My Indianapolis friend, Steve Somermeyer (left), is quite an interesting guy. He's retired from Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. where he was an engineer. Steve is also a wine connoisseur and helps make wine at the Chateau Thomas Winery outside of Indy. And he's been associated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for over 35 years working as a safety official for the garage and pit area during races. Last year, he was named the Chief of Safety for the Garage and Pit areas. Not a bad part-time gig for a retired guy.
I was out in Indy for a dealer event and the next day I went out to see Steve at Chateau Thomas and to pick up some wine. He told me, "You know, you ought to come out to the race track sometime when I'm there and I'll give you a tour that a lot of people don't get to see."
Well, considering that I've been a big fan of the Indianapolis 500 since I was little, plus I've attended the race about a dozen times over the years, I couldn't pass up that offer. I had to be back out in Indy a couple weeks later and it turned out that Steve would be out at the track getting ready for the 92nd running of the Indy 500.
(As always, click on the pictures to get a better view.)
I got out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway around noon after finishing with a morning appointment and going back to my hotel to change into my jeans. Steve met me in the parking lot near the garage area and off we went into "Gasoline Alley". I'd been in the garage area before on a few occasions the day before the race, but never during the set up and when the teams were arriving.
Steve got started at the speedway 38 years ago a year after he attended a race there. He thought it would be kind of neat to be part of the behind the scenes action at the track. He told me that while most people who work as safety personnel at the track will initially get jobs of directing traffic, taking tickets, and parking cars, he knocked on a number of doors before finding the right person to put him in the pits during his first race. Steve told me, "It usually takes a long time for a person to move up from the menial jobs to a position in the pits or garage area."
Steve said was talking to a guy in the pit area his first year and he asked how long Steve had been working safety at the track. Steve said, "Oh, this is my first year."
The guy said, "First year?! It took me 20 years before I could work in the pits for the race!"
We took a walk around the garage area looking at some of the set up teams getting ready for the race teams to come in later in the week. The Penske race team was getting set up in their garage slots. The rubber mats were on the floor and they were getting all their Snap-On tools and tool chests moved in.
Here's the sign above the garage for two-time winner Helio Castroneves. The drivers and the bulk of the race teams were scheduled to be in later in the week for the opening of rookie orientation. There will be 12 rookies trying to qualify for the race this year mainly because of the merger between the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car (formerly CART) series earlier this year.
This an area of suites called "Legends Row" named for multiple winners of the Indy 500. These are suites that overlook the garage area and are rented out by corporations during time trials and practices leading up to the Memorial Day race. There are 18 suites available on first and second floor of Legends Row.
Here's the suite named after A.J. Foyt, the first of three four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500. Foyt's win in 1961 was one of my most early remembrances of the Indy race. Steve's work in the garage area over the years has given him access to a number of the legendary drivers who have driven in the Indy 500. Steve told me a great story of A.J. Foyt giving him a good-natured hard time after he was named the head safety guy for the garage and pits.
The garage area was pretty cool, but what Steve wanted to show me was the inner workings of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway control tower, also known as "The Pagoda". The Pagoda is the central nerve center for the races, not only overseeing the race, but all other facets of the race day operation. The line of bricks coming out from the Pagoda are some of the original bricks from the old speedway race track, which is affectionately nicknamed "The Brickyard". This yard wide line of brick extends from the start-finish line on the track, through the ground floor of the Pagoda and out into the hospitality area of the track.
The Pagoda, which was completed in 2000, is 10 stories tall and is styled after the original design of the tower that was in use from 1926 to the mid-50's. It serves as not only the main control center for the race, but as a VIP area for the Hulman family, owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for Bombardier, the Canadian transportation manufacturer. Bombardier has the advertising rights for the Pagoda and also has hospitality suites on the 10th floor of the building.
Steve took me up to the 9th floor which is the floor on which he works during the race. The picture at the top of today's entry shows Steve at his work station. This picture is what Steve sees when he stands up and walks to the window. This is the start-finish line. Pretty cool vantage point.
Also on the 9th floor next to the room where Steve works is the room where the race officials - headed by Indy Racing League's Chief Operating Officer Brian Barnhart - works the race. On the other side of the 9th floor facing the track is where the announcers for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network broadcast the race.
Steve took me to the backside of the 9th floor that looks out over the back stretch, the garage area and has an expansive view of downtown Indianapolis in the distance. He introduced me to his boss and then showed me where government agencies such as the FBI, TSA, and the FAA, as well as state and local law enforcement, work the race. Without giving up some probably sensitive details about what security measures the U.S. government provides for the race, let's just say I'm satisfied with their efforts to keep 350,000 to 400,000 people safe on race day.
Steve then said, "Hey, I want to take you up on the roof." He had left his master key back in his office near the garage area, so he tracked down a guy with a key to the door. We walked up a couple flights of stairs and went out onto the roof. The roof is where some of the race team spotters work during the race. It also has television cameras up there during races. The above picture is the garage area at the speedway.
This picture is looking north along the front stretch of the track as it comes out of the north "short chute" and goes into turn four. I've sat in turn four a couple times in the past and they're great seats. But for the past few races I've gone to (2004 being the last one), I usually sit in the Tower Terrace. The Tower Terrace seats are the ones straight ahead in the picture and underneath corporate hospitality suites. You get to see a lot of great pit action from the Tower Terrace.
And this picture is looking south going into turn one. The scoring tower is prominent in the picture. Steve told me, "If everything is going smoothly and I don't have anything pressing at the time, this is where I like to watch the start of the race. It's just awesome to see."
Steve told me that I needed to come out sometime when the cars were running. He said, "Now that's pretty cool to see when they're out practicing." I was all set to go to the race this year, but logistics didn't play out in my favor. Steve said that we really needed to come out to the Brickyard 400 in late July. He said, "Come out a couple days early and I'll take you up to the tower again when the teams are practicing."
We went back to Steve's office and talked for a bit. It was evident he was getting busy and I had to hit the road. I gotta tell you, this was a neat thing to see. I have to thank Steve once again for the behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway operations. I don't know if I could ever get tired of seeing that again and again.