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

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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 for the latter part of the 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 was not scheduled to get back home until late last 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”. On Wednesday, he discussed his recruitment and becoming a Yellow Shirt. Today he will provide us with a peek behind the curtain as a Yellow Shirt in the Month of May as he goes into detail about Race Day Merriment. I will return here on Monday Jan 14. – GP

In our previous episode, I mentioned that working for IMS as a Yellow Shirt makes for a long day. I do not exaggerate nor embellish; these are very long days. This is a calling that defines “you get out what you put in”.  You will not be successful if you are dollar driven and fail to feel the satisfaction of being part of something greater. Therefore, it is so important to really, REALLY want to do this for the love of the sport. Consequently, some of my fellow yellows have tenure that exceeds 40 years on the job! Consider this point: it takes over 2500 Yellow Shirts to pull off this event. That includes growing programs that involve volunteers from colleges, local schools and paid sub-contractors.   It takes a small, ever changing army and it takes dedication. Do you have that in your make up?

It is a MAJOR time commitment. I often asked the more senior types “why do you do this”? They always responded that they just love being around people, being outdoors and of course, that speed induced methanol sickness thingy. Fortunately, I was able to go home each night, lick my wounds and sleep fast so I could get as much as one can fit into a 5- or 6-hour period and race back to the Hallowed Grounds.

The job does come with many intangible rewards that are based on deriving satisfaction from a job well done. As a side note, one must be internally motivated to do the right thing every time. Even when nobody is looking. Now, on to the race action.

I love carb day! I have spent many an hour on Carb Day, standing inside of Gasoline Alley where the cars exit. I enjoy watching the staging as teams and owners’ “practice” for the true roll out on Race Day. It highly resembles a parade of who is who in IndyCar. Needless to say, I did not get to do that during my first Carb Day as a Yellow Shirt. I was assigned the intersection of 7th and Hulman Blvd with the specific instructions to check parking credentials. People tend to try to get as close to the center of the track when they park on Carb Day or they load up turn 3 and party, Party, PARTY. I was stunned to see how early people can start doing this as well as stunned at how long they can drink in the course of a day. I asked one fine looking lad (I call him Laddy because of his distinct Yorkshire accent) “How can one start so early and yet appear so sober?”. Laddy replied, “Mate, one cannot drink all day if one does not start in the morning”.

In all seriousness, our instructions were to maintain an open lane for emergency vehicles. With the temperature on Carb Day at 86 degrees by 11am we were expecting a high body count from the heat alone. Mix in a little sipping fluids and BAM! Ambulance runs all freakin day.

There are many “inside” things I did learn on Carb Day that I do find fascinating. I was given a two-way radio and informed that I needed to listen for codes being called out and to react accordingly. There are codes for when an accident happens on track, when Life Flight arrives or departs, even codes for requesting a rapid response. When on the radio, we talk professionally and seek guidance from our version of NASA’s mission control called Pagoda Command.

This is the “eye in the sky” and is ever seeing and ever knowing. When one engages them on the radio one must be quick, concise and devoid of emotion. We were instructed to ask your question, get an answer and get of the air. These folks in Pagoda Command are extremely professional. They began the morning updating us on key events for the day, instructing us to wear sunscreen and to stay hydrated. The best advice they gave daily was to swivel your head and stay alert and stay alive. This speech was given every day on all channels just as the public gates were about to open. The speedway also provided us with ice and as much water as once can drink. I make it a habit to drink 3 liters a day with no problem. It is very easy to do in 90-degree heat!

Like any venue that holds over a third of a million people, one must be prepared for any contingency. The biggest contingency was preparing for a visit by the Vice President. I mean, the mayoral appearance requires logistical planning but even that is trumped by the VP. I met several Secret Service mission planners prior to the race and, to a man and woman, each wore extremely nice, tailored suits. They were very easy to spot and did not look like your typical race fan…. Oh, and they also got to park wherever the hell they wanted to.

