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Surprise birthday visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway

My original thought had been to take my son to a race. Maybe in Indianapolis, maybe locally here in Chicago. But the more I thought about it, the more uncertain I was. Having attended one of the early Brickyard 400 races myself as a kid, it struck me as a big first leap. It's loud. Very loud. One of the loudest experiences in my memory. For a child with sensory issues, that was problem #1 in my mind...even with ear protection. But I also remember it raining. Or it could be hot. And it's a lot of sitting. Which isn't to say that the thrill of watching the cars go around doesn't make up for it. The engine vibration live is not like anything you've seen on tv. No, instead we decided to make more of a historical pilgrimage instead to get the "race car" fun. We were not disappointed either. We left with the kids (and maybe dad a little bit, too) excited to see a live race sometime soon. 

Really, there were several surprises in one for this trip. The trip itself, first of all. And the kids love a hotel stay. Especially if there's a pool and breakfast in the lobby. So the fact that it was an overnight visit was extra special. We drove down Sunday evening, checked in, swam for an hour or so, then got dressed and went out for dinner.

On select days, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway offers Grounds Tours that are more than the typical museum visit or add-on track lap in a bus. On Grounds Tour days, you get some behind-the-scenes access to restricted areas at the track. I'd been e-mailing with a staff member to make sure we got the time/date with the full list of stops and she was very accommodating. (Note that some days do not feature all the areas.) We started off--after driving through the tunnel under the south grandstands--with some time in the museum while we waited for our reservation. The check-in process was simple with our name on a list for the correct tour...we paid and then were given buttons to wear for identification, a souvenir book, and announcements were fairly clear. Well organized. 

The museum is simple and straightforward with maybe 50(?) cars...pace cars, winning Indy cars from multiple eras, etc.. There are trophies, a movie about the history of the speedway, a mock-up of an historical garage bay, and a photo spot with a former winning car you can climb in and have your photo printed/e-mailed for a reasonable price. Several vehicles were setup specifically for the upcoming Brickyard 400 this weekend. The same went for the track itself---fairly quiet but a few locations in various stages of setup for the arrival of the car crews, media, etc.. 

We climbed on an air-conditioned bus with a driver and guide that also has a few bits of canned audio narration. But the real people were a wealth of information. For those of you who don't know, the IMS is the oldest operating auto racetrack in the world--started in 1909 as a proving ground for the local automobile industry. There were a few off years during the World Wars (during WWII the weeds grew in and it fell into disrepair) and it's changed hands several times, but has hosted not only the world famous Indianapolis 500, but also motorcycles, has a Formula One infield course, NASCAR, etc.. There's a lot of amazing history here. 

You begin by going through the gates to the restricted area and do a lap on the track in the bus. It pulls over on the home stretch just before the Finish Line and gives guests the opportunity to get a photograph on the strip of remaining bricks (not buried by asphalt) and it's great views of pit road, the platform they wave the checkered flag from, the pole, the starting area, the victory podium, pagoda, etc.. 

Next, the bus finishes the full lap and drives over to the pagoda area. You'll go in the tv interview room, media center, timing center, stand on the victory podium, and see inside the highest floors at the track for sweeping views of downtown Indy. Interestingly, even at the highest point on the track you can't see the full course. The backstretch is blocked by trees so they rely on cameras and data to keep up with the 2 mile course. As we drove back to the museum, we got a quick view of the garages, track-side garages, hospitality areas, fueling area, and a great explanation of procedure for getting the various styles of cars out to the track. (Indy cars are pulled. NASCAR has a strict speed limit enforced. "Even in a race car at a race track, you can still get a speeding ticket.")

The only negative things I have to say are that the tour is a bit long maybe...at 90 minutes it was long on time in interesting-but-not-that-interesting areas. We drove past but didn't get to stop at the garages or medical center and I'd suggest those substitute perhaps. There wasn't really an offer to go to the restroom at any point either so I had to duck into one in one of the luxury suites we visited. 

We were tired and hungry, but we had a fabulous time. In case you're wondering, you may see us at the Chicagoland Speedway in September when the Sprint Cup Series is in town. 

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