Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Call of the Falls

I love waterfalls! West Virginia is blessed with many of them, in a variety of types. There is just something about the sound and scenery of falling water that can hypnotize the soul.

We recently revisited Valley Falls State Park, a hidden gem that is only seven miles from Interstate 79, between Fairmont and Grafton on State Route 310. This small state park is located where the Tygart Valley River goes over a couple of ten-foot drops. This park is categorized as a day-use park—it has no lodge or campground, and closes for the winter months. But it does have nearly 1200 forested acres, 18 miles of hiking/mountain biking trails, a playground and other facilities, as well as the natural beauty of the falls. Anglers are welcome to fish, too.

I think it is fun to scamper about the giant rocks, picking your way to different vantage points along the river. It is also interesting to see the remnants of the grist mill that once operated there. Indeed, in the late 1800s there was a bustling community at Valley Falls, but fire and floods through the narrow gorge have virtually erased its existence.

Although the falls and the rapids are beautiful and melodious, the river can also be dangerous. Swimming is not allowed here, because a number of drownings have occurred. Whitewater kayaking is permissible, but only by signing a waiver in advance. Also, be mindful of the trains that occasionally travel through the park, as their tracks follow that side of the river.

If you drive to Valley Falls from I-79, head south on 310 which takes you through the small community of Quiet Dell. Watch for the park signs telling you to turn right onto a small road that also happens to lead around Rock Lake (not to be confused with Rock Lake Park that thrived in South Charleston as a swimming pool and amusement park). Rock Lake is private lakeside community in Marion County, similar to Lake Floyd in Harrison County or Lake Washington in Wood County. All of these are examples of man-made lakes around which houses were built, forming private communities in the early 20th century that still thrive today. Beyond Rock Lake, the road climbs the ridge, enters the park at the peak, and then descends down the hill to the river. The falls are a short walk from the parking area—just listen for the sound of the rushing water of the Tygart Valley River.

The name of the river is another interesting point. It was named for an early settler in the Beverly area by the name of David Tygart. This river begins near the border between Randolph County and Pocahontas County, and then flows north to Fairmont, running through such towns as Huttonsville, Elkins, Belington, Philippi, and Grafton. Most folks simply refer to it as the Tygart River, however it is officially recognized by the United States Board on Geographic Names as the “Tygart Valley River.”

Regardless of what you call the river, it is worth venturing a few miles off the interstate to experience Valley Falls State Park.

In this view, you can see both "steps" of these falls, with the first one (pictured above) further in the background. By the way, this story appeared in the July issue of "Two-Lane Livin'" magazine.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Fayette County Flying

I enjoy the incredibly unique sensation of flying through the air on a zipline. This past weekend I got the chance to try a new zipline adventure. I’ve zipped before at Hocking Hills, the Treetops Canopy Tour at the New River Gorge, the WVU zipline near Coopers Rocks, the Wild Safari zipline above The Wilds in eastern Ohio, and the long double zipline at Burning Rock. This past Saturday I tried out the Gravity zipline tour in Fayette County, West Virginia. It is truly a high flying adventure!

This is owned by the same company (Adventures on the Gorge) that runs the TreeTops Canopy Tour near the New River Gorge Bridge. I’ve done the TreeTops tour twice, which zig-zags through an old hemlock forest along Mill Creek. This canopy tour is very well designed, with an emphasis on the natural surroundings through which you are flying. It is also very educational and I highly recommend it.

The Gravity zipline tour (which requires a short bus trip from their headquarters near the gorge area to a reclaimed strip mine area on the north side of Route 60) puts a much greater emphasis on speed. Instead of shorter runs through the canopy, most of the Gravity lines are long and above the treetops (as much as 200 feet high), giving you a spectacular “big picture” view of the surroundings. Indeed, the guide pointed out that from the mountaintop where the course was built, you can even see Nicholas County to the north and Raleigh County towards the south.