Carb Day also means music; lots and lots of music! My assignment put me next to the ‘Euge stage area that was set up by my brethren in IATSE, local 30 so shout out to my stage hand brothers! The speedway has built a fine reputation for making Carb Day a fun, festival feeling type of day with music all day long. What better reason to convert a three-day holiday weekend into a four-day holiday weekend! I did get asked quite a bit about how to get into the music venue since the entrance was next to my assigned area and I could hear all the music I wanted to … for free so PERKS! The funniest part was watching the people as the concert ended and they left the stage area. Talk about an invasion of locusts coming over the hill towards you. It reminded me of watching the gallery at a golf tournament following Tiger Woods around!

I did have an opportunity to turn some very dissatisfied guests into friends. Earlier I mentioned the desire to park in turn 3 and party, Party, PARTY. I ran into one couple (not ran over by) and they were giving me quite the business about how they paid for a parking spot in T3 on Carb Day and when they arrived late there were no more spots available. Literally, all the spots had been purchased or taken. These guests were quite upset about the fact that they could not party with their friends. What they did not know was we were opening overflow areas, so I told them to go back and grab their friends and move them to the overflow as well. Problem solved! After many offerings of gratitude that involved beer and spirits which I respectfully declined (that line is intended for my boss’ eyes!), I feel that we made some friends that will be returning to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And with that, let’s review race day, shall we?

Race morning broke very hot and humid. This was THE hottest Indy 500 ever ran (another first for me during my first season as a Yellows Shirt). My day began 2 hours before sunrise as I had a show time of 4 am on race day.  I usually hang out with a friend that wrenches for the 98 car the night before and he also has an annual race day show time of 4 am. Now I know why my mechanic friends look like zombies at the end of every 500, unless, of course they are the winning team. Should they be among those so lucky, at that point, their adrenaline always kicks in for round three!

One would think that at 3am there would be open roads and easy access into the speedway. Not a chance; the famous 16th street was more packed at 3:30 am than Mardi Gras ever gets. I got the feeling as I pulled up to the employee entrance that these folks had not just arrived a little early; they were already at full throttle. I wondered how they could ever be able to take things to the next level. I had forgotten all about the Snake Pit; what a mistake on my part!

The irony of all of this is that at that time of the morning we are trying to keep people out of the speedway and they are trying their hardest to find a way to sneak in. Fortunately, I have probably written the book on finding hidden ways into the speedway over the past 30 years. This time there would be no getting past the strong arm of the Yellow Shirt Law, no sireeee. Hehehe….

Another rather blatant observation is that race day was going to be a balancing act between guests drinking and guests staying cool (read conscious). As the cannon sounded at 6am to signal the opening of the track it was on like Donkey Cong. The 2 most oft repeated questions were “Where is the snake pit?” and “How do I get out of this place?”. The first one was always an easy answer; just follow the crowds of 20 somethings and try to keep up with them.

Please do not get me wrong, I strongly feel that the speedway has hit on the formula for regaining the new fan and the snake pit is part of the solution. The current generation does not care about motorsport. They want a festive atmosphere, smoke, fire and LOUD EDM. I say give them what they want until their ears bleed and send them home happy, thinking about how much fun next year will be. Just don’t sell them too much beer. Let them find or bring their own because believe me, they do anyway!

The body count again started early and often. By 10 am easily there were multiple ambulance runs and some over crowded cooling stations (the city sends in several busses to be staged where fans can get inside and get some air conditioning).  This was a life saver for the Hottest Spectacle in Racing! We kept safety lanes as open as you can ask of 300,000 people to do. A point of satisfaction was helping friends of fans that had suffered heat issues locate where they could find their friends, such as in the overcrowded medical center. It did take some getting on the radio and talking with Pagoda Command and always getting their assistance. Again, these men and women that staff that eye in the sky called Pagoda Command center are extremely professional. Race day they all shined as brightly as the Hulman George family could ever wish for.

