Fans embrace traditions at centennial Indy 500 festivities

INDIANAPOLIS — Fans turned out in the thousands on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 for a chance to meet the legends of the race and bask in the atmosphere.

Since 1911, fans have swarmed the west side of Indianapolis to watch the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The size of the crowd has grown substantially over the years. In its infancy, the race was estimated to pull in just over 80,000 people. Today, an estimated 350,000 people descend on the two-and-a-half mile track.

Among the many fans that turned out Saturday for A.J. Foyt Day, Chris “Checkers” Chaja stands out. He is sporting a Mohawk, with checkered flags shaved into the sides of his head. He’s been coming to the race since 1984 and has been sporting the haircut every race since 1989.

“It’s become a tradition,” Chaja said. “As soon as I show up, one of my fraternity brothers pulls out the clippers and it ends up like this.”

Chaja enjoys attending what he calls “the greatest sporting event in the world” and has been captivated since one of his earliest races.

“My favorite memory is the spin and go by Danny Sullivan in ’85,” Chaja said. “I was hooked. It was incredible to pull off a move like that and then win the race. I had never seen anything like it.”

Fans waited hours for a chance meet the legends of the track Saturday. Veterans of the Indy 500 signed autographs all afternoon.

Don Sosnowski waited patiently for his chance to get as many signatures as he could on his homemade cut out of the trophy.

“I’ve been coming since 1969 back when I was just nine years old,” Sosnowski said. “It’s a family tradition my dad and grandfather started before I was born. We’ll have all kinds of family out here tomorrow.”

Sosnowski has fond memories of his earliest races. He was particularly fond of the 1977 race where Foyt claimed his fourth win. It becomes more challenging for him to make it to the race annually, but he still manages.

“The older I get, the less I want to go to the race,” Sosnowski said. “But every year, I show up and I’m always glad that I did. This year is no exception.”

Come race day, the small town of Speedway will be inundated with fans. The streets will be choked with racing enthusiasts ready for the green flag to drop. But with all the fans filling the stands, the infield is always where the party takes place.

Fans like John Seib set up tents and tailgate all day inside the oval. Seib spent Saturday readying his tailgate for a ninth straight year.

“It started as just a couple friends thinking it would be fun to tailgate for the race,” Seib said. “Since then it has gotten a lot bigger. We went from a couple of kegs and snacks to a pretty much a full bar, multiple grills and a hired cook.”

The past few years, over 100 people joined his tailgate. To accommodate so many, Seib and his friends set up multiple tents and cars in the north end of the infield. In preparation for a hot race day, they have purchased over 350 bottles of water and will be handing out ice pops to help people cool down

Seib will line up to enter the infield at 3 a.m. He said that there are fewer and fewer spots for tailgating each year, and they have to get there early to ensure one. With so many people coming and so much food, they can’t afford to not get a spot.

But all that work pays off in the end.

“This event is great. The traditions and atmosphere, there’s nothing like it,” Seib said. “This is the largest sporting event in the world, and we’re right in the middle of it. Having all our friends here and everything, it’s worth all hard work.”

Of all the fans at the track on Saturday, none were more interesting than William Pickering. The first thing you notice is his knee length blue coat covered in Indy 500 pins and patches. He wore a straw cowboy hat with more pins, a lanyard full of old tickets, and carried a checkered flag chock-full of fresh autographs.

“This will be my 34th consecutive race,” Pickering said. “I’ve been coming since 1975 and am so excited to be here for the centennial. I may be an old school fan, but each race is just as exciting as the last.”

Saturday, Pickering not only got to meet his hero, Foyt, but also got him to sign one of the original bricks that made up the track.

“I will never get anything more special from the track than this brick,” Pickering said as he cradled it like a child. “This brick is history. When those workers laid three-point-two million bricks, they were creating the most high-tech track in the world.”

The event’s rich history captivates Pickering; it is what keeps him coming back year after year.

“My grandfather was a chemical engineer and worked on the track and the cars, starting in the 1920s,” Pickering’s voice filled with pride as he continued. “He knew all the pioneers of the race. He knew Louis Chevrolet, Charles Graham Fisher, and Tony Hulman. He taught me all the history and it means everything for me to be here.”

Pickering wore his emotions on his patch-covered sleeves as he spoke about what the race’s significance to him.

“I know that tomorrow, at the start of my 35th race, I will be crying like a baby,” Pickering’s eyes watered as he spoke. “There is nothing more special to me than when Jim Nabors’ starts signing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’ This race…It just means everything to me.”

Evan Reller is a reporter in the Indy 500 Student News Bureau, part of the IU National Sports Journalism Center.