Gravity starts with a couple of tame runs near the top to let you get acclimated. Then you start on three longer, higher, faster zips that criss-cross the bowl of this hillside. Unlike most other ziplines I have done, there is not much need for braking—they take care of that for you. In fact, the bigger problem for a few of the “lightweights” in our group was having enough speed and momentum to make it to the end of the line (with my weight, I had plenty of momentum).

[Notice the long-distance views and the beautiful scenery.]

After the first five zips, you board a bus again to take you back up to the top of the hill for the “grand finale.” The sixth and final zip is over 3000 feet long, and has its own nickname—the Adrena-Line. They claim that you reach speeds of 50-60 MPH! The single zipline at Burning Rock was a half-mile long and at one time was the longest in the state, but Adrena-Line beats it with hundreds of feet to spare. Like Burning Rock, Adrena-Line is actually two identical ziplines spaced about ten feet apart. This allows you to “drag race” a friend—an experience I had not done. I had zipped by myself at Burning Rock, but this time I had a friend along with me.

We knew that since I weighed more, I would beat her to the finish line (it seems the more weight, the more momentum on these zips, as long as you keep yourself as aerodynamic as possible). However, it wasn’t about who would win, it was more about the unusual experience of doing a zip with someone else at the same time. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was looking across the valley at where the two long cables converged in the distance, and realized this was going to be a long, fast, and memorable ride.

[The arrow in the middle is the landing zone, where the two parallel cables end. The arrows on the left and right side are showing the cables near their starting point. I took this picture standing at the start looking across to the end of the "Adrena-Line" before we flew across.]

I got beat off the start, and so she took the early lead. That actually worked out well, because I really enjoyed the amazing view of watching her fly through the sky—with the green forest below us as a background—from a vantage point only a bird could appreciate. Slowly, I gained ground on her, until about halfway down the course. I was able to yell “Bye Bye!” to her as I took the lead. This allowed her to also enjoy the unusual perspective of seeing someone else flying through the air during the second half of our flight.

I’ll never forget that amazing sight of flying through the air with her! But even though that was the last zipline, the enjoyment wasn’t over yet—we still had fun joking around with the tour guides and bus driver as we returned all our gear and hopped on the bus for the ride back to their headquarters. Just like most of the rafting guides I’ve had over the years, our two guides plus the bus driver were very personable and full of jokes and funny comments (in addition to their primary job of being concerned with our safety).

I’d like to add one final comment about this adventure. This was a spur of the moment decision—unlike my usual recreational activities, I had not made any reservations in advance. We realized we had the time, so we just “dropped by” Adventures on the Gorge headquarters to see what we might do with no advance warning. The good people who work there mentioned a few options, and soon we were last minute additions to the 1:30 Gravity ziplining group. So if you find yourself in the New River Gorge area with time on your hands, feel free to stop by any of the outfitters to see what they might be able to do for you. Reservations are not required.

[This picture was taken from the "base camp" at Gravity, and the arrow shows a person from another group ziplining on one of the long runs prior to the Adrena-Line. The starting and finishing points of this zipline are both way out of the frame of the picture. Hopefully this gives a "sense of scale" about just how long and high these ziplines really are. If you want more info, check out]

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lions & Tigers & Bears, Oh My!

We recently took a drive to see exotic wild animals in (of all places) Preston County, WV. Just about 16 miles up Rt. 7 (mostly along beautiful Deckers Creek) from the I-68 exit in Morgantown is Hovatter’s Wildlife Zoo, a 13 acre USDA Licensed Facility between Reedsville and Kingwood. This eclectic collection of animals grew out of the strong affinity the Hovatter family has for animals of all kinds, and has expanded over the years since it first opened in 1991.

We followed the signs to the large parking area, and then walked down to the main building/gift shop. The admission was $10 for adults, plus another $7.50 if you want the optional bag of assorted treats to feed the animals (the salesperson gives you a few tips, such as only feed carrots to the giraffes, and the bears really like the granola bars).

