Being backstage for history

Missouri sports history was made last Sunday when Joplin native Jamie McMurray won NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Missourinet Sports Director Bill Pollack is vacationing. News Director Bob Priddy has been unable to repress his latent dreams of being a sportswriter in Bill’s absence, and provides a bit of a backstage view. Actually, more than a bit, but…

The care and feeding of the media that covers the Indianapolis 500 in May and the Brickyard 400 in July is an important part of the event. There’s more to the work of the media covering an event than just showing up, watching a race, and writing stories afterwards. Reporters would have a lot of trouble writing stories about those events or any sporting events without a corps of people who don’t work for the reporters’ companies but work for participants in the event in various ways.

Events at Indianapolis draw dozens–hundreds?—of reporters. Some are the pros that follow the circuits every week, who write the columns in the newspapers or do the shows about racing on television. Many are people like us who–truth to tell–follow racing from a distance except when the events are close enough and are at a place special enough to the sport and to the reporter to make covering the events a matter of seeming genetic necessity.

The Indianapolis Speedway is one of those places that is a tradition in itself, a place certain people go to every year for personal and/or professional reasons when they don’t go to other sports venues. Some families have to see a Cardinals or Royals game some time during every baseball season. Saturday afternoons at Memorial Stadium in Columbia are part of the makeup of some people.

So it was last Thursday that we left Jefferson City early in the morning to get to the Indianapolis Speedway in time to pick up our press credentials so we’d be ready on Friday when NASCAR descended on Indianapolis. Visiting the Speedway a couple of times a year began for this reporter when his father took him to the track in May many, many years ago for pole day for the 500. Being able to report on the races at the Speedway if there is a Missouri angle makes the experience of of annual return even better. What we relate here in great length is only a small part of the way the media covers an event like this and the kinds of help we get. The national television networks put in hundreds of man-hours every week. Their preparations are likely as detailed as the racing teams preparations in terms of the complicated elements that go into the final product. The event is a huge news story for Indianapolis–even all of Indiana–media. Our focus is limited. We were a minnow in a large pond with limited needs. But the media folks at the Speedway and the drivers’ media folks we work with have never treated us like minnows.

The word “descends” is exactly right in describing how NASCAR brings its show to town. The big, decorated, tractor-trailer rigs gather together on Thursday and parade through the city, a spectacle in themselves, to the track, parking in an area I have taken to calling “Haulerwood” just outside the garage area, the trailers parked so closely together there’s barely room for a person to walk between them—emphasizing the fact that drivers of amazing skill are not just those who will race on Sunday. (N: 1781) Within minutes the principle car for each driver is rolled out of its storage area in the upper area of the trailer and is pushed toward its garage. Crews quickly move in and pull out of the bottom part of the trailer all of the tools, parts, and equipment they will need to make the car run at its peak level during the weekend—and to fix it when it gets bent or broken. A lot of work needs to be done before the cars ever hit the track on Friday afternoon for their first practice.

Reporters are starting to trickle in, picking up their credentials at the administration building as we did. There are various kinds of credentials but for our purposes the most important ones are the ones that get us through the gates, provide a parking space in the media lot, and let us visit the garage area and pit lane when things are not “hot.”

The cars that race at Indianapolis in May are towed from the garage area to the pits by garden tractors or pushed by crew members. But NASCAR Cup car drivers climb in, fire up the engine, back out of the garage jsut as you and I would back out of our garage and drive away. When practice, qualifying, and racing are going on, it’s not a good idea to have a lot of guests and gawkers in the garage area. So people with “cold” garage area and pit passes are excluded during those times. NASCAR, frankly, interprets “hot” a little too liberally after the race for our purposes because we get a “cold” pass and can’t get into the garage area for post-race driver interviews with Missouri drivers like Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray after the race. If they finish in the top three, however, they go to the press room in the track media center, which is outside the garage area, and we get to talk to them there. Having a “cold” pass is an annoyance when our people don’t finish in the top three but we’ve lived with it for a long time.

We were in the pits for part of a race many years ago, just long enough to realize we didn’t really want to be there because of the action after the cars have gone back onto the track. People are dashing back to the garages to refill fuel cans, are dashing to the haulers for tools and parts they didn’t take out to pit road, moving used and new tires around—we had no business being there that day and got the heck out of the way.

When you hear drivers after a race gush about the work of their team, of their crews, do not think for a minute they’re just saying that stuff. When you see a guy standing in the engine bay of a stock car putting pieces together, and when you find yourself in the middle of a pit stop on race day, you cannot help but understand the importance of the people who give the driver the tools he needs to win.

