A Checkered Weekend: Fans try to adapt to postponement of Indy 500

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Cars and crews line the front stretch at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — Mike Rolles just might sleep in this weekend, though every fiber of his being tells him he should rise at the crack of dawn Sunday and head to the track.

For the past 40 years Rolles has been spending Memorial Day weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the cars whiz by during the Greatest Spectacle in Racing — the Indianapolis 500.

It’s almost physically painful for Rolles not to be going this weekend.

Rolles joined Indy 500 fans everywhere in a collective sigh when event organizers announced that this year’s race — scheduled for this Sunday — would be postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.

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It will now be held on Aug. 23, the first time the Indianapolis 500 has ever been held outside of Memorial Day weekend in the race’s history.

“It’s definitely a disappointment, but I understand the logic of why they had to do it,” said Rolles, a sign technician for the Hancock County Highway Department.

The larger-than-life race is synonymous with Memorial Day weekend for legions of fans, but the holiday weekend just won’t be the same this year, said Rolles.

“I’ve kind of lost track of what day it is. I forgot this coming weekend was Memorial weekend,” he said earlier this week.

Typically, the race sets the tone for the entire month of May for Rolles. “I would know that this weekend would have been race weekend, last week would have been qualification weekend. We would have been there (at the track) the whole time,” he said.

John Painter, a video producer at NineStar Connect in Greenfield, is also feeling the void this weekend. He’s been going to the Indianapolis 500 every year since 1968, when he was 7 years old.

“I was raised on that race. Our family could pretty much set our watches by it,” said Painter, 58, who will attend his 53rd consecutive Indy 500 this year. “It’s just the natural way to spend Memorial Day weekend because we’ve done it for so long, and it’s what we do. It’s a magnetic draw.”

While he admits this year’s race won’t be the same, it will certainly be historic. No matter when it’s held, race day at the track is an experience not to be missed, he said.

“The race touches every sense that you have — smell, sight, sound, even touch. You’ve got it all,” said Painter, who lives in Pendleton.

“If you’ve ever gone, you know; the very first lap after they’ve done the flyovers, the national anthem, “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the balloons, then they unleash those cars … If you don’t get cold chills then, you’re probably near death,” he said.

Painter argues that the illustrious race is more than just the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“You can take the ‘racing’ part off. It’s simply the greatest spectacle to me. There’s just nothing else like it,” he said.

Rolles feels the same way.

For both men, attending the race has always been a family affair.

Rolles, 54, has been going to the Indy 500 since he was 14. He can remember going to qualifications at the track from around the age of 10.

He’s had the same seats along Turn 1, in the southwest vista, since 1987.

At first, he went to the track with his parents, his grandpa and his sister.

“We used to go sit for pole day,” said Rolles, sharing a photo of himself outside the track’s garage area in 1968, when he was just 2.

In the 1950s, Rolles’ grandfather owned a Pure Oil gas station in Speedway, back when Pure Oil was sponsoring Indy 500 race cars. “I have pictures of his service station with some of the drivers back in the day,” he said.

His grandpa started taking Rolles’ dad when he was a kid, and they both took Mike to the track when he was a young boy. In 2004, Mike Rolles began taking his then-teenage son, Chad Rolles, 27.

Rolles loved bringing his son into the fold. “It’s been great. It’s the thing he lives for now every year. We both do, really,” said Rolles.

His favorite part of the race is the speed. “There’s nothing else like it, watching those cars race around the track” he said.

Rolles loves his seats in Turn 1, which he says has the best view of the opening lap. “When they throw the green flag and all the cars funnel in, that’s the exciting corner. That’s just where a lot of action happens,” he said.

Painter also has seats in Turn 1.

He winces as he recalls the day Scott Dixon’s car went airborne in a horrific crash right in front of him in 2017.

“I never will forget that. Those spectacular crashes get seared into your memory,” he said.

His family has had the same seats in Turn 1 since 1975, but his first foray onto the race scene came in the Snake Pit, where traditionally the wildest race fans gather to party.

When he was a young boy his dad would drive him, his mother and his brother into the infield at Turn 1, where the Snake Pit was at the time. “We didn’t know what was going on, but we saw a lot of interesting things,” he said.

“My dad would always bring his camp stove, and we’d have our breakfast right there in the infield, and then get our blanket spread out and watch the race and all the crazy people in the pit. As a young impressionable kid you saw all kinds of things,” he recalled with a laugh.

Painter’s uncle has five kids, and they joined the family at the track each year.

Thus began a half-century long family tradition that carries on to this day, where the Indy 500 serves as a makeshift family reunion.

Painter’s brother moved to Texas 20 years ago, but he returns home for the race with his family in tow each year.

“Sometimes the only time I see my cousins and sometimes my brother all year is at the race, but every year we return and share the day together. We’ve been doing that for many years. We’ve had up to 20 or 25 there at a time,” he said.

Painter has enjoyed taking his own two children over the years, and is excited to take his grandson, Jayden, 11, who plans to join them at the race in August.

“That would then make five generations who have gone,” he said.

Each year his father says he won’t return the next year, “but when the next year rolls around he can’t resist,” said Painter.

The family bonding is just about the best part of the Race Day experience, he said.

Among his fondest memories are all the times he and his kin have huddled together under a large plastic tarp his dad brings in case of rain.

“Everybody grabs a corner or a side and just hunkers down until the rain passes,” he said. “The weather doesn’t get you down. It’s just part of the experience.”

His family typically sets out for the track at 5:30 a.m., each with individual coolers packed with a couple of sandwiches and lots of water.

They make a full day of it, said Painter, who has little interest in other events like qualifications or Carb Day.

Rolles, on the other hand, schedules his entire month of May around the race.

“We usually start our month out by going to the (IndyCar) Grand Prix. We go to Fast Friday and spend the entire qualifying weekend there, then go to Carb Day and the memorabilia show at the track the Saturday before the race,” he said.

With a Memorial Day weekend devoid of the rev of the engines and the wave of the checkered flag, Rolles’ son has opted to reminisce by watching old races on TV.

Rolles, however, has opted to focus on the upcoming July 4th weekend — when the Speedway is hosting the first-ever IndyCar-NASCAR double-header — the GMR Grand Prix and the IndyCar Grand Prix.

“We’ll be there all weekend,” said Rolles, who made sure to request the race days off for July and August as soon as they were announced.

Painter doesn’t have much interest in watching the Grand Prix, but he’s already itching to pack his cooler and meet his family out at the track for the 500 in August.

The race may be delayed, said Painter, but the “Greatest Spectacle” anywhere will go on. When those engines start up and roar to life, the wait will have been worth it, he said.

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Indianapolis 500 winners Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi, who staged a memorable duel in the late stages of the 2019 Indianapolis 500, will join NBC Sports host Mike Tirico for an encore presentation of the 2019 race at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 24, on NBC. The telecast, shown locally on WTHR-TV (Channel 13), will feature commentary by the two rivals. Pagenaud won the 2019 race by .209 seconds. Rossi won the 500 as a rookie in 2016.

ESPN, meanwhile, will include three past races in a daylong schedule of encore telecasts that will also include the two previous Formula 1 races in Monaco. The previous Indy 500 races that will be shown are from 2006, a race won by Sam Hornish (3 p.m.); 2011, in which Dan Wheldon swept past the crippled car of J.R. Hildenbrand, who had crashed while leading on the last lap (5 p.m.); and 2014, a race won by Ryan Hunter-Reay in the second-closest finish in history (7 p.m.).

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