Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Social Media (Garage) Experiment Wrap-Up

I've talked a lot about my Social Media Garage experience this past weekend at IMS, it was a memorable time and I made a bunch of new friends.

One thing that it gave me the opportunity to do is to have the best of both worlds. I could cover Time Trials weekend for my blog while also experiencing the event as a that had some pretty good access. I could cheer in the blogger area (like we all did when James Hinchcliffe went P1 in qualifying), follow stories and trends that I thought you, the readers, would like to see, and best of all do this while not wearing my official "sportswriter" hat.

One "story" I had in mind was to find out for myself just how close a fan can get to the pulse of the race. I've read lots about how IndyCar is the most accessable sport in the world, how the fans can interact with the drivers and get thisclose to their heroes.

So with the blessing of Cassie Conklin, the IMS Social Media Garage guru and appointed "den mother" for us bloggers -- and trust me, if you saw the picture I posted of the blogger crew you would know we need all the supervision they could muster -- I set out to get pictures with every notable person in IndyCar I possibly could.

In the end, I felt like I had made contact with a large slice of the IndyCar world. I interacted with drivers past and present (and picked up a future interview in the process), crew members and series officials. I met past winners, series champions, and one of the best drivers that ever lived. I got pictures upon pictures that draw a tapestry of the life inside IndyCar. It was amazing.

And here is the best part: you can do it too! I, along with other fans and autograph seekers, accomplished what we did with garage access that is available to anyone who wants to buy a badge or a ticket. While I had a Silver Badge that also gave me access to pit road, everything I collected for the gallery below came from either the garage area or common areas near Gasoline Alley.

Everyone I dealt with was cordial and happy to reply to my requests, and one thing I noticed is that many of them especially went above and beyond with children. You want to expose your kids to IndyCar and get them hooked? Take them to the garage, and if they are too young get them as close as you can. You won't regret it.

One other secret I learned was to catch them at the end of the day. Many of the people I came across were in total work mode during the day but once everything was wrapped up were much more relaxed and accommodating.

Yeah, it's that simple. While I busted my tail over the course of the three days to do what I did, it is something any fan can do at any stop on the series. If you want to learn about IndyCar, put down the extra money and come into the garage area. It opens up a whole new world.

One thing that I got out of it is that it really helped me be a fan again. Of course I'm an IndyCar "fan" and as I've stated before, I love the Indy 500. But 12 years of sportswriting has at times left me a bit reserved, even when I'm not wearing that hat. It was nice to get a real feeling of enthusiasm towards this, and I think it even helped my writing over the weekend.

So while this post will get long, I am going to post all of my pics as a gallery and the story that goes with them. Enjoy!


I arrived at the track around 2 p.m. and my project got off to a bit of a slow start. It wasn't until after the track closed at 6 did I get my first photo. And best I might add.

The Godfather. Do I need to go on? I will. Mario was posted outside the Firestone garage just north of Gasoline Alley. He drew and absolute crowd everywhere he went, and while sometimes he had somewhere to be, he usually stopped and signed autographs and posed for pictures for anyone who asked.

Mario is 72 years old but in terms of energy outlasted pretty much everyone over the course of the weekend. Then on Monday he tweeted that he drove the two-seater 700 miles around IMS!

James Hinchcliffe was walking through the plaza behind the Pagoda during the qualifying draw. Walking with an Andretti Autosport staffer, I went up to him and said, "Hey, Hinch, got time for a quick photo?" He immediately smiled, walked up to me and put an arm around my shoulder. A very warm guy. I became a huge fan of his over the course of the weekend.

Sebastien Bourdais. Seabass isn't considered one of the more personable guys in IndyCar, but he stayed well after the draw to talk to a few fans. Fellow blogger Eric Hall told me he'd had a conversation with Bourdais and said he was actually pretty funny and kind of a smartass. Just takes a bit to warm up I guess.