Once you leave the main building, you wander from enclosure to enclosure, checking out the animals that live there while doling out the various food items. As they said in the Wizard of Oz, there were “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” as well as giraffes, camels, tortoises, boars, zebras, monkeys, and others. Many of the cages featured downward slanting PVC pipes, which made it easy to deliver food inside the enclosure.

Perhaps the most fun was feeding carrots to the giraffes. All you had to do was hold up a carrot, and they would stretch their long necks over the fence to take it out of your hand. Also, some of the primates could reach out with their arms and tiny hands to take food directly from your hand. Plus, I fed a camel through the fence.

The animals seemed to be well cared for, even if they were in a pen, far from their original homes. Some people are opposed to zoos because they don’t like animals in captivity. It is a bit sad to see them spending their lives locked in an enclosure, regardless of how much room there might be.

However, there were a lot of children there (as well as adults) who were thoroughly enjoying their close-up experience with these famous animals. Zoos have always been very educational, and they help people to better understand and appreciate the animal world around us. I can still remember my first trip to visit a zoo (it was a bit similar to Hovatter’s but was located in Hurricane, WV, and we had heard about it on the old Mr. Cartoon show), just like I’m sure many of the children at Hovatter’s will remember their visit.

Hovatter’s is nice because one can get a taste of what a zoo is like, without needing to travel into a major urban center like Washington, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. It’s not a huge facility, but we enjoyed our visit there. Plus, I’d much rather drive alongside the dancing waters of Deckers Creek than face the heavy traffic found in big cities. [If you have time, stop at the little roadside park along Route 7 near the border between Monongalia and Preston Counties—there is a path from the park down to Deckers Creek where you can access several nice waterfalls.]

This zoo is a labor of love for the Hovatter family—it isn’t a lucrative profession. The patrons we saw that day seemed to really enjoy their opportunity to go on safari without leaving West Virginia. If you like zoo animals and think you’d like to visit Hovatter’s, check out their website at

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Racing School Repeat

Last year I participated in the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience (RWRE) at a half-mile paved oval called Motordrome 70 speedway in Pennsylvania (just off I-70 not all that far above Morgantown, WV). I had a great time and wrote about it in my blog at

At the start of this year, I was alerted to another discount deal for the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, this time at Columbus Motor Speedway (CMS) in Ohio. I had so much fun last year that I decided to do it again on a different track. Columbus is only about two hours away—there are no other tracks as close to my home which host such racing schools.

CMS is roughly a third of a mile long, with only about 10 degrees of banking, and it has virtually no straightaways. It is more like a circle stretched on the sides than a traditional racing oval with a front and back straights. Despite its small size and odd configuration, there is a lot of history there—it has operated continuously since 1945. I’ve watched a couple of races there over the years, and (as I reported in my previous blog posting) I got to drive a small four-cylinder “Legends” race car on it once.

My appointment was set for 8:00 AM Saturday morning—the first session of the weekend. In hindsight, I probably won’t pick the first session if I do it again, because I think there is some advantage to watching others on the track before you get out there. I arrived early, parked in the designated area, and walked over to the registration trailer to sign-in.

I decided to purchase the optional $60 insurance policy, just in case something might happen (indeed, a guy had crashed not on the race track, but at the conclusion of his session when simply coming through the pit gate during their previous visit to CMS—plus I knew about a couple of accidents that had occurred at Motordrome last year). However, I passed on their offer for purchasing a “ride-along” (where you ride in a special two-seater race car beside one of their drivers before you drive yourself on the track), or buying extra laps, or choosing the in-car video option.

At 8:00, we met under a tent canopy for the drivers’ meeting. The instructor carefully went over all the details for our track session. The track had already been marked off with tape markers at various points to indicate the proper groove to take, and cones were set at the entrance to turns one and three to indicate where you should get off the gas pedal.

