Sunday, May 24, 2009

Reflections of a New Indianapolis 500 Blogger

It just hit me: I was a very small part of Indianapolis 500 history today. I was one of eight bloggers invited to blog about the race from the Media Center. This year was the very first year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway invited bloggers to report on the race. And it was a great honor.

Many companies and sporting events/teams still turn up their nose at bloggers, seeing us as a nuisance at best, and a bunch of autograph-seeking fan boys (and girls). But the IMS decided to give us a try, and I was one of the lucky eight. I was also the only non-racing blogger invited, which makes me very pleased to have my writing and abilities recognized. It makes the honor that much sweeter.

To say this has been a thrill is an understatement. I've always been a passing fan of the Indianapolis 500 — sort of like the guy who goes to church at Easter, but doesn't go any other time of the year — but this year has turned me into a real fan of IndyCar racing, including the Indy Lights series. I plan on watching a lot more races and/or listening to them online.

I grew up in Muncie, Indiana, just 45 minutes northeast of Indianapolis. If you grew up in the Indianapolis television market, you didn't get to see the race because of regional blackout rules. So we had to hear the race on the radio.

After listening to the 500 for 35 of my 41 years, I had created a picture in my head of what the race looked like. The course had a certain look and feel, the cars and pits looked a certain way. It was like reading a book and imagining what everyone looked like.

On race day, we would work out in the yard, getting burned to a crisp, listening to A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and, of course, Mario Andretti. Announcers like Tom Carnegie and Howdy Bell were the voices I associated with the race. Speeds were slower when I was a kid, so the race would take a good four hours.

When I was 23 and living in Illinois — I was actually at my mom's house, helping in the yard that day too — I had the chance to see the race on TV. I watched for five minutes, decided it didn't match up to the pictures in my head, and shut the race off for the next 17 years, only listening on the radio (even when I lived in Syracuse, Indiana, outside the blackout area). I finally watched my first 500 last year when I was visiting my in-laws in Syracuse. I had to reconcile my pictures with what the TV was showing, but I managed.

But because I only listened to the 500, there was so much I didn't know about racing. So when I got my invitation, I had to learn as much as I could, which meant asking a lot of stupid questions that anyone else who even lived near Indianapolis should have known the answers to.

Here are a few of the most important things I've learned:
  • First, it's the Indianapolis 500, not the Indy 500. Tim Sullivan, one of the PR staff at the Speedway, says that Mr. Hulman didn't want people calling it "Indy." Sort of like when columnist Herb Caen told San Franciscans should not call their hometown "Frisco."

  • Access is everything here. The safety and security officials — they're called Yellow Shirts — have eyes like eagles who just got lasik. Nobody gets nowhere nohow if you don't have the proper credentials. There's thousands of people wandering around with various styles of credentials, and they spot them all.

  • The PR Department at the Speedway takes care of their reporters. They gave us lunch (deli sandwiches) every day; lunch today was bacon-wrapped steak.

  • The decline of newspapers and the poor economy hurt the media coverage of the race. I saw a lot of empty seats in the Media Center, including two from a big, well-known radio station out of Cincinnati (you guys are 2 hours away, for God's sake, and you get free parking and food. You mean you can't get up a little early and drive over here to cover the biggest race in the freaking world?!) and 2 or 3 of the eight bloggers. There were more empty seats than I expected, but there were still a lot of journalists here, including some from England, Holland, and Japan (bet the Cincinnati guys feel a little stupid now).

  • Experienced race journalists like to act like they're so jaded, having seen everything, but those same journos made some of the loudest OOHs whenever there was a crash, and they raced to the window the fastest whenever they waved the green flag again.

  • Photographers' cameras are like sports cars for middle-aged yuppies. They have to see who has the biggest lenses, the best (camera) bodies, and who has the most. I've seen lenses that look like they should be shooting out clowns during the circus. And I felt like a dork carrying around my little Canon PowerShot A590, but it got the job done. My photos only had to be good enough to be used here. (I forgot my camera one day, and had to use my cell phone camera instead.) I had a good laugh with a female photographer when I was admiring her camera, pulled out my little Canon, and said, "No fair, yours is bigger than mine."

  • I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If bloggers want to be taken seriously as journalists, you can't act like fan boys and geek out anytime you see one of your favorite athletes. Play it cool, interview them like a pro, and just brag in an off-handed, jaded manner to your buddies afterward. All the bloggers I met here acted every bit the professional as the professional auto racing journalists.

  • Blogging like this and in my day job really teaches a person to write quickly. I wrote 14 posts today, 9 of them during the race.



Who knows whether we'll be back here or not. The other bloggers I spoke with — Michele-Marie Beer, OpenWheelWorld.net, Jeff Iannucci, My Name is IRL, and William Zahren, PressDog.com — were all very careful not to make our hosts regret inviting us. As far as we can tell, they were happy with us, and so we're hoping to be back next year.

And I know if I get the call, I'll be the first one at the gate.

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2 comments:

  1. Congratulations on a fantastic job, Erik. I hope you had a wonderful time! I enjoyed following your work!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great series of posts! I have enjoyed reading your updates from the track, because I didnt' get there as often as I would have liked during the month of May.

    A former New Yorker, I did not grow up with the race, but spend my first 7 race seasons here in an around the track. Reading your updates reminded me of those early days. And the fact that Cart and IRL have merged, it is starting to fee like it did back then.

    Didn't get to read your posts on race day, I was sitting at the track enjoying the action myself!

    Hope you are invited to do Nascar this summer, I might actaully follow the race!

    ReplyDelete

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