Katherine Legge was in a good mood as she'd had a pretty good day. After waiting all week to find out if Dragon Racing would have a motor for her car, Kat finally got into a car on Thursday, finished her rookie test Friday and got in some valuable practice time.


Most of my day was spent in sportswriter mode as I went between the pits, the garage and the Social Media Garage getting info and posting plenty of content.

1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier was surprised when I told him that my post about him last year was the most-read in this little site's history. I asked him for his contact info so maybe we could do a follow-up story and he said "yeah, give me a call and we'll make the next one better!". Cool guy who wants to drive Indy again badly. What does the Firestone commercial say about "checkered flag fever"? Buddy still has it for sure.

Randy Bernard's best asset is his people skills. He makes you comfortable right away and has a very firm handshake. While I waited for this photo op he was talking with a guy who had flown in from England, and sounded genuinely excited that the guy had made the trip. He asked me if I'd had fun Saturday (ummmm...yeah!) and where I lived. One interesting thing with this picture and the one above is that all three of us are roughly the same age. Randy and Lazier are both 44 and I turn 43 on Friday (hint, hint). Man, I gotta get to the gym!

The closer you get to Josef Newgarden, the closer he looks to being about 14 years old. I can't tell who is older, Josef or my 16-year-old son Matt. Still, he is total charisma and has "it", not to mention he can flat-out drive. He will be a huge star for a long, long time.


I apologize for the poor quality of my photos as I was my own photographer on this one. So with the exception of one shot they were all quick point and shoots from yours truly. Which also led to some strange facial expressions. Try not to laugh too hard!

One thing you will notice is that I did in fact wear a different shirt every day. My mom was so proud!

Helio Castroneves was, along with Tony Kanaan (which was an epic fail) one of my top targets of the weekend. Helio has mastered the art of walking and signing at the same time, so if you want a photo you have to be pretty quick on the draw. His smile is like a light bulb, it comes on fast and bright.

One thing I didn't get to do is that, as I've mentioned in this space before, tell Helio that he won the 2009 Indy 500 for me. I was going through some stuff at the same time as he was, and the month of May, and Helio's performance, was huge for me. Someday.

The run of bad photos begins. But I was pumped about catching up with Jimmy Vasser. Great driver, extremely underrated career that included 10 wins and the 1996 title. He never really had success at Indy, only finishing in the top-10 three times in eight runs. No doubt his luck was fueled by his "Who needs milk?" quote after winning the 1996 US 500. You don't upset the Indy gods. For more proof see Fittipaldi, Emerson post-1993. I've forgiven him, though.

I'm trying to smile in these, really! When I asked Scott Dixon if I could take a quick shot he said "Sure, mate.". Kinda cool. I've warmed up to Dixie the last couple of years, at first I thought he was, well, a bit boring. But he has become a decent interview the last couple of years and has been a couple of turns of luck away from winning the 500 again, including last year. He is doing a really great job this season and deserves a win soon.

Every time I see Rubens Barrichello or hear a story about him, I wonder "how in  the world did such a nice guy survive for 19 years in F1?" It's just so cutthroat there, but the nicest guy in the paddock was one of the most respected drivers. He drew the biggest crowd of fans that I saw among the drivers and signed close to 30 autographs. I got lucky, just after this picture was taken he ducked into the garage. Thanks to his PR person for grabbing my camera and hooking me up. Wish I'd known today was his 40th birthday, I would have welcomed him to the 40 and over club.

Saved the worst picture for last! You know that
little delay with digital cameras from when you push the button until it takes the photo? I thought I had waited long enough before I began to say, "great job bouncing back today". Guess not. Talk about the gym! I should've cropped a couple of chins out of this picture.

So there you have it! I hope you enjoyed my foray into Gasoline Alley and the garage area. It was a lot of fun and I can't wait until next year to maybe do it again. Oh wait, did I say next year? Ummm, how about Milwaukee in a few weeks? I will have my other son, 11-year-old Kevin, along for the ride, and we'll try to get a few more.

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