Photography by Richard McCoy
The outfit is simple: a yellow shirt, black pants, and either a tan, gold, or white hat. That’s the uniform of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Safety Patrol. Informally known as “Yellow Shirts,” these folks remain a historically important part of what helps define everyone’s experience at the track. Part employee (most make about $8 an hour), and mostly volunteer, they do it for the love of the experience. More than that, they are the physical embodiment of Hoosier Hospitality and personally carry the brand identity of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
On race day, more than 2,000 of these Yellow Shirts will take up their stations across the grounds of the two-and-a-half-mile oval. One Yellow Shirt might show you to your seats in the grandstands, another might keep an eye on Snake Pit revelers out in the infield, and others operate as traffic controllers in Gasoline Alley. There, the Yellow Shirts carry a shrill whistle and a lot more attitude. But it’s necessary when directing the movement of three dozen race teams all hauling thousands of pounds of equipment, tires, fuel, and personnel on and off the track. With more than 300,000 people in attendance on race day, the job is a complex mix of hospitality, crowd management, and party control.
Near the Pagoda is a group of three college students working their first season as Yellow Shirt rookies. They are part of the IMS’s college internship program. Mia Switzer, Lizzy Pfeifer, and Laine Reedy are wearing the classic tan hat to signify they are part of the standard safety patrol. “This a good networking opportunity for us,” says Pfeifer. This group of women all went to high school together in Fishers and jumped at the opportunity to work for one of Indianapolis’s most recognized brands during its most visible month. “I want to work on big events in my career, so this is a great way to get experience,’ says Reedy. “It’s going to look great on my résumé.”
This complex network of Yellow Shirts is managed in part by Sherri Dyer. From the ninth floor of the Pagoda, where she can see the vast expanse of the facility, Dyer runs control. Elevated in rank beyond the Yellow Shirt, she wears a white Safety Patrol shirt and opts to not wear a hat, proudly showing off her bald head. Last November, Dyer underwent chemotherapy in her cancer battle and begins radiation later this month.
Working the month of May at the track for 25 years, she isn’t doing it for the money. “I’m here because this is one of my happy places. I feel better here than I do at home. I need the month of May,” she says with an optimistic smile. Her day job is as a social-studies teacher at Southside Middle School in Muncie, where her classroom walls are adorned with pictures of the track and drivers, even one of her next to Arie Luyendyk, the 1990 and 1997 Indy 500 winner.
The call to wear the Yellow Shirt is a story as historic as the track itself. When it opened in 1909, the race was monitored by the Indiana National Guard, which lasted until the Hulman-George Family bought the track in the 1940s. In 1947, the IMS Safety Patrol was created, and according to track historian Donald Davidson, many of the original Safety Patrol were law enforcement people or retired military. They began to wear a specific uniform: a long-sleeve blue wool shirt and tie, topped off with a pith helmet. As you can imagine, these shirts were often too hot and too wet during unpredictable weather days in May. The pith helmets were painted in two colors, either silver for the standard workers or gold for supervisors. In 1968, some of the Safety Patrol were allowed to wear a new uniform—a short-sleeve yellow shirt—and by 1972, the whole group was doing it. The pith helmet was traded for a kind of construction helmet, which eventually gave way to cotton baseball caps in either tan, gold, or white.
Near the entrance to Gasoline Alley is the husband-and-wife duo of Bill and Jacque Power, working the section of bleachers that overlook Pit Road. This is their 28th year as Yellow Shirts. Jacque is the bigger race fan of the two; she still remembers drinking Molson beer in the early 1990s in celebration of Danny Sullivan’s sky-blue #7 Molson Lola/Chevrolet livery. “I love being here and seeing the cars,” she says. “Bill likes it ok, but he’d probably be just as happy out on the golf course.” This year she’s particularly happy, as she’s been promoted to the ranks of a gold hat. With their gold hats, she and Bill are stand captains and oversee a handful of other Yellow Shirts.
Every year, the retired couple drives their RV from Martinsville to spend the majority of May at the track. They have personal relationships with many of the drivers and crew. “We feel like we’re part of the Indy racing family. We’ll be out here doing this as long as our health is good,” says Jacque Power. Her advice to the next generation of Yellow Shirts is simple: “Be nice and watch the cars sometimes.”
The Yellow Shirts represent the core elements of the brand of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Once inside the facility, look around: You’ll see that a Safety Patrol member is involved with just about every experience at the track. They are at the center of the cultural identity of the track, and do the most important job: help you feel like you are at more than a sporting event, that you’re part of a tradition. When it goes just right, it can feel like you’re in a community of people experiencing the same traditions and excitement. It can feel like you’re with 300,000 friends.