A May In The Life Of A Yellow Shirt–Part I

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By Paul Henry

Note from George: Timing is everything! Last month, I was approached by former fellow-blogger, Paul Henry (otherwise known as GForce Paul), about doing a guest blog here on what should be a fascinating topic for anyone who has ever attended the Indianapolis 500. As it turned out, my work is sending me to Washington, DC this week so it seemed like a good time for Paul’s post. Shortly after he started writing it, he told me it would have to be a two-parter. Even better, since I’m not scheduled to get back home until late Thursday night.

Some of you will remember Paul’s blog, “WideOpenWheel”, which he started in 2011. Although he and I have corresponded for years, we never met until this past May when he was in his new position – an IMS “Yellow Shirt”. Today and Friday, he will provide us with a peek behind the curtain as a Yellow Shirt in the Month of May.

Part II will run on Friday as he goes into detail about Race Day Merriment. I will return here on Monday Jan 14. – GP

I have this illness called speed induced methanol addiction and have found that on some days the urge is so bad that I could eat it for breakfast! I also am approaching retirement age and was asked one day by my far better half what was next? I have always had this idea that I would LOVE to work at the shrine of speed, The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the group that controls access to Gasoline Alley. You know, those grumpy old men and women that wear these cool yellow shirts, stop you at the door and merrily blow those annoying whistles all day. They seem such a happy bunch that I thought this would be a great future life for me. I mean, what could be more fun then yelling at people incessantly, going deaf from engines being warmed in the garage and freely throwing out the word NO!! all day long?

Besides, I know a few wrenches in the paddock that I felt pretty confident would love to hit me up for a parking space near Gasoline Alley. All I had to do was crack the code for getting hired by the fine folks at IMS. I had gone down that path before several years ago but some guy named Curt Cavin was hired instead of me…..but I digress (and lie from time to time!). So, one day while doing some creative loafing on, of all things, Face Book I came across an advert that was seeking people to come join the Safety Patrol Team at IMS. Being concerned that I met the minimum age requirement and quite possibly the maximum age requirement; I threw caution to the wind and applied on line in the early spring of 2018. I just knew that with all my previous years of racing experience in broadcast and writing a failing motorsports blog I would be a shoo-in to grab that coveted Garage Yellow Shirt position. Ha….

A month later I got a call from a phone number I did not recognize and, being like most tech savvy people today, I ignored the call. Fortunately, the caller left a message. She was the coordinator and screener of applications to the Safety Patrol and works in Event Operations at the speedway. We conducted a fairly quick phone interview and I was asked where I would consider working at IMS. I was given a choice of Mounds, stands or traffic. No mention of the garage so I asked about that. To my non-surprise, those positions are tenured, and people are lined up from here to Dallas trying to get in that group. Obviously, my vast experience and superior knowledge of IMS didn’t mean diddly squat which is fair. After all, things in life worth having must be worked for and not given out like candy. So, my choice was to work in the Traffic Division. Little did I know what I was getting into, but I was a newbie with a speed induced methanol sickness.

In March, orientation was held for the new hires. The best part is that it was a paid orientation class lasting 4 hours. Now, as far as boring orientation classes go, this was not a typical class. The class was conducted by Kirk Dooley. On first meeting with Kirk and his staff in Event Operations, it was immediately obvious that he is a former military type. I had no idea that he had concluded tours as a Marine in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, one could tell by the way Kirk carries himself that he is a true leader and no, he did not pay me to write this line. He worked across the street from IMS for IndyCar directly and left them to become director of Event Operations. This was my first exposure to the professionalism that defines the Safety Patrol.

The second takeaway from the orientation class is the dedication to redefine the initial and follow on experience that a visitor has at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Guest Services management takes it far more serious as a type of cultural change in the way a team member interacts with a guest. Some key personnel were sent to the Disney School to learn the Disney Method of guest interaction. It is a far cry from the old days of We got their money at the gate, let them fend for themselves. Here is a quick summary of the MANY rules and “suggestions” we learned that day on guest interactions:

TOP 5 DO’S

1. Always greet guests and smile.

2. Look and act professional at all times.

3. Actively seek to resolve issues and guest questions—or find someone who can.

4. Know your specific responsibilities—correct credentials, passes, tickets, procedures, etc.

5. Strive to deliver the best fan experience possible in your area.

TOP 5 DON’TS

1. Do not tell guests "I don’t know." Search to find the answer.

2. Do not touch a guest unless personal safety is at risk.

3. Do not argue with a guest. Always call for supervisor assistance if needed.

4. Do not smoke at post; only at specified break area.

5. Do not abandon post without permission. Always check-in with a supervisor before leaving your post for breaks, lunch, etc.

TOP 5 THINGS TO REMEMBER

1. You are a direct representation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

2. You are one of the first people IMS guests see and interact with.

3. Bring appropriate clothing and food; water and ice will be provided.

4. Your work is recognized and appreciated.

5. You make this place special!

So, I came to the sound conclusion that I was not going to jump right into the coveted garage or pit lane job assignment. In fact, I was recruited by the traffic division; they assumed I had a death wish and loved to play in traffic. Little did IMS know that I actually enjoy telling people what to do and where to go, so it seemed like a very good fit! My friends that wrench in the paddock were a little saddened too, since they were not going to get that parking place behind the media center, next to the George family. So, armed with these guest interaction guides I waited until the track opened for business. I sent my work availability to my supervisor and stated that I could work any day the track was open. I am certain that he high fived everybody in sight when he read that because I was assigned EVERY DAY the track was open. I mean all day, every day. From 6am to 7pm. Every day. Oh well, all for the love of the sport I guess… Besides, I LOVE the smell of methanol in the morning!

