The Quiet Joy Of An Indy 500 Listening Party

We were in the IMS infield, somewhere between the bathrooms and Turn 3 as Dario Franchitti was about 75 laps into his dominant 2010 win, when my childhood friend visiting from our native Missouri turned to me and shouted something like, “Well, I have experienced the Indy 500!”

I smiled, drained the warm remnants of my beer, and crushed the can in my hand.

“Not completely,” I said, throwing the crumpled aluminum into our cooler and picking up the empty plastic chest. “Let’s go.” We headed toward the parking lot. It was time to show my buddy how most Hoosiers experience the Greatest Spectacle in Racing: on the radio.

When I’d first arrived in Indy in 2005, more than a few local traditions left me a little perplexed. (Can’t y’all bake sandwich buns as big as that freakin’ tenderloin?) But none of the strange rituals seemed as silly and self-defeating as annually blacking out the television broadcast of your city’s signature event—especially one that, let’s face it, had come to mean much more to locals than it did to the outside world.

Like most Americans born after World War II, I had been conditioned to watch sports on TV, especially the big events. The Super Bowl. The World Series. The Final Four. And, thanks to ABC’s Wide World of Sports and the fact that I was born in Missouri, the Indianapolis 500. To me, the race was the towering pagoda and the numbers lit up in yellow on the monolithic pole. It was bright, colorful flags and cars blurred by speed and the heat waves rising from the sweltering pavement. It was the recognizable faces of Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti and the anonymous mob in the grandstands.

During my first couple years in the city, my job with this magazine required me to attend the race in person, at which point I obtained a new sense of the 500: feeling.

Arriving first thing in the morning, emerging from the tunnel, and entering into the quiet and mostly empty Speedway, you feel the weight of history. As the grandstands and infield fill with 250,000 rabid race fans, you feel the mass of humanity on top of you. And when the call goes out and 33 engines stir to life and accelerate around the track, down the straightaway, and through the green flag, opening the throttle and shaking the hallowed ground, you feel that horsepower in your bones.

Once I finally got a Memorial Day weekend off-duty from reporting, my first impulse was to ignore the race altogether. After all, I couldn’t watch it on TV, and I wasn’t sure we even owned a radio. But on that Sunday, as soon as I stepped outside my Broad Ripple home, I could hear the fuzzy broadcast in stereo coming from several neighbors’ porches and yards. The voice of Mike King echoed down quiet 64th Street, vividly setting the scene, describing images and rituals I knew well. Initially, my mind reached back to my childhood in rural Missouri listening to Cardinals baseball on my little shortwave. I ran inside and found a little boombox my wife had owned in college and dialed in to WIBC.

Nostalgia is certainly a key part of the 500 radio experience—but it’s far from the whole of the appeal. Once the cars began buzzing like wasps across the airwaves and King started frantically handing off to announcers stationed in the turns and in the pits, air wrenches whizzing beneath their elevated voices, I was amazed at how quickly the sound enveloped me and transported me to the Speedway. Yet at the same time, I was untethered in a way that TV doesn’t allow, free to roam and fire up the grill and chat across the fence with my neighbors and run inside to get another beer, as long as I stayed within earshot. If I did pull my mind out of the immersion to focus on another conversation, King frequently ran down the order to update me on exactly what was going on, frankly more quickly than if I was in the infield and had to process the flashing numbers on the pole.

But it was those moments when my mind wasn’t completely occupied with the race that were the most magical. Because in those moments, the race became the soundtrack to other, more indelible memories. It became context for that announcement from a family member or that secret whispered from a friend. Instead of just another year’s race, the 500 worked its way into crucial life moments.  

In 2010, my friend experienced this firsthand when we arrived at my neighbor’s yard party with about 20 laps to go. By this point, the gathering of two dozen or so people had broken up into separate pools, one grazing at the food table, another huddled around a guitar…but when the white flag waved, everyone returned to the radio to listen to Franchitti cross the Yard of Bricks. Everyone cheered, even those who had no idea who Franchitti was. And the party continued into the night without anyone ever sitting sweaty and exhausted in traffic to get home.