It’s late Thursday before the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500. We’re hungry. There’s a Waffle House directly in front of the Quality Inn & Suites just off South Lynhurst Drive, a couple of miles from the track. So I’m having one. It’s as big as the plate.
The cook comes out from behind the counter and asks about my waffle. Did he cook it just right? You don’t often get that in Las Vegas. This is called Midwestern hospitality and the Indy 500, still “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” comes with a king-sized helping.
When the cook, a large black man, returns to his side of the counter, I notice something has been scrawled in white letters on a stainless steel refrigerator.
“Welcome Indianapolis 500 Fans!” it says.
It’s a few minutes before Carb Day, the final practice for the 500, so named because the cars a long time ago had carburetors, not because they are fattening. The E Stand Penthouse overlooking Turn 1 is filled because these are the best seats in the house. On Sunday, if you could get one, these tickets will cost $150, but today it’s general admission, and you can sit wherever you please. (That Midwestern hospitality thing again.)
A man wearing sunglasses and a ballcap asks if he can wedge between us, and we say yes, because the Midwestern hospitality thing by now has us in its grip, too.
“Where ya’ from?” the man asks, wriggling in next to us the way Helio Castroneves wriggles into his Indy car.
“Las Vegas by way of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana,” I say, like those car commercials on Cubs games. “The Calumet Region.”
“Ever hear of Tinley Park?” he asks.
“Sure. Home of the Bettenhausens.”
The man with the sunglasses and ballcap reaches into his wallet and hands me a business card.
“Bryan Bettenhausen,” it says. “Specialized Lubricants and Fuel Additives Sales Representative for the Schaeffer Company of West Point, Neb.”
Bryan Bettenhausen says he’s a distant cousin of the Racing Bettenhausens — Tony Sr. (who was killed at Indy in 1961), his sons Gary, Tony Jr. and Merle (whose right arm was torn off in a crash at Michigan, for auto racing can be a brutal business) and Merle’s son, Ryan, who played basketball for Steve Alford at Southwest Missouri State.
Which only proves my point: that you cannot spend more than a few hours in Indianapolis without bumping into an Unser, an Andretti or a Bettenhausen.
That night, we’re at Kilroy’s in downtown Indy, and the place is packed. An Indianapolis 10 — about a Las Vegas 7½ — strides past in high heels and a miniskirt as tight as Turn 1 and her side pods half-exposed.
Nobody notices, because everybody is watching the Pacers game on TV.
It’s another cool day in Indiana — low humidity — and my buddy Steve and the PR guy for Ed Carpenter, who will start the 500-mile race from the pole position, are pulling on the back doors of historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of the Butler Bulldogs and Jimmy Chitwood of “Hoosiers” fame, because we want inside. Because Hinkle Fieldhouse is old and venerable. When it opened in 1928, it was the biggest basketball arena in the country.
As Dick Vitale says, it’s one of the game’s cathedrals, and when you get inside it smells of Converse high-tops, and popcorn, and games that end 32-30. (Carpenter’s PR guy and Fast Eddie himself, a 2003 Butler grad, are Bulldogs season-ticket holders.)
But the place is locked down tight. Holiday weekend.
The next thing I know, Carpenter’s PR guy flags down a young woman in spandex running gear, and the next thing after that, she hops into the Magneto Special, which is what we’ve been calling the Prius hybrid we rented at the airport, because when we were kids and Mario or Lloyd Ruby or Bob Harkey would crap out of the race, it often said “Magneto” in the box score under “Reason Out.”
The young woman in spandex is Shelbi Burnett, the 2012 Horizon League Cross Country Female Athlete of the Year. Straight-A Butler grad student. Only she doesn’t tell us that, because people from the Midwest are humble as well as hospitable.
She mostly apologizes for sweating on the upholstery of the Magneto Special. We tell her it’s OK, it’s only a rental, and besides, we’ve been sweating on it, too, and we didn’t just run nine miles around the football stadium like she had.
So we drive Shelbi Burnett to the house she lives in near campus. Soon after, she is buzzing us into Hinkle with her key card, and Carpenter’s PR guy promises he will return her week-old email and that Ed will come speak at her summer child literacy program. And we all laugh about what a small world this is, even on race weekend.
When the Security Guard Who Shall Be Named learns we are sports writers — and notices the logos on the jacket of Ed Carpenter’s PR guy — he reaches for his keys. And then sunlight is streaming through the windows of historic Hinkle Fieldhouse and I am standing on the spot where Jimmy Chitwood hit the winning basket in “Hoosiers.” And the rim looks to be exactly 10 feet off the floor, just as Gene Hackman said.
Naturally, we have a grilled Hoosier tenderloin sandwich for lunch at Bobby Plump’s Last Shot in historic Broad Ripple Village, where David Letterman used to bag groceries at the Atlas Supermarket. Bobby Plump is the guy who sank the winning basket for Milan High, enrollment 161, when it beat mighty Muncie Central in the 1954 Indiana state championship game upon which “Hoosiers” is based.
Later, at the auto racing memorabilia show at the fairgrounds where Wayne Gretzky once skated for the Indianapolis Racers, we are welcomed by Darnell Hillman of the old Indiana Pacers. Dr. Dunk no longer sports a giant Afro; his hair is closely cropped, and it has turned gray.
Off in a corner, Mel Daniels, another Pacers legend, is signing autographs amid the die-cast car collectors. Someone taps me on the shoulder.
When I turn, half expecting Bobby “Slick” Leonard, the old Pacers coach from Terre Haute, I am instead greeted by the smiling face of Bryan Bettenhausen from Carb Day.
It’s a couple of hours before Jim Nabors will sing about the fragrance of new-mown hay and the Magneto Special has another passenger. My pal Charlie, a pioneering disc jockey in New York during Disco Inferno, has flown in on short notice because, well, as Little Al Unser said in Victory Lane, “You just don’t know what Indy means.” And sometimes you hate to miss it.
Between when the ladies and gentlemen start their engines and a red blur that was Dario Franchitti’s car smashes into the wall right in front of us on lap 197, ending the most spectacular Indy 500 ever (68 lead changes, doubling the all-time record), Steve excitedly grabs me on the shoulders and shakes me, because 40 years after his old man took him to the Indy time trials, he’s witnessing the race, this giant spectacle, for the first time.
I have a feeling he’ll be back.
When I emerge from the gift shop at the Speedway Museum, Steve is chatting with Donald Davidson, the noted Indy 500 historian. And then we are both chatting with Donald Davidson — that Midwestern hospitality thing again — and Davidson is talking mostly in triple digits, followed by a decimal point and mph, because this is how Donald Davidson talks.
A couple of hours later, Gate B4 at Indianapolis International Airport is teeming with people wearing Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka caps and other Indianapolis 500 gear. But for once, I do not run into Bryan Bettenhausen.
Two days later, I receive an email.
It’s from Bryan Bettenhausen, saying how much he enjoyed meeting us, and how much he enjoyed the 500-mile race. His seats were in the Southwest Vista. So were ours.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.