Southsider Voice correspondent
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has accommodated fans and parking within the confines of the track since its inception in 1909.
The first race – a hot air balloon race in June 1909, before the oval was complete, drew 40,000 spectators. Today the historic landmark stages seven major events in five racing series, with the crown-jewel Indy 500 drawing 250,000-plus fans.
Throughout the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, exceptionally large crowds gathered in all four infield turns to watch the brightly colored cars scream by. As these crowds continued to increase, it attracted more than just hard-core race fans.
It was common for families to pack up the car and picnic in the vast infield, which contained little more than a nine-hole golf course. Parents would grill burgers and hot dogs while their children played. Trips would be made to the fence where everyone stared in amazement at the cars’ speed. I know of these experiences firsthand because I enjoyed big outings with my family every May at the track.
There was also another type of fans – party fans – that started populating the infields during this same time period. These spectators significantly increased the attendance for practice and qualifications, especially pole day, and the Indy 500, which was the most attended single-day sporting event in the world; pole day was in second.
Every one of the infield turns provided parking and easy viewing of the track. However, with these fans came an increasing amount of debauchery and eventually violence. The first-turn infield became notoriously known as the Snake Pit in the 1980s. It became a harbor for drunkenness, fighting, nudity, car fires and multiple arrests. It intimidated many and certainly wasn’t a place to take your children to enjoy a day at the track.
From the late ’80s into the ’90s, things grew increasingly out of control. A first attempt to restrain the party element was the construction of grandstands in the infield turns. However, that did little to curtail the partying. The problem culminated in 1990 when a riot occurred between fans and partiers in the fourth-turn infield and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. This signaled the demise of the Snake Pit and the all-out parties in all the turns.
Since the late 1990s the IMS has done a remarkable job of modernizing and reinventing the Speedway. A road course now cuts through what was once the Snake Pit and its turn-four rival. Fans are not allowed in these areas any longer, with the exception being the Miller Lite Party Deck in the fourth turn. The only areas accessible to fans are from the second-turn infield down the backstretch and into the third turn. The IMS has built viewing mounds on which fans can sit and watch the cars. A portion of these mounds are designated family-viewing areas, where alcohol is prohibited.
The huge party crowds, shenanigans and debauchery of the old days are now just part of the track’s history. However, in their place are family-oriented activities and cleaner viewing areas – all of which provide the same experiences in a more respectable environment.