So we have our credentials now. The trucks are in,. The cars are in their garages, up on jack stands while crew members start installing various pieces of equipment including specific things NASCAR provides. To someone who hasn’t see it before, it appears passing strange to see someone standing in the engine bay of a stock car working on the engine or the suspension instead of leaning over a fender the way the folks in our local garages do. But remember, there’s a lot less stuff under the hood and under the body of a NASCAR racing car.

A few days earlier we had contacted the press coordinating guys for Jamie and Carl to see when we might be able to have some brief chats so we can report to the folks back in Missouri what their guys are doing.

11:35 Friday morning and we’re outside the hauler of Joplin’s Jamie McMurray, who finished third in his first Brickyard. This will be his eighth. His media relations guy,Jarrod England, meets us, checks to see if Jamie is finished with his sandwich and takes us inside. (BY400 1/4) ‘Hey, guys, How you doin’?” a friendly voice asks just as we step into the narrow hallway between the drawers and cabinets that hold uniforms, tools, equipment—all kinds of things. It’s the driver of the #1 car, just reaching into his locker to start pulling out the clothes he’ll be putting on in a few minutes to go to his “office.” So he stands there holding his racing shoes and tells us he’s still looking for the second win that he told us in March at the state capitol that he wanted to record this year, that he really can’t rely on the car setup he used last year because he’s with a new team and driving a Chevrolet instead of a Ford, that he feels good coming off his fifth-place run at Joliet two weeks earlier. It’s been a good year with a win at the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock car racing, if you will. He’s had three starts from the pole position, has a win and three second places, five top five finishes and six finishes in the top ten. He’s within sight of 12th place in the points although his focus is on this race, not whether he gets into the top 12 in six more races so he’s a candidate for the national championship. He’s Juan Pablo Montoya’s teammate. Both drive for Chip

Ganassi, and they have a chance to make history if one of them can win the race because no owner has won the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, and the Brickyard 400 in the same year. Jamie is bothered, however, because a Ganassi car finished second in the Daytona 24-hour sports car race. He’s feeling good. He’s feeling positive. His world has really turned around since Roush-Fenway racing cut him loose because of a NASCAR regulation on the number of cars one owner can field.

After ten minutes we’re back out in Haulerwood, thanking Jarrod, and heading for a brief lunch at the media center.

Yes, they feed the reporters. It’s not steaks and fine wine. It’s better than the last school lunch we had, though.

Lunch is on the third floor of the media center, one floor below the working newsroom where counter after counter after county is set up with electrical power, wireless internet service, and other facilities for hundreds of reporters. The speedway staff does an incredible job serving the diverse needs of the NASCAR regulars as well as people like us. Slot number one at the working press desk area is named for Chris Economacki, the legendary racing writer. A manual typewriter is there for his use if he makes it to the race. Back in the northwest corner is a glassed-off area that’s used as a broadcast studio for television coverage of practice, qualifications, and happy hour. Wall=mounted bins are filled with news releases from teams, sponsors, and others. Another section of wall-mounted boxes contains speedway news materials that tell us who’s going to be where if we want to do an interview, who’s going to sin the national anthem, what the practice and qualifying schedule is. Later the staff will add page after page of On-track reports that detail almost minute by minute what’s happening on the track—who has turned fast laps, who has had trouble, qualification times, quotes from drivers, and eventually, a running account of the race and the finishing order.

On various other shelves and cabinets are notebooks for reporters, copies of racing publications and other information. A box that lets reporters plug their recorders into the media public address system is there so reporters can record news conferences in the first floor press conference room.

And near the stairs leading down to the cafeteria are two large refrigerators filled with bottles of water. On days when the temperature tops 90 and the humidity in Indiana reaches Missouri proportions, those refrigerators have to be replenished many times. We always made sure we had at least three of those little bottles of water with us when we went out to stand on the hot concrete of the pit area to watch practice or qualifications. The asphalt track temperature hit 130 degrees while we were there. Thank Heavens we were not on the asphalt. Concrete is sooooo much cooler. Not.

For each event, NASCAR publishes a “trackside media update” book that has all of the most up to date information about drivers and teams. You think baseball is game of statistics? You won’t believe the kinds of statistics NASCAR provides reporters.

For instance, we knew that Carl Edwards had an average had an average finish of 11.2 in the five previous 400s. Jamie McMurray’s average was 20.6. Through all the races so far, Jamie had an average start of 14.7. He was running in 15.7th place in the middle of all races and had an average finish of 19.3. He had passed 1714 cars while running under the green flag and had been passed 1657 times. Fifty-four percent of the time he was running in the top 15.

Carl Edwards ranked 15th in points on superspeedways, fourth in races using restrictor plates (Daytona and Talladega), was third in short track competition, and was outside the top 25 on road courses.