RWRE is nice because they put multiple students on the track at the same time (a maximum of four at CMS), and allow you to pass each other if necessary. All the students can hear the instructor over the radio, and if you are faster than another student, the slower student is told “left and lift”—meaning they should go to the left of the groove coming out of turns 2 or 4 and lift off the gas pedal, to allow the faster car to make an outside pass on the straight stretch.

Once everyone felt comfortable with all the instructions, we went to pick up our drivers suits and helmets. Then we went to where the cars were lined up, and the pit steward assigned us to a particular car. I believe they base their decision on which car they think will best fit your dimensions—it’s not like the race car seats are adjustable as they are in a passenger car.

At your assigned car is an assistant to help you get geared up and ready to go. This person is a bit like a squire to a medieval knight, assisting you with mounting your steed. First, the official RWRE photographer comes by to get a few shots of you beside your car and climbing into it. However, I’ve taken my phone with me both times I’ve done RWRE, and each time my “squire” was willing to take a few shots for me.

Climbing through the car window and into the seat is no easy chore. Before you get in, make sure the front wheels are pointed straight ahead—you don’t want to attach the steering wheel later in what you thought was a vertical position and then discover the wheels were not properly aligned. Also make sure the crotch belt (to prevent you from “submarining” below the lap belts in a sudden stop) is not lying in the seat before you sit down. Then ease your way into the custom built seat and get comfortable. Check the pedals, instrument panel, and gear shifters (this is not a standard H-pattern single gear shift, but two shift levers—only one of which needs to be used). This will be your office for at least ten laps so get acclimated to it.

The squire will explain everything to you and make sure you are comfortable. Then you get your helmet on, the HANS device (a yoke to prevent extreme neck movements) is attached, the five point safety harness is buckled and straps are cinched, the radio speakers are slid next to your ears inside your helmet, the steering wheel is locked onto the splined shaft, and the window net is raised. Note that the steering wheel is much closer to your body than it is in a regular car—there is no power steering in these race cars, and so having it closer gives you more arm strength with which to steer it.

The instructor’s voice will come over the radio, and you reach out the window to give a “thumbs up” that you heard him. Then you turn the fuel pump on, flip the ignition toggle switch up, and push the starter button. The unmufflered race engine roars to life, and then rumbles along at idle until you are directed to pull out of the pits and onto the race track. Give it enough gas so that you aren’t embarrassed by stalling it, especially since you are starting off in second gear. Once you are on the track, even though you are still under caution, you can go ahead and shift into high gear. No more shifting is needed—just wait for the instructor to get everyone on the track and properly spaced out before the green flag flies (you don’t line up close together like a normal start to a race, but instead they put everyone at an equal distance from each other before starting).

Upon getting the command to start, you must focus intently since you alone control several hundred horsepower. Follow the tape guidelines as you drive around the track. Dive into turns 1 and 3, aiming for the apex. Then roll into the throttle coming out of turns 2 and 4, while drifting towards the outside wall. Stay in the gas until you enter the next turn. One of the biggest keys to success is to be smooth—don’t stomp the gas pedal, but gradually weigh into it coming out of turns 2 and 4, before hopping off as you enter turns 1 and 3.

While I was heading into turn 3 in one of my early laps, cranking on the steering wheel (with my left elbow down towards my left hip and my right forearm coming across the top) as I aimed for the apex, I got a bit of a surprise. As many race engines are prone to do, my car had warmed up enough (plus I was in the gas hard enough) to result in a loud backfire when I lifted off the throttle and rolled into each corner. It continued to happen several times until my time was up. I like to imagine seeing it from the grandstand with a big ball of flame rolling out of the exhaust—wish I could have had a picture of that!

