Bless the sports fans who actually attend the events, create the atmosphere, and allow others to watch from home – or their favorite watering holes – and imagine that they, too, feel the electricity of being there.
Almost. High-definition televisions and killer home sound systems can only do so much.
The truth is, there’s nothing like the visceral feel of being part of a massive throng of humanity taking in a sporting competition.
Sure, the multitude of camera angles and replays make the home viewing experience enjoyable.
Admittedly, attendance at some sporting events is a more intimate gathering than crowd resulting in an almost bored indifference. Those are not the events we’re speaking of here.
Instead, we think of the special events, the contests of immense import, that motivate paying customers to want to fork over bundles of cash for the right to say they were there.
The Indianapolis 500, slated to run again on Sunday, is a permanent resident on the mega-crowd end of the attendance spectrum, the king on a day of huge auto racing crowds.
An estimated 200,000 annually take in the Monaco Grand Prix, which in recent years has shared its race day with Indy. And later in the night, NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 draws a six-figure crowd to cap off a hat trick of Sunday hot laps.
Alas, I’ve never made it to the Monaco event, not that I haven’t fantasized about being aboard one of those massive yachts moored trackside in the Monte Carlo harbor.
While I’ve been to Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was in the winters, during some NASCAR preseason media tours.
But twice I’ve been to an Indianapolis 500 race and the perspective that those two pilgrimages provided aid immensely in my enjoyment of race telecasts each year.
To begin, each year the Indianapolis crowd is huge, but you’re going to have to take our word on that. The good people at Indianapolis Motor Speedway don’t release a hard count, the kind you’d expect to see at the end of every baseball or basketball box score, hockey summary or football statistical rundown.
Instead we get an estimate of 350,000 for the 100th running of the 500 a few years back. The next year, a track spokesman put the turnout “right at” 300,000.
There are approximately 250,000 permanent seats at Indianapolis (they don’t even put an exact number on that and no one has bothered to do a count) and if that 350,000 estimate is to be believed, a potential six-figure crowd was watching from the infield.
Don’t discount that possibility. First, the inside of the track is a considerable expanse.
Also, there is a draw at work here that extends beyond mere race fans. Infield denizens aren’t necessarily there to witness high-speed competition on the 2.5-mile rounded rectangle. The race is more an excuse to come in and play.
While they can hear the cars, it’s little more than an at-times distant high-pitched buzz owing to the immense size of the place. Like the race cars, the infield types tend to be fueled by alcohol, albeit the sort dispensed in small aluminum cans.
One such lubricated example, witnessed during one of my race-day visits to the infield, was driving a massive Checker automobile, perhaps a former cab. The man took great offense at a metal barrel being used as a traffic-control device, and repeatedly backed up his car, surged forward, and ran into, and over, the offending drum of steel. After each blow, he’d get out of his car and yell at the barrel.
A crowd gathered, as enthralled by this impromptu battle as by what the race drivers were doing dueling their way around the track. Eventually, the guy got his Checker high-centered atop the drum and the crowd dispersed.
I wonder if he ever got the vehicle back home.
Back to the crowds, consider that both Penn State and Michigan take great pride in routinely drawing more than 100,000 spectators for home football games. Those crowds could both fit simultaneously in the Indy stands, with almost enough room left for a capacity PNC Park crowd, too. And you could easily find the equivalent of a Heinz Field sellout meandering around the infield.
What the Indy crowd doesn’t get is accolades from the drivers on playing a role in the victory of whomever eventually wins.
Where other athletes routinely salute their home crowds for making a difference in victories (but curiously don’t blame them for defeats when the home forces fail) race drivers limit their post-race comments to thanking the crowd for being there.
It’s fitting, since these races have no clearly defined home team. Loyalties are split into fragments when there is a 33-car field, as is the case at Indy, or 40 cars with NASCAR.
Yet the fans are vocal in the extreme. The crowd roar at pivotal race moments rises above the considerable sound of the cars. You’d expect no less from a hundreds of thousands of throats, powered by twice that number of lungs.