I did get to enjoy a small part of the race. We were working mandatory 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off in the heat. It was during these breaks we could hit our air-conditioned staging area and get some relief. I want to mention a word of appreciation for the supervisors I work directly for. During the entire month they were genuinely concerned for our wellbeing. Breaks and hydration and sunscreen were always provided.

On about or after lap 50 we were pulled off the streets for an hour to load up on ice water, ice cream and some sweet treats to get our sugar and spirit levels back up into the fighting range. I took a minute to swing by the 98 car pit (Young Marco) and fist bump my wrench friend as they slid into 6th place on about lap 140. Before I knew it, the time had come to go back into battle.

An interesting observation if I may. On race day 350,000 guests tend to arrive in a steady but fluctuating stream. By race start, seats are full, and the streets return to some form of normalcy. While watching folks head into the snake pit, it was chilling to hear the facility become quiet during the National Anthem. To be clear, everyone, to a man and woman came to a stop, ceased the chatting and cursing and turned toward the flag. They covered their hearts and I could sense the pride in honoring the spirit of those that have come before and fought for our freedom. Listening to 350,000 folks singing in unison was a very moving moment for me.

However, by the end of the race all 350,000 guests try to leave at once. It took all of 30 minutes to produce one of the largest grid locks since, well, last year’s race! Sometimes I wish I could just hand out sedatives and calm everyone down because not a single car was going to go anywhere for a while. So, it was fun to chat with people sitting in their cars and those trying to walk back to their cars all the while nothing moved.

A fun thing to do was to tell pedestrians as I would guide them across intersections to look out whenever I would have to stop a police ATV or golf cart. I would warn the folks to be careful, that I had been watching these guys all day and they were terrible drivers. Even the police would laugh, and the day would seem to get just a little better. And before I knew it, the last fanny had left the seats and the last vehicle crawled out of the tunnel on 16th Street

Like the Marines, IMS is always looking for a few good men and women. The time commit is one thing, but I failed to mention that you can work as many days as you want. The schedulers in the Safety Patrol will schedule you when you are available. My takeaway is to build my schedule with a break day here and there. I would highly encourage anyone with time and a desire for some behind the scenes access to consider giving the Safety Patrol a whirl. If you are interested, click this link and join us for 2019!

Safety Patrol 2019

7 Responses to “A May In The Life Of A Yellow Shirt–Part II”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Thanks for all your hard work in making the event as enjoyable as possible for all the old fans and for helping make some new fans. I’ve been there enough to know what a commitment being a yellow shirt is, definitely not an easy gig but very rewarding for those who can do it. And thanks for the insight into the life of The Speedway and the Yellow Shirts!

    Is it May yet??

    • This has been a very interesting series. IMO the IMS should offer free tenderloin sandwiches to any yellow shirt that wants one in addition to water and ice. I also think it is too much to ask Yellow Shirts to deal with young drunks. Turn the snake pit into a go-cart track.

      • Bruce Waine Says:

        Ron – You, too, have raised a word not divulged by Paul.

        By lack of discussion, it would appear that Paul:

        1. Has not been able to crack the code – The location of the worldly (Indy) tenderloin sandwich.

        Or

        2. Paul has been sworn to secrecy, as a Yellow Shirt, to not speak of the original tenderloins.

        Or

        3. Perhaps in a few years and more experience, Paul will be allowed into the inner circle among those chosen few with knowledge of the original tenderloin locations at Indy.

        Now we wait…………..

        • BrandonWright77 Says:

          NO!! 🙂 The hunt for the proper tenderloin is one of my (and I think one of George’s) favorite Month of May traditions! It’s always there somewhere, but only at maybe one or two spots and it’s rarely in the same place two years in a row so it’s like a treasure hunt. I love it!

          Your post did make me chuckle though. 😀

        • I just wet my pants laughing! Thanjs!

  2. Nice job Paul. I hope your post helps get some more people interested in being a yellow shirt. I also hpe Doug Boles sees this and gives you a bonus for helping him with PR!

  3. Thanks for writing Paul! I was throughly entertained by this unique perspective of May and hope to see more of your writing in the future.

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