He had led seven-hundredths of al of the laps run going into the Brickyard 400 (Jamie had led 3.65%). McMurray had made 275 consecutive starts; Carl had made 204. And there are more.. So if any reporters need a stat for a story or for an analysis, it’s right there.

Friday afternoon. A pavilion next to the garage area is partitioned off into cubicles and the top 12 drivers in the points standings come in several at a time, have a seat in a tall director’s chair in this or that cubicle and answer questions from reporters. Jimmie Johnson, the defending champion, is asked about winning a fourth Brickyard 400, his third in a row. More than once. What you see on TV when Jimmie Johnson is interviewed is what we saw in the interview room., Courteous complete answers, a smile from time to time. Mark Martin is peppered with questions that he’s going to retire or is going to another team or is going to do this or that next year. Martin doesn’t explode but it’s clear he’s tired of getting the same questions over and over, week after week. This almost-Missourian (he is a native of Batesville, Arkansas and ran a lot of races in Missouri in his early day) underlines his passion for being a racing driver, repeats for the umpteenth time that he’ll be driving a Cup car next year, that he is still a potential winner, that the fire still burns hot inside him. And then he delivers a brief but firm etiquette lesson—that continuing to speculate about things that he has said time and again are not going to happen in his immediate future is insulting and he wishes the media would let go of the issue. The next day, the old man goes out and qualifies third-fastest for the race. Columbia’s Carl Edwards is one of the last to meet with us. He draws a big crowd because NASCAR had announced a couple of days earlier that he and fellow driver Brad Keselowski are on probation for the rest of the year after their latest run-in. (1651) The fine ($25,000), loss of points, and probation are fair, he says, especially since Keselowski also is on probation. We’re at the back of the group of reporters who ask about the matter until all the blood has been pounded out of it, by which time the clock has run out on Carl’s media availability. We had wanted to ask about THIS race and how much more competitive he and his fellow Ford drivers were going to be because the company has come up with a new engine. But we were too far in the back. We did record the session with him. You can click on it at the end of this piece if you’d like to listen in.

Had a quick word with Tony Stewart as he left his cubicle. Told him we’d been out to the Indianapolis Zoo to see his cats the night before. The Tony Stewart Foundation has been working with the Zoo and the Cheetah Conservation Fund to create a special zoo habitat for five of the beautiful but endangered cats.  Tony’s also done some humorous promos for the program that are on Youtube. “They probably weren’t too active in all this heat,” he said. “Actually, I told him, they were moving around quite a bit.” What to get nose to nose with one of these magnificent wild animals? Well, actually, there’s a glass wall between you and one of them, but the Indianapolis Zoo is a place where you can see something that can accelerate faster than Tony Stewart’s car, at least to 70 mph.

Practice, Friday afternoon.. Top speed: Montoya at 179.756 for a hot lap. McMurray, his teammate, is close at 179.526. They lap the 2.5 mile squared oval in less than 50 seconds. It’s hot. And humid. Nobody runs very many laps in cars where interior temperatures can hit about 150 degrees or more on days like this.

Saturday. It has rained overnight. The track is “green,” meaning the rubber laid down during practice Friday has been washed away and the handling characteristics of the cars will be different than they were when the drivers ran test qualification runs yesterday. The first car out, Tony Stewart, runs faster than Montoya’s hot lap yesterday, 180.362. Four minutes later, Kevin Harvick takes the pole away from him with a lap at 181.210. Three minutes after that, Jeff Gordon laps at 181.251. Five minutes after Gordon claims the pole, McMurray takes it away from him with a lap of 49.519 seconds, a speed of 181.748, more than two miles an hour faster than his fastest lap yesterday. No Missourian has ever started from the pole in any race at Indianapolis. Ever. And just two minutes later, Montoya makes sure McMurray won’t be the frist. He flashes across the line in front of us at 182.278. Four minutes after Montoya’s run, Jimmy Johnson pushes McMurray to the second row with a lap at 182.142, meaning McMurray will start behind his teammate isntead of alongside him. Eighteen more cars make their runs and then Mark Martin, forty minutes after Johnson’s run, moves McMurray to the outside of row two with a lap at 181.803. Montoya, who led 116 laps last year before a pit road speeding penalty dropped him to 11th at the end becomes the overwhelming favorite to win the race. McMurray is crushed that he didn’t get the pole. He felt so good after making his run. But it’s only fourth best. He goes back to the mobile home that goes to each track for him and his wife. He later tells us (and a roomful of other reporters), he went back to his motor home and told his wife Christy he was really “torn up” that he didn’t get the pole, and Christy–who never gives her opinion about racing—told him, “The heck with the pole. Win the race!”