First up was the ramp up to the Indy Grand Prix where I was issued my very cool yellow shirt. Oh, did I mention that IMS provides laundry service and a clean yellow shirt EVERY DAY? I had always wondered why the yellow shirts that used to yell at me to leave restricted areas I had snuck into seemed to have a fresh dryer sheet aroma about them. Now I know!

The Grand Prix was a great experience because the (at the time) MRTI was the support series for that event. My station was at the road leading to tunnel 7. This intersects with Unser Way and was the lane the MRTI cars used to get from their paddock to their staging area at turn 1 of the road course. I was assigned to marshal the cars out of the paddock and feed them to the ramp coordinator for MRTI.

I was fortunate to develop a good working relationship with this guy and we worked out hand signals to send him the number of cars he wanted to stage at any given time. There is nothing like jumping into the path of a high horsepower vehicle, telling a young up and coming race car driver to SLOW DOWN or STOP. I have never done anything so futile in my life. However, since they most likely did not want to face vehicular manslaughter charges, they did for the most part follow my instructions. I will admit that doing this function made me rush out and purchase a few pairs of dayglo green gloves!

The 2018 IndyCar Grand Prix was the beneficiary of spectacular chamber of commerce weather and the walk up crowd never really slowed down. It helps that the race was pretty good too! I realized that because I watched a replay a few days after the race. What? You think that becoming a yellow shirt comes with a good seat at the Speedway? I laugh at you….HA! Not a chance. There are simply too many folks with too big a head start on me and my friend, Capt. Jim Beam. To be sure, this is not even 500 day; this is the ramp up race for that all day long “sipping” session. A sidebar here if I may; No, I cannot help you get tickets so please QUIT ASKING.

A quick note about guest relations since my work group is officially known as Guest Services. The very best day I had and the best time I had all month was discovering the first time visitors to the Indianapolis Speedway. You can spot them a mile away by the look of bewilderment in their eyes. To a man and woman, they all pretty much have the same reaction; man is this place ‘Euge!

One day right before the Indy 500 I noticed a father and 4 boys that appeared to be aged 10 to 12 or so. I saw “the look” and walked over to engage them in a short conversation. These conversations usually begin with the words “Thank you for visiting the speedway and a BIG thanks for bringing the next generation of IndyCar fans with you”! This is universally met with a smile and is a great ice breaker. Yes, this was the kid’s first visit so I answered their first question; where is a good place to see race cars?

I walked them up to the seats in the short chute and we hit the track just as a practice session started. We went to the top of the stand and I asked if any of them had ever pedaled their bikes for 2 miles or more. They all said yes which lead to the question about track length. They were fascinated to hear that the track is 2.5 miles in distance. Then I ask them how long they thought it takes to do a single lap. Their answers were widely off the mark. I said about 40 seconds and they all started counting when a car would go by and got flabbergasted that it really only takes about 40 seconds at speed per lap.

Of course, there are far more fans that are less engaging and more combative than new fans but those are generally tolerable yet happy sippers. I did run into a few unhappy sippers on 500 day but that is always to be expected. We will touch on that more later.

Before I relate my Indy 500-day story and experiences, I want to mention something about Mr. J. Douglas Boles (@JDOUGLAS4 on Twitter). There is a reason for the resurgence of all racing at IMS. His name is Doug Boles. I have never met a humbler person, a harder working person and never met a person so tuned into his constituency. Every day we crossed paths, and it happened several times, Mr. Boles would look me in the eye, extend his hand and say, “Thanks for all of your hard work”. Hearing this after a 15 hour day in May with the temperatures in the mid 90’s makes it more worth it. The heat of the day seems a bit cooler, people seem to smile a bit more and Doug slides off to circulate among the masses, spreading his gratitude for his hard working peeps!

6 Responses to “A May In The Life Of A Yellow Shirt–Part I”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Great story Paul. Mr. Boles really is a treasure of The Speedway, I’ve bumped into him several times there and every time he stops, engages me, and I can always tell he’s genuinely interested in talking to me or any fan he comes across and he genuinely wants us all to have the time of our lives there.

    Looking forward to part 2!

    • BrandonWright77 Says:

      Funny thing. I work for a printing company and IMS is one of our customers. I got to my desk this morning and I have a job to do for a Safety Patrol card. 🙂

  2. A great read. Look forward to Part Two sir.

  3. After all the rain I’ve seen on pole day over many years, when I retire I want to be one of the guys that drives the trucks to try to dry the track. Just the thought of being paid to drive all those laps around the legendary 2 1/2 mile oval! Is it even possible to get on that list?

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Thanks for all of your hard work

    I know it doesn’t mean much coming from me compared to Doug Boles, but I very much appreciate what the yellow shirts do to make my too-infrequent visits to the Speedway great experiences.

  5. What a delightful posting, Paul. All events need people like you to help and welcome the spectators. Thank you for all of your efforts.

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