For the final time on our trip, we have once again injected a little jeopardy into proceedings. The week leading up to the Indy 500 features a host of short-track races across the surrounding area. The Carb Night Classic takes place on the Lucas Oils Raceway, about half an hour from downtown Indianapolis. I’m determined to be there for the evening’s activities. Mrs Motorcardiaries is less concerned. Either way, we hit the road due north from Bowling Green, bound for our last state: Indiana.
I really wish I could find something interesting to say about our journey to Indianapolis but, honestly, I’m struggling. The southern part of Kentucky is pleasant and at one stage we cross quite a good bridge but once we’ve cleared the Mammoth Cave area it is just the mid-western wilderness stretching to the horizon. We do stumble upon a little group of Dodge Vipers in one town – I forget where – and that briefly raises the pulse but otherwise, this is, by a huge margin, the least edifying motoring we undertake during our entire fortnight in America: A means to an end but nothing more.
But what an end! We arrive at Lucas Oils Raceway having missed practice but with the main event still to come – the Carb Night Classic for USAC Silver Crown champ cars. It’s my first short track event since a club event in rural French Canada 18 years ago and I’m giddy with excitement.
During a lull before the race itself, we’re able to acquaint ourselves with the merchandise stands. I’m a little disappointed to find that some of the merch is actually quite tasteful, but there’s still plenty of wonderfully gaudy stuff nestling among the pastel shades. I select a bright blue t-shirt featuring glossy images of racing cars and perhaps the most delightfully grotesque stubby holder I’ve ever seen. It’s irresistible.
The food is provincial and actually a little like the fair in the UK – it’s certainly not up to the remarkable standards set by Texas Raceway – but fine for temporary nourishment. The beer is not quite at the provincial prices one might expect but nothing crazy and at least it’s cold. Behind the merch stands, the facility’s drag strip is playing host to kids in motorcycle-engined dragsters. The strip holds events right up to NHRA Top Fuel level.
We file into the stadium to find the competitors assembled on the start line and we’re free to wander among the cars and drivers. These are rugged, rudimentary machines. The styling has barely altered in decades and the historical link to Indy roadsters is still visible from the distinctive boat tail rear. The engines are hefty V8s, 358 cubic inches – or 5.9 litres for we Europeans – and apparently pumping out 700bhp+ in a front-engined tubular chassis. The whole thing weighs about 680kg. I imagine that feels pretty lively in the cockpit.
The USAC Silver Crown competitors race on both pavement and dirt tracks and several of this evening’s competitors had been in action in the Hoosier 100 at Indianapolis State Fairgrounds earlier in the week, with the cars on treaded tyres and running a little more ground clearance. Tonight, all the cars are wearing huge slicks.
The circuit itself is a 12deg banked oval measuring 0.686 miles. It’s billed as featuring four corners but they’re less distinct than at its big brother, the Speedway, and from the bleachers it feels more like two. After the towering high banks of Charlotte Motor Speedway, the banking here appears so marginal it actually looks pretty much flat, though the corner speeds betray that bit of help provided by the gradient.
While perusing the metal on the start line, we converse with a charming gentleman who’s very evidently a short track fan but is particularly well-versed in European racing. He talks of his enthusiasm for Goodwood, the Isle of Man TT and Le Mans. These guys aren’t myopic in their racing interests, in spite of how insular the world of ‘left turns only’ might appear from the outside. This chap is recovering from cancer and expresses his keenness to get over to Europe for some of our great events – I really hope he gets his wish.
We are so enjoying our conversation that we are soon being herded off the grid ahead of the pre-race formalities. Tributes are paid to veterans and serving members of the armed forces, who are asked to stand before being applauded by the crowd. This is the build-up to Memorial Day and the country takes the business of saluting its troops extremely seriously.
A man sings the national anthem and there is much whooping as the external battery packs are inserted into the noses of the cars and they fire violently into life. I just love the pageantry that goes with racing in the US: This is an amazing sport and a little hollering to celebrate the start of a race is all good with me.
A couple of slow laps behind the pace car and the runners are released: 100 laps in the shortest possible time. Let’s go racing!
The circuit record stands at a fraction over 20seconds and that equates to average lap speeds in the region of 120mph. That’s bloody fast and you’re well aware of the challenge of manhandling these brutes around such a tiny track – especially for 100 consecutive laps. The drivers are tidy on corner entry but allow the rear tyres to smear over the pavement in a gentle drift on the exit. With heavy left-to-right stagger obvious at dead-ahead, this offers a spectacle unique to this kind of racing.
The race is gripping but perhaps not thrilling. The top half dozen cars are significantly faster than the rest of the pack but, after 50 green flag racing laps, the leading five drivers are still on the lead lap. The Swanson brothers, Kody and Tanner, lead at the half-way point but the #22 car of the brilliantly-monikered Bobby Santos is in close proximity. A safety car brings the pack together and Santos hassles Tanner Swanson doggedly but, despite getting his nose alongside the #02 car, he can’t find a way past.
With the skies above darkening by the second, Justin Grant noses the wall at turn three, causing a safety car period. The race is extended by two laps to enable it to finish under green. The lead trio is line astern as they enter the penultimate tour. Kody Swanson pulls a small lead but Santos dives under Swanson Jr and chases the long-time leader. Both drivers perform their fastest race laps of the day as they career towards the chequer. Swanson holds on for a secure victory, having led every lap. He really had to earn that one though, and those darkening skies were starting to deliver their first drops of rain over the closing couple of laps, with distant claps of thunder rolling across the banks.
As the post-race interviews and ceremonies begin, most race-goers make a break for the car parks. The skies are now thick with heavy, dense clouds and the rain is beginning to strengthen. As we hurry back towards the Challenger, those skies launch a biblical attack. Thunder pummels the air, bursts of lightning intermittently fill the sky in vast sheets before arcing towards the ground, the rain bounces high off the Tarmac, saturating the fields and flooding the access roads. Funnel clouds start to form, looking deeply ominous.
This is weather on a simply epic scale – I’ve never seen anything like it. We idle our way to downtown Indianapolis, an awful drive with visibility almost at zero and the road more river than highway. We’d have stayed at LOR, were it not for the very real fear that we’d never reach our hotel if we stayed any longer.
Arriving downtown, it’s shocking to find huge numbers of homeless sheltering under one of the city’s railway bridges. Not a dozen, nor 20, there must be 100 sleeping rough – perhaps more. It’s a shock to find such deprivation in such a major city and moving to find so many folk trying to stay dry for the night. America is certainly a land of great social contrast.
We eventually locate our hotel and make some effort to settle. I’m immediately buoyed to find a CART-era Champ Car in the lobby; but deflated to learn that storms like ours are tearing through North America at the moment. There’s no guarantee we won’t see rain on race day – in fact it looks incredibly likely that this will become one of very few rain-affected Indianapolis 500s. I can’t believe I might come all this way, having waited so long to see this event, and find it rained off. Still, we’re here; just a few miles from the Speedway and tomorrow I will finally stand in Gasoline Alley. Can the power of positive thought stave off a thunder storm? Maybe if 300,000 people think positively, it might just work…