By Annika Reitenga
It was two days before my winter break when I started my countdown for the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama. I tore out a piece of notebook paper from my journal and drew lines as straight as I could. I took out my 2012/2013 calendar and counted how many days I had left…117. I wrote the numbers into the boxes I had made and filled in the extras. As my break came and went, and 2013 started, the boxes started filling in as I counted off the days. Soon enough, there were only about 50 days left. My parents rented an RV, bought our tickets, and everything was in place. Everything was certain, all I had to do was wait.
This passed Thursday, April 4th, I could barely hold in my anticipation. 117 days waiting for this, and I was finally about to leave for Barber Motorsports Park. My mom picked me up from my dorm at 7PM, and we took the 20 minute drive to Barber, where we met up with my dad and the RV, then found our spot and settled in. After a night of getting comfortable and trying to keep warm, I was ready to watch Indycar practice on Friday.
As the sun came up the next morning I woke up immediately. The track was silent and almost no fans had arrived yet as I took the trolley down to the showers. I sighed and grunted as I tested each shower to see which had to warmest water, and finally found one as engines began to roar outside and I knew the Continental Tire practice had begun. I rushed through my shower, and threw myself together…making a special effort to smooth out my Dario Franchitti shirt before I threw it on.
Soon enough my parents and I were walking into the paddock, my favorite part of the track experience. My hair was still wet, and I thought it was a little bit too cold and windy for April. The lack of sleep from the night before began to get to me, and I began to nervously wonder if anything special would happen to me. Would I ever get to see Dario up close? What if the drivers don’t pay any attention to fans? What if the race gets rained out? My mind was filling with doubts as I walked, but as I looked around I spotted a man driving a scooter. I suddenly perked up as I focused in and saw that it was Will Power. I smiled and waved at him as he drove up to the driver’s RVs, and he noticed me and waved back. After he was gone I turned around to my dad, “Oh my gosh, Will Power just waved at me!”
No more than 10 minutes later was I again smiling because Josef Newgarden had waved back at me too. Race weekend was looking up, and I remembered why I love these races so much.
Indy Lights practice started and ended, and then it was the Indycars’ turn to practice. I sat on a grass hill with my phone recording a voice memo as the cars came around and I could finally hear the engines in person. Every time I could recognize a car my hands would automatically fly up as I yelled their name, “Scott!….Hinchcliffe!….Kanaan!…Vautier!…Dario!”
I watched as the Indycars came off the track, and eventually the Indy Lights cars came on. After a while of watching, I headed down to the pits so that I could watch as the Indycar teams pulled their cars to the track. I hung out in front of Target’s tent and observed as they carefully brought Dario and Dixon’s cars out. The cars were all nearly on the track when I could hear ruckus behind me. I turned and saw Dario in his bright orange fire suite, trying to get through the crowd of people on his scooter. He was signing a rainfall of sheets and mini helmets. I didn’t want to take up his time, but I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity, so I waited for some people to step out of the way and held out a hand for him to high five as I said good luck. He smiled and asked how I was, I said I was good, then he left for practice. As I walked out of the paddock I tried to play down the huge smile that had spread across my face, but on my way out I waved to Zach Veach, he waved back, and that only made my smile bigger.
The next day I spent my time around the fan zone, waiting for 1PM to come so that I could get a chance to see the drivers at the autograph session. By noon I was in line, and at a little after one I was about to walk up to see Dario, the first driver at the tables. I was surprised that my hands weren’t shaking as I handed him my phone case and asked him to sign it, I felt surprisingly calm. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but at the end he said “Thank you, dear,” and I moved on to Scott, who was also extremely nice, and then I got to meet the other drivers, who were all also extremely nice.
Josef Newgarden commented on my shirt, a Franchitti jersey, and said that he liked it and mentioned that Dario was also one of his favorite drivers. Later on in the pits he, or someone who looks much like him, was walking around disguised as a 1980s retro man with a black mullet, and pointed out the jersey again, asking me if I liked Dario and Dixon. After replying yes, I called after him, “and I like Josef Newgarden too!” then turned around to my dad, “I really hope that was Josef…”
On Friday my friend Molly came to meet me at the track. I had made shirts for each of us. Molly, the redhead, got a shirt that said “Dixon” across the top, and I, the brunette with curly hair, got the identical shirt with “Dario” across the top. We headed down to the paddock to watch the Indycar practice, and after it ended we saw Charlie Kimball walking to his tent. We both waited until he got through talking with a friend, and stepped up to ask him for a picture. As we both stepped up to pose he took note of our shirts, and we automatically realized that we should have found a way to include him in our outfits. He soon walked on and we both decided that we should go to the fan village and get an Insulin draw string bag, so we headed to the trolley immediately.
My mom called to remind me that at 12PM Scott Dixon would be at the Honda tent. We checked our phones and saw that we had twenty minutes until then, so we saw no need to stress over time, the trolley only had three stops until we’d be there…but thirty minutes later we were crawling out of the trolley and running to the Honda tent. After dodging many people and a couple lemonade tents, we finally arrived at the tent as Dixon was pulling out in a golf cart. We smiled and waved, he waved back at us, and then he was gone. We spent the next hours catching our breaths and getting lunch before we headed back down to the paddock.
Molly and I stood amongst the chaos as the cars were being pulled to the track and drivers were getting to where they needed to be. Oriol Servia was by far the most enthusiastic high fiver, and I got a chance to hug Vautier. Adrenaline was in the air as we got as close to the track as possible to watch as the engines started and the cars sped forward. We both smiled as we watched the cars fly by, with only the colors distinguishable.
The laps began to build as the sun became lower in the sky. I threw my cap to the ground as Dario pulled into the pit and never came out, but Molly picked it up and sat it back on my head, “you win some and loose some,” I told myself, and tried to help Molly cheer on Dixon.
We watched in nervousness as Ryan Hunter-Reay took the victory, and Dixon took second. After the victory circle celebration was ended, Molly and I decided to take one more walk through the paddock, the see the Indycar tents. As we walked through we waved at Kimball and he waved back, but was too busy with other fans for us to point out our Insulin bags to him, but as we waited for people to clear out we saw Dixon coming through and gave him high fives.
We felt accomplished after that and decided to head up to my RV to relax until it was time to go. As we looked out onto the emptying track we turned and could see Hinchcliffe having a beer at the RV directly next to us. I looked over at him quickly then looked away. I felt like there should have been a force in me that wanted to call out his name, ask him how he was, what happened to his car, and maybe ask for a picture, but I didn’t want to do that. When I’m at the track the drivers feel like ordinary people to me. They aren’t people on my TV, they are people that I’m waving at, and high fiving. Everything feels so real and great. If I treat them like a trophy or a person that is only useful for their signature, then I’m taking away a huge, special part of the experience. So I didn’t try to make contact with Hinchcliffe, instead I kicked around a soccer ball, our neighbors on the other side tossed around a ball, and Hinchcliffe and his friends talked. The scene was perfect, and the weekend had been perfect.