get back to 65 ASAP and you’ll be in the clear.

So, what did I miss? This is obviously not comprehensive, so other experienced 500 Veterans, let me know what you think! Would love to have a resource to share with other people like Adam in the future.

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