INDIANAPOLIS — The first thing that Steve Nowicki noticed upon entering the fourth turn section of the bleachers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the base of the Pagoda. Specifically, what wasn’t there. Nowicki is a designer, so he appreciates aesthetics. The large television board stands out. Things are painted differently. But in all the years without renovations, the tower had gained quite a bit of rust.
Not anymore. Somebody must have sand-blasted the base of the tower, he said.
“It looks (really) good, everything looks nice,” Nowicki said. “The presentation is very important.”
This is as close to the action as Nowicki has been this year, and only around 10 rows of people can say they were closer. At that distance, the cars constantly running by force people to speak in short sentences and high volumes. There were “die-hards” camped around the exterior of the track for the races at IMS this summer to get the slightest feeling of the ambiance. This was what they were trying to recreate.
Since Roger Penske bought IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway late last year, anticipation built through talk of track wide advancements for the speedway. But no fans have been allowed in to see them even as they’ve been continually teased to the public.
But this weekend’s races mark the first opportunity to unveil everything that has changed about the Speedway and, of course, a few things that didn’t. Nowicki is already looking ahead seven months to when he can come back again — and maybe then he’ll be allowed to walk around the whole place.
With a guaranteed opportunity of viewing the action in-person, a mix of fans was at the racetrack Thursday. Jennifer Cortez lives just down the road in Speedway. Brent Black and Teresa Murphy came all the way from Kansas City, Missouri. Across five sales jobs in the Indianapolis area, Black always told his bosses the same thing: He’ll be in every day except Christmas, Easter and whenever IndyCar was running at IMS.
Only two areas were occupied on the track: a few adjacent sections on the first and fourth turns of the road course. Around the start of IndyCar practice, the individual rows filled with as little as one person per bleacher. IndyCar only occupied the track for 1 hour and 45 minutes Sunday, but the fans who gathered Thursday were there more for the track than the cars on it.
Coming to the track is in large part a routine for many fans. They’ve heard about the new advancements. But most had seen them only in photos and videos. Thursday, the feeling was different, partly by design.
Before heading in to watch the IndyCar drivers practice, David, Matthew and Brian Padrick sat around a table in the concessions area by the main entrance. Doug Boles loitered near the entrance, exchanging pleasantries with some of the fans and the Padricks munched on burgers.
When Penske bought the Speedway, they didn’t know what to expect. It’s been the same for so long. They didn’t think the changes would come so fast. But the changes did come fast, and they said the place looks beautiful. No amount of Penske-led changes will make them stop rooting for the Andrettis, they joked, but they are grateful nonetheless. The TV board, the tower, everything looks newer, cleaner.
“Have you checked the men’s room down there?” Brian asked the table.
“They’re painted,” David said. “It’s crazy.”
“Are the troughs still there?” Brian asked.
“They are,” Matthew chimed in.
All three of them leaned back in their chair and burst out laughing.
“There are certain traditions, you know?” Brian said.
David checked his watch. It was getting closer to 2:45 p.m. “We got to get going,” he said. They finished their burgers and rose from the table, heading up the stairs toward their first glimpse of live racing in a while.
Follow IndyStar reporter Michael McCleary on Twitter @mikejmccleary.