Every year on Memorial Day weekend over 400,000 people converge in and around a two and a half mile track in our country’s heartland to experience the quintessential American motorsports event, The Indianapolis 500.
I have attended the Indy 500 nearly a dozen times. In the 1980s I was a member of Chevrolet’s marketing team working the event to make sure we had great pictures and film of our cars and their drivers. I’ve ridden to the track with a group of friends on motorcycles and camped with the crazies. One year, I drove the six hours with my 14-old son and sat outside turn three as we watched the 33 cars circle the track at 200+ miles per hour.
Each has been special. Each has been memorable.
But this year I learned that if you really want to do Indy right, there’s only one way to go; as the guest of a sponsor.
Thanks to HP‘s involvement with DreamWorks upcoming movie Turbo, about a snail who dreams of racing in the Indy 500, I was invited along with other journalists, customers and business partners to this year’s race.
At Indy, as anything else in life, access is everything. When you’re a guest of a sponsor, you have access to things the general public only dreams of. With hundreds of sponsors inviting thousands of guests every year, it is access that is enjoyed by more people than you might think.
As you can imagine with an event of this magnitude, even getting a access to a hotel room can be difficult. So I was thrilled that along with the invitation came three nights at the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. A well-appointed and expertly run convention hotel, it is a perfect place to stay for the 500. Thanks to management that knows how to staff for the throngs of people who come to town for the event, I was able to quickly check in and never had to wait for service at the bar, restaurant or coffee shop.
Our access also included garage passes for Saturday, where we were given a tour of the facilities and a meeting with HP Indy Car team manager, Rob Edwards, who patiently answered our questions about the car, the race and what it takes to compete in what has been dubbed the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. I knew I was privileged when I looked up from our meeting to see crowds of people on the balconies overlooking the garage area wishing they could be a part of the conversation we were having.
Of course, access like this doesn’t come for free.
We were obligated to attend a pre-race dinner where the owners, driver and manager of the HP race team talked about the Indy experience and how HP technology helps them perform better at the track. There was also a presentation by Kate Swanborg, Dreamworks’ Head of Enterprise Marketing, who showed a clip of the studio’s newest film and treated us to an insider’s look at how modern animated films are made (using HP technology, of course). Yes, the evening was a 3-hour infomercial for HP – mostly for the benefit of the customers and prospects in attendance – but that’s the bargain you make when you attend as the guest of a sponsor.
On the morning of race day we boarded our coaches and were given a police escort to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This may have been the single biggest perk of the weekend. We whisked by miles of cars waiting to enter the speedway and were in the HP suite enjoying breakfast, coffee and Bloody Marys a mere 30 minutes from the moment we rolled out from the hotel.
Properly nourished it was back to the garage for a quick meeting with the team’s assistant engineer and then on to the pit area where we were able to watch the pre-race pageantry as it happened all around us. This included seeing a 82-year old Jim Nabors deliver a spirited rendition of his trademark “Back Home Again in Indiana” and rubbing shoulders with David Letterman as the car he owns was rolled onto the starting grid in the position next to ours.
After wishing the team well, the only thing left to do was retire to the suite to watch the race. Positioned on the inside of the front straight, halfway between turn four and the finish line, we were given an excellent view of most of the action – which was considerable in this year’s 500 – while being able to enjoy a catered lunch and all the other amenities you’d expect at a hospitality suite in a major sports venue.
Our host’s car finished a respectable 8th and was the second highest finishing Honda-powered car in a race dominated by Chevys. The guests were all well satisfied by the performance and able to relax in the comfort of our coach as we slipped by gridlocked traffic thanks to our friends in blue on the way back to the hotel, a fitting end to a weekend of access at Indy.