It turned out there were only three of us on the track for the first session. We had started as a group of four, but one guy had purchased the extra “ride along” option, so he was given that opportunity just before the three of us went onto the track. Both of my fellow drivers were considerably younger than I was—one was probably in his 20s and the other in his 30s. I’m guessing from their attitudes that they thought they would be fast and that I was an old guy who’d probably be in their way.

I quickly had caught the first car in front of me, who was given the “left and lift” command to allow me by. As soon as I got past him, I set my sights on the next car and quickly reeled him in as well. Having passed both of the other cars, I just worked on pushing harder. Before my ten laps were up, I had lapped the first car I had passed. I felt good about winning the race on behalf of old guys everywhere.

Of course, RWRE doesn’t put an emphasis on winning or losing. They don’t even bring a radar gun or timer to provide evidence of how fast you are going. It isn’t about finding the next big racing star—it is just about giving the average fan a taste of what it feels like to drive a real race car. It feels really good to me! In fact, I wished it hadn’t ended so fast—maybe I should have purchased those extra laps.

After bringing it to a stop in the pit area, your squire helps you get disconnected and climb back out of the car. Then you head over to return the helmet and driving suit. By that time, they have souvenir pictures of you made at the trailer that you can purchase; along with other mementos from the day you drove a race car.

As I left the track (in my Prius), I was still on “Cloud Nine.” It was a real adrenaline rush for me. My arms knew they had received a good workout that day, wrestling that race car through the turns. I wasn’t out there long enough to develop any blisters, but the next time I sign up for something like this, I think I will bring along my own pair of gloves, just to enhance the visual effect. After all, real racers don’t drive bare handed!

I had a blast and look forward to doing it again someday. I hope that I can maintain my health and continue to do adventures like this for many years to come. It is a way to keep my youth by revisiting my childhood dreams. If you have an interest in auto racing, I’d strongly encourage you to give this a try.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

My First Indy 500

[I wrote the essay below as my entry into a contest that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is running. If you read this before August 30, 2014, I would encourage you to go directly to the speedway’s website where you can read and cast your vote (with the small red button at the top) to help me win this contest. There are a few different pictures on this page that aren't on the contest entry, so feel free to check out both pages. Thanks in advance for your support!]

My earliest Indy 500 memories date back to 1963, when a driver with an odd first name—Parnelli Jones—caught my attention, even though I wasn’t even in school yet. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, our family tradition on Memorial Day in West Virginia was to wash our vehicles, and then wax them in the shade of the big tree in the side yard, all while listening to the race on a local AM radio station. In more recent years, watching the Indy 500 on television was my “must see TV.” The radio and TV coverage was always supplemented by Chris Economaki and his reporters in our weekly copy of National Speed Sport News.

Parnelli's winning car from 1963.

I can even remember sneaking a small transistor radio with an earphone into my grade school so I could listen to the 1967 Indy 500 that had been delayed by rain. I was fascinated by the STP Turbine, which was being driven by Parnelli Jones. Even though I was in the classroom, I had to hear if he would win the race in that exotic car of the future. I was dismayed when the car broke just a few laps from the finish.

Parnelli's STP Turbine that nearly won in 1967. It is displayed in the museum in a garage from that era.

However, despite this long history of interest in the Indy 500, for various reasons I had never attended one. Yes, I had made a point to stay at the old Speedway Motel and visit the museum in 1985 when I was passing through Indianapolis, but it was in March—not May. I had been fortunate to see a couple of other IndyCar races at different tracks over the years, but never “the big one.”

This year, I decided the time was right to cross the Indy 500 off my “bucket list.” I started researching on-line about attending. Originally I thought I might only be able to get over to Indianapolis for Saturday and Sunday, so I decided to get a tent camping permit and just sleep in my car (I assumed hotels would be costly and/or booked, plus that guaranteed me a parking spot close to the speedway). I called the IMS ticket office and spoke with a helpful woman named Carol, who was able to get me a fantastic seat in Box B, under the roof, where the track begins to curve into Turn One (along with the two-day camping permit and a ticket to Legends Day). I was very excited about making this purchase but kept my fingers crossed that there would not be a rainout.

