When I started covering Indy 500s – and that’s so long ago that even I don’t want to think about it – I very quickly became aware that a little metal badge that was given out to participants, reporters, guests and other assorted hangers-on was the Holy Grail of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
If you had one of those badges, which you pinned to the front of your shirt, it gave you a free pass into the facility and allowed you to go just about anywhere once you were inside.
It was good from the moment they opened the track at the first of May until race day, when they tightened things up considerably and you had to have an additional piece of identification attached to it.
But to say those badges were gold is not an exaggeration. One night I was in a bar and somebody found out I was a reporter and a guy offered me $100 (serious money in those days) to let him borrow my badge for a few hours. Fortunately, I was sober enough to turn him down because, of course, I would never have seen it again.
The badges were always about the same size but took different shapes and colours – some were bronze and some were silver. The first 500 I covered was in 1969, the year the movie "Winning" (with Paul Newman, Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward) came out. The badge I got was bronze and in the shape of a Hollywood movie camera.
I still have all my badges. They’re keepsakes and bring back many memories – such as the time in 1985 when a guy reached out and tried to pull the one I got that year right off my shirt.
That race was of particular interest for two reasons. It was the year Danny Sullivan recovered from a 360-degree spin between turns one and two and went on to win the race. It became known as Sullivan’s "Spin ‘n Win."
The other reason it was of interest (to Canadians, anyway) was because the Canadian Tire Corp. sponsored a car in that race. Canadian Jacques Villeneuve Sr. was the driver but, after crashing twice in practice, was replaced by American veteran Johnny Parsons Jr. (who eventually finished fifth).
Now, the press box in those long-ago days was a drop-down platform underneath the top grandstand along the front straight. It was a dandy place to watch the race but, after the finish, you really had to scramble to get down from there and over into the infield for the post-race press conferences and to interview people.
This particular year, I had to catch a plane home that evening so I was loaded down with a portable typewriter, a camera bag and two carry-on-size suitcases. I didn’t have a hand free.
I was in a line of people waiting to pass through a credential check to get into Gasoline Alley. I was impatient because the winner’s press conference was about to begin and I wasn’t paying attention to the people around me and suddenly I felt a tug on the front of my shirt.
I looked down and saw a hand — which was not mine – covering up my credential badge. Some guy had reached over a fence and was in the process of trying to rip my badge right off my shirt.
So I did the only thing I could think of . . .
I bit him.
He wasn’t happy, but I got to keep my badge.
Now, the reason I’m telling you this today is because the general public – meaning you – can now purchase one of those little metal badges. It gives you gate and garage access for the two weeks of practice and qualifying leading up to this year’s Indy 500, which will take place on May 30.
For $100 (which is not a bad price at all), you can rub shoulders with the owners, drivers, crew members and famous people – like reporters – who all flock to Indianapolis in May for what is still the world’s greatest motor race.
According to the Speedway, fans can request an advance order form (until April 12, so there’s not a lot of time left) from the IMS Credentials Office at 317-492-6500. Upon order, a credential coupon will be mailed to the purchaser, which can then be redeemed for a badge.
Those badges – which are not good for race day, just the time leading up to it – are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so get cracking if you want one.
And keep an eye out – and your teeth at the ready – for anyone who might try to take it from you.