May is a special month in my family. My sister and I were both born in the fifth month of the year. May is the month in which our local districts finish up the school year - school districts for which my parents, my brother, and I all work for. Most importantly, May is the month in which the Indianapolis 500 and all of it's festivities take place.
My parents started making an annual pilgrimage to the super speedway in the mid-70's to take in Pole Day qualifications, on a lark. Forty years later, our much larger family is still making the three hour drive from Chicago to Speedway, IN each and every year to see who will win the pole for the most storied auto race in American sports. The family outing is one of the few constants in my life, having survived middle school confusion, high school drama, college sporting schedules and professional scheduling hurdles. Personally, I've been attending the event since 2003, which I'm just now realizing is actually 14 years ago and I'm starting to feel kind of old.
Naturally, along the way, I've developed a certain affinity for the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes.
Pole Day at the Brickyard was this past Sunday; so, despite not-so-promising weather reports, my father, sister, brother, and now my wife and I loaded up a car and headed out to the track. Thankfully we ignored the Weather Channel because, though the morning was a touch damp, by the time we got to the track, it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon.
For several years now, my favorite driver has been Graham Rahal. The Ohio native is a second-generation racer and has been competing at the speedway since the 2008 season. He's never won, but he has been a perennial threat to "kiss the bricks" since that debut. I believe the reason that I've gravitated to the younger Rahal is that my first exposure to the 500 was through an old program that my parents bought during their 1987 visit, which I discovered, forgotten, in a desk drawer when I was just a kid. I must have read through that program a hundred times before finally getting to visit the hallowed grounds myself and the publication prominently featured a spotlight on the 1986 champion of the race: Bobby Rahal.
My guy did pretty well, though he wasn't part of the "fast-nine" eligible to start first on the grid. All in all, Rahal will start 14th on the grid after posting a four-lap average speed of 230.253 mph in the Steak n' Shake machine. For reference, Scott Dixon took the pole averaging 232.164, the fastest qualifying run seen at Indy in 21 years!
No doubt it was an exciting afternoon, jam-packed with sensational speeds, junk food, family bonding and sunshine. However, this is a trading card blog and I'm sure you're wondering what any of this has to do with cards. Well, allow me to "shift gears," as they say, and discuss the souvenir findings that I made while waiting for the festivities to begin.
Unfortunately, Indy Car does not current have a licensed (or unlicensed, for that matter) producer of standalone trading cards and hasn't for many years now. Since most of the top talent in American motorsports has been filtered towards NASCAR for the past couple of decades, I guess there's just not a lot of money to be made off of the current crop of Indy stars, when it comes to cardboard rectangles. However, thankfully, the market isn't completely devoid of Indianapolis-related trading cards:
As is common in the die-cast market, the official producer of 1:64 scale Indy Car models, Greenlight, includes trading cards with most of it's little race cars. Although I don't do much die-cast collecting anymore (I have too much clutter as it is), my little brother still likes to purchase a couple each year we go, as a personal memento. This guy isn't one of those "mint in package" types either AND he really has no use for racing-related cards either; thus, over the years, we've developed a nice partnership, where with every car he buys, he graciously allows me to have the accompanying trading card. In turn, I help out with his concessions or provide future favors.
As you can see above, last year's Indy 500 champ, Alexander Rossi was among my brother's purchases in 2017:
Therefore, I'm super stoked to be adding this Rossi card to my small, but beloved collection of Indy 500 cards. I love the photograph that was selected for the background of this card, of Rossi's blue and yellow NAPA ride in front of the iconic Pagoda and in-line with the famed yard of bricks and finish line. The blue sky certainly doesn't hurt the imagery either.
Furthermore, I like the choice of blue for the borders, as well. Turns out that this Cubs fan has a thing for the color blue - who would have guessed that?
The back of the card features a snapshot of the rookie winner with the traditional victor's wreath and a brief write-up about his surprise victory. Rossi and his Andretti Herta Autosport team used fuel mileage strategy to stun the field and come away with the win in the 100th running of the prestigious event. Not a bad way to make your debut in the sport, eh?
Alexander, in case your curious, will be starting his second Indy 500 from the front row, in third position.
Moving on, Alexander Rossi's ride wasn' the only die-cast car that my brother purchased that afternoon. Unfortunately for me though, the cards that came with his other buys left a lot to be desired:
In what seems to be a pattern, Greenlight only puts their full effort into the cards for the defending Indy 500 winner and the Indy Car Series points champion from the previous season. Otherwise, if you aren't wearing one of those crowns, you get one of the generic accompaniments that you see above.
Will Power, driving for Roger Penske, fell just short of the series championship last year to his teammate Simon Pagenaud. Sadly, my brother did not opt for Simon. Perhaps this year a little concentrated Power of Will will earn the 17th Indianapolis victory for the Penske crew and find himself on a real trading card. Helio Castroneves has thrice won the Indy 500, but not in 2015, when the card you see above was manufactured. Will he become the fourth, four-time winner of the event in 2017? It would make for a great card, I'm just saying...
At least the back's got some attention, with a fairly detailed career wrap-up on include on the reverse side. I wish I could say that I was from Toowoomba, Australia... that just seems super fun to say! However, as we turn back the pages of time even further, the cards included with official IndyCar Series die-casts get more and more blah:
In addition to current rides, my brother also picked up some older die-casts off of a clearance rack outside of the track. As you can see, going back a few years to 2014, the blander trading cards were smaller than standard and peculiarly shaped. Furthermore, instead of a write up on the back, we got a season schedule for the IndyCar Series:
These aren't exactly the most exciting things that I've ever seen. That said, options are limited for Indy 500 card collectors and they still make for nice bits of memorabilia to be autographed.
Speaking of autographs, I always come prepared with a stack of cards, as race car drivers may very well be the most generous signers out of all professional athletes. There are numerous opportunities to catch drivers along the fence of the garage area, crossing over from Gasoline Alley to the pit lane, free sessions organized throughout the racetrack, and even just walking around among the crowd. On that latter note, just a few years ago, my brother and sister happened to bump into '90 & '97 Indy 500 winner, Arie Luyendyk, behind the front stretch grandstands.
Speaking of which, my brother truly has the golden touch when it comes to autographs and he manages to land a few big names every year. However, I thought I was going to have him beat this year, as I was ever-so-close to nabbing Castroneves' signature behind pit road; but, he quit signing for the crowd right before he got to me and my trading card. Minutes later, I legitimately walked right into eight-time starter, Oriol Servia