“Crashing” the Indy 500

I was back in my hometown of Fishers, Indiana, driving in for the weekend from Kentucky, where I was going to school at the University of Louisville.
For some extra cash, I turned to bartending, graduating as a
“certified mixologist” from the Midwest Bartending School. Usually this took two weeks, but since the only people taking the class were me and an ex-Marine that ran a strip club downtown they made it a five-day crash course.
The bartending service didn’t provide full-time work, but they had
connections to special event gigs.
Most of my work took place at Churchill Downs, where I tended bar in the Finish Line Suites at the Kentucky Derby.
The other big special event was the Indianapolis 500. I was never a racing fan, but it gave me a chance to go back home, see some friends and make some money.
This particular year – 2005 – was not the experience I expected.
On my way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – roughly 25 minutes from where I grew up – I got a call from my bartending supervisor, Mike.
“Looks like we’ve got more bartenders than we do bars,” he said. “I’ll
do what I can, but I’m afraid I can’t make any guarantees.”
“You know, I came from Louisville for this,” I said.
“Absolutely, I know, Charlie. You’re certainly high on our list of
people to get a bar.”
I tried to stay positive, tried to stay confident that Mike would come
through.
No dice.
I was ready to bartend. I was trimmed, fresh, looking sharp in a tuxedo.
Now what?
“We’re really sorry,” Mike said. “Stick around. We may be able to get
you something yet.”
Stick around.
You’re at the Indy 500 in a tux.
What’s the worst that could happen?
I decided to have fun with it, stroll around the raceway, check out
all the people wearing checkered shirts. One person was dressed in all
checkers from head to toe. I couldn’t believe it.
This is when the fun began.
In my tux, I could get pretty much anywhere I wanted. Most people
didn’t know that I didn’t have a bar in the suites. I looked like I
did, and I acted like I did.
You act like you’re in a hurry and you left your bar unattended. Just imagine how upset David Letterman would be if he couldn’t get his martini? Or his Jack Daniels, depending on how the team he invested in was doing.
I got into the suite area and knew several of the bartenders on board. No one felt like I was intruding.
The first suite I walked by was ESPN’s. Karl was behind the bar.
“What you doin’, Charlie?” he said. “Don’t you got a bar?”
“No, man, Mike said he didn’t have one for me.”
“Hell, no,” Karl said. “You come in from Kentucky and he do you like
that? Well – I don’t know what to tell ya’, Charlie. What you gonna
do?”
I looked around his room and saw a middle-aged short man in the corner wearing shades
that looked familiar.
“Is that – ?”
“Yeah, man, that’s Tim Allen.”
I so badly wanted to approach him and say, “Hey, man, you were great
in ‘Jungle to Jungle’ but when I looked at him, he immediately turned
his back.
This is one of my favorite games to play at these events. I like to catch celebrities off-guard. I once told NFL running back Warrick Dunn that I loved him on the cover of Cat Fancy. This was in response to an ESPN commercial he did his rookie season.
“That was a long time ago,” he said, taken aback.
Michael Jordan was in the next suite over one year. All I wanted to say was, “Aren’t you that guy from “Space Jam”?
I could tell Buzz Lightyear was not in the mood for that, so I stayed back.
Karl was a good bartender. He didn’t even need a bar back, so I let
him do his thing, said goodbye and told him I was going to just “walk
around and see where it takes me.”
It was humid for a tux, but I went with it, buying some lemonade and
looking around.
Subway Jared walked by. I waved at him and excitedly said, “Hey,
Jared, how’ve you been?”
I thought I’d act as if I knew him since we did once ride on the same plane from Indianapolis to Atlanta. He was in first class and posed in front of the curtain that divided him and the coach seats. It was unnecessary.
He waved and delivered one of his white smiles, the insincere
pseudo-celebrity grin.
The place was packed. More than 250,000 people were there, and a large
number of them were intoxicated. Every corner of the Speedway had a crowd. As you can imagine, a large percentage were wearing their best NASCAR and Indy car get-up. How many Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hats can you see in one place?
Not to mention the Budweiser attire, sleeveless shirts and cut-off shorts.
Blue-collar paradise.
Hoosier Mardi Gras.
One thing that almost everyone had, however, were ear plugs. As you can imagine, the Indy 500 is loud. Very loud.
If you are walking near or under the track, it’s a deafening roar, and you can feel the speed just as well as you can hear it.
Other bartenders passed me by and I waved. They usually had inventory in their hand, rushing back to their jobs. Every once in a while I’d run into someone from high school. They were drunk and talkative.
Lenna and I had a nice time catching up until her boyfriend fell over trying to climb a railing to cut through a line.
I just kept walking.
That’s when I came across the gate to the best seats in the house. Right up front, next to the pits. You could see it all.
There was a pretty woman about my age watching the door, checking the list.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m supposed to meet someone,” I said.
She looked at the list, looked at me, shrugged and said “Go ahead.”
She opened the gate, and there I was sitting front row at the Indy 500.
They were at about lap 50. By lap 56, Danica Patrick – in her very first Indy 500 – took the lead.
It was the first time in the history of the Indy 500 that a woman had led the race.
History is in the making.
She couldn’t hold on, however, and Englishman Dan Wheldon won the
race. It was the first of two Indy 500 wins in his career and the first time a British man won since the 1960’s.
Wheldon won it again in 2011, but died a few months later in a collision at the IZOD
IndyCar World Championship at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
But that day – May 29, 2005 – he was on top of the world.
Sitting there in the front row, I was expecting to run into another celebrity. Figured for sure that’s what was going to happen. Thought I’d even brain-storm some one-liners.
A different surprise awaited.
“Charlie?”
I couldn’t believe it.
Beth Austin, my mother’s best friend. She was sitting two seats behind me with her husband Blair, one of my father’s best friends.
I’d just seen them in Illinois at my sister’s wedding a few weeks prior.
“Everytime we see you, you’re wearing a tux,” Beth said.”I like tuxes.”
I sat down with them and we watched the rest of the race together. It was the perfect ending to what appeared to be a disaster.
And, if that wasn’t the perfect ending, sitting in a lawn chair drinking Coors Light with fellow Hoosiers outside the Speedway was also a nice way to spend the day.
“This is one hell of a gig you got, man,” a middle-aged, pudgy bearded man in a Dale Earnhardt, Jr.hat told me, his Southern Indiana drawl welcoming and fitting.
Looking back, despite not even having a bar that year, I’d have to agree.
All in all, that race was a learning experience: if you are going to “crash” the Indy 500, wear a tux.

Charlie Denison: bartender at Indy 500 and the Kentucky Derby (2004-2007)

– As published in the Lewistown News-Argus

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About charliestinyuniverse

Charlie Denison, originally from the suburbs of Indianapolis, is a writer and musician, picking up culture and influences from musicians and eccentrics in Kentucky, Tennessee, Montana and even overseas. A graduate from the University of Kentucky School of Journalism in 2007, Denison is currently a staff writer at the Lewistown News-Argus. He is an award-winning Montana journalist who has been published in the Montana Quarterly, Rural Montana Magazine, Last Best News, NUVO and others. He also has a solo EP, "Whispers of the Lonely," blending country, folk, blues and soul, now available and has an LP in the works.
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