Race day. A stroll through the pits and the places we stood for qualifications are now packed with pit boxes full of gear, parts, computer equipment, and tires. Tires, tires, tires. Sometimes you’ll see one of the crewmen gluing lug nuts to the wheels, just tightly enough to keep the lug nut mounted when a new tire and wheel is put on the car during a pit stop but not so tightly that the air wrench can’t tighten the nut for s snug fit. When you have less than five seconds to undo five lug nuts, remove a tire, slap another one on and tighten the lug nuts, you don’t have time to hold them in your hand and mount them one by one. Seconds are distance in racing. Eye-hand coordination for tire changers is incredible and a little glue makes it possible to refuel and change four tires in a dozen seconds.

The garage area is considered “hot,” accessible only to essential people. We’re not essential so we head to the media center for lunch and to replenish our water supplies–five bottles this time–then out to the short chute between turns three and four where we will watch the race until there are about 20 laps to go. If one of our Missouri guys is in the top three, we start the long walk back to the media center so we’ll be there in time for the post-race news conferences.

Ear plugs are a necessity for a NASCAR race. McMurray starts fourth, runs in the top six all afternoon. Edwards starts at mid-pack and stays at mid-pack most of the day. Montoya dominates the race. Late in the race McMurray moves to second so the Ganassi cars are running 1-2. Looks like a Missouri guy is going to be involved in a post-race news conference. Just about the time we get to the 140th of 160 laps, the caution flag comes out. Debris on the track has to be removed to make racing safe. The field bunches up. Former Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick has become a challenger. Pit stops. Four tires or two? Harvick and McMurray go for two right side tires. Montoya changes all four and comes out seventh. Harvick gets a jump on the restart and leads McMurray.

Time to pack up the gear and head to the media center, listening to our radio on the way back. Montoya, trying to make up for his seventh place position on the restart, goes high, hits the wall and is done for the day. The track is cleaned and Joplin’s most famous racing driver starts alongside Harvick for the last with everything riding on the restart. He gets the advantage going into the firt turn, seizes the lead with eleven laps to go and incrementally pulls away.

We get to the media center just in time to see Jamie McMurray take the checkered flag. A couple of minutes later he comes back to the start finish line for the celebratory burnout, engulfing his car in the smoke from his spinning tires.

Until this moment, no Missouri driver had ever done what Jamie McMurray has just done. No Missourian had ever won a race at the Indianapolis Speedway since it opened in 1909 until Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag for the 2010 Brickyard 400. The Speedway has hosted stock car races, open wheel races, Formula One races, motorcycle races, even balloon races. Jamie McMurray is the first Missourian to win any race of any kind at Indianapolis.

Press conferences now. Second and third place drivers meet the media in the first floor press room.  Then we wait for half an hour or so because McMurray and the crew are doing all the things winning teams do. They go out and kiss the yard of bricks that mark the start-finish line (the track is called the Brickyard because it was paved with bricks after the disastrous 1909 races, before the first 500 in 1911. Through the years the bricks were covered with asphalt and only one three-foot wide segment remains). The driver, the crew, the Sprint Cup girls–have to pose for pictures with the trophy. After each shot, they put on new baseball caps for the different sponsors on the car. There are lots of sponsors. Lots of hats. Lots of pictures. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the goings-on on television.

Back in Haulerwood, crews are loading the grimy and sometimes bent cars, storing the equipment. By the time Jamie McMurray, his crew chief, and two of the owners of his team finish their news conference, many of the trucks are ready to roll, headed back to North Carolina (most of them) to get ready for the next race.

Carl Edwards finishes seventh. By the time the sun goes down, he’s probably back in Columbia.

Jamie McMurray, having made history, has little time to celebrate. On Monday, he says, he’ll be testing on the road course at Watkins Glen, New York for a race in two weeks. He needs to improve his road racing skills..

Reporters file their stories, pack up their equipment and their credentials, and within 24 hours they’re well gone, too. Trash collection crews already are at work picking up mountains of discarded paper and aluminum. The Speedway goes back to being a business not an event until the next time.

The national press has written that McMurray has made history by providing team owner Chip Ganassi with the third part of the triple crown in one year–Daytona and both of the big Indianapolis races.

We head back to Jefferson City to report a different kind of history that he has made. Home at midnight. Back in the newsroom at 5 a.m. We sit down at the computer and begin to write the morning’s news stories. The first two are sports stories. Whitey Herzog enters baseball’s Hall of Fame, and:

“Joplin racing driver Jamie McMurray has become the first Missouri dreiver to win a race of any kind in the 101-year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He won the Brickyard 400 yesterday. McMurray won the Daytona 500 to start the season.”

(More photos by Bob Priddy, Jim Coleman, Rick Gevers)

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