As the Memorial Day weekend drew closer, it became apparent that my work situation would allow me to take some additional time off. I was even lucky enough to get a decent motel room at the last minute for Thursday and Friday nights. So I left work at lunch on Thursday, bound for a big Indianapolis weekend. I drove into the Indiana State Fairgrounds in time to watch the Hoosier Hundred on the one-mile dirt track. It turned out to be a fun race at a classic track, and a great way to kick off my Indy weekend.

This car was driven in the Hoosier Hundred by Jarrett Andretti (the next big Andretti driver?). His dad, former driver John Andretti, is in the black shirt leaning against the door to the trailer.

On Friday, I joined the masses trying to get into the free parking on Carb Day in the infield (my first taste of just how “big” the crowds are). Unfortunately, I didn’t make it through the tunnel and get parked in time to see the vintage cars take their laps, but I could hear them—plus I knew I’d get a second chance on Legends Day. I had a blast on Carb Day, strolling through the vintage pits behind the museum, gazing from the stands to watch the last IndyCar practice, walking through the FanZone area, eating a smoked turkey leg, sitting on a grassy knoll on the backstretch for the amazingly close Indy Lights race, observing part of the pit crew competition, roaming through the garage area (it was open to the public that afternoon), and watching the truck races up in the fourth turn. I had a terrific time all day long at IMS, but then I topped it off by driving over to the Indianapolis Speedrome to watch a regional midget race plus my first Figure-8 races (those guys are crazy!).

Figure-8 racing at the Speedrome.

On Saturday morning, I arrived early to my designated camping area and was escorted to my assigned spot. After parking, I headed over to the speedway, showed my ticket at the gate, and then walked through a tunnel underneath the frontstretch. I spent the day roaming the grounds again, attended the “drivers meeting,” and got some great pictures of the vintage cars on the racetrack. It was amazing to actually witness so many cars that I had enjoyed seeing pictures of over the years actually running on the track—especially to see (and hear) those STP turbines!

One of the 1968 STP Turbines whooshing by on the track.

That afternoon I revisited the museum for the first time since 1985, and especially loved the special exhibition on turbine cars. I also discovered the photography shop hidden away on the second floor. Before leaving the track, I also enjoyed the interview session with Mario Andretti in the plaza. Because I formerly worked for NASA, I liked the part where astronaut Kevin Ford gave Mario the toy version of his 1969 winning car that he had taken with him in space.

Mario's only Indy 500 victory was in this car back in 1969.

I left the track so that I could visit my fourth different racetrack within 48 hours (!), by driving to Lucas Oil Raceway for the “Night before the 500” races. ESPN used to broadcast races from this track, which helped launch the careers of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and others. Plus, it was good to see the adjoining dragstrip where the big NHRA races are held each Labor Day.

I got back to my campsite late that evening, set up my car for sleeping, and had a restful night—until the sound of helicopters (probably providing early traffic reports) woke me up at dawn. I got my car reconfigured and then got organized with everything (ticket, official souvenir program, binoculars, that handy “spotters guide” which provides a quick reference to the paint scheme for each car, seat cushion, etc.) I was taking into the racetrack for the big day.

I took a circuitous route from my campsite, so that I could get a taste of the pre-race atmosphere as the hordes descended on the racetrack. One group of jokers had set up a water hose with a shower head on an elevated pole, offering “FREE SHOWERS”—except the fine print indicated it was only offered to women. Eventually, I entered through the gate and discovered that I didn’t need to take the tunnel under the track—they had a gate open which allowed folks to cross the racetrack itself. I felt like I was on hallowed ground as I lingered, soaking up as much of that unique visual perspective as I could. In a few hours, the race cars would be zooming across this same pavement!

Standing on the track on the morning of the race looking up towards the start/finish line.

I wandered around the garage and Gasoline Alley areas, watching as crews were making their last minute preparations. I walked back through the plaza area and then towards the fan zone, but noticed an area that I had not visited the previous two days. There was a lane behind the plaza where all the team haulers were parked, and on this day it wasn’t fenced off, so I strolled through, enjoying the paint jobs on these big trailers.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a speeding golf cart make a turn to cut right in front of me. To my surprise, just a few feet away from me was none other than the legendary A.J. Foyt himself, who was making a run back to the team hauler for something. I didn’t say anything to him (since he seemed to be in a hurry), but it was a neat moment for me to literally “cross paths” with him on race day. He might not be driving a race car anymore, but he sure knows how to whip around in a golf cart!

Eventually I headed back to my seat to get ready for the big day. There is so much that goes on at Indy that one never sees on TV. The amount of logistical planning and organizational skills it takes to put on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is phenomenal. Here are just a few of my personal highlights from the pre-race ceremonies:

· Purdue University marching band’s “World’s Largest Drum.”
· Colts QB Andrew Luck’s arrival by helicopter to deliver the green flag. [His dad played at WVU when I was a student there, and now serves as the WVU Athletic Director, so most West Virginians are also big Andrew Luck fans.]
· The parade of former race winners, as well as a few selected vintage cars from the museum.
· All three of the 1968 wedge STP turbines, lined up for a three-abreast parade lap.
· Jim Nabors was in the back of one of the pace cars, and our area of the grandstands was where it pulled out onto the track. Before the track announcer had introduced him, folks sitting in our section recognized him and started cheering. He was overwhelmed with this spontaneous outpouring of affection.
· Listening to Florence “Mrs. Brady” Henderson sing “God Bless America.”
· Seeing the school kids unfurl the huge Star Spangled Banner inside Turn One.
· Fortunately, the roof that kept the sun off me did not prevent me from witnessing the flyover by the military jets, which is always exciting to me.
· Hearing “Back Home Again in Indiana” sung by “Gomer Pyle” for the final time made me misty eyed. Aside from the state song of my native West Virginia, “Back Home Again in Indiana” is the only other state song that I know—which is the result of hearing it once each year for the past 50 years or so.
· Seeing the thousands of multi-colored balloons take off from the far side of the track. Most events quit releasing balloons because of environmental concerns (which I understand), but I enjoyed seeing it one more time.
· Watching the traditional “Start Your Engines” command on the videoboard. It was cool that Jim Nabors got to do it with Mrs. George this time.

The view from my seat of Turn 1 and the unfurling of the giant flag.

Soon, it was time for the race to start—and what a race it was! It was 3/4 complete before a caution flag came out. I enjoyed my seat in the shade—I could see nearly all the way up the frontstretch, all of turn one as well as the short chute, and the lower end of pit road. Much of the passing occurred near my area, and I had a close look at the unfortunate incident that took out pole sitter (and apparent hometown favorite) Ed Carpenter.

My view of the action in the pits.

I had a wonderful time at my first Indy 500! I discovered what the phrase “Hoosier hospitality” means. I also got lucky with fantastic weather the whole weekend. It was nice to finally accomplish this “bucket list” event.

Some folks say “Why bother going to the race when you can see it better on TV?” Well, the tradition and pageantry of this race makes it very special, beyond any other racing event. Plus, there are lots of battles that take place further back in the pack that you never get to see on TV, because of their incessant focus on the leaders. I also enjoy the “art” of auto racing, and I pick out cars I like based on their paint jobs—watching on TV doesn’t give you the ability to really see the variety of colors and designs, and then focus on your favorite ones. While it is true that you can’t see the whole track, the videoboards help to show you what you miss. Finally, to enhance my experience I brought a radio so that I could listen to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”—just like I did as a kid.

I should never have waited five decades to see it in person!

The tail of a beautiful front-engine roadster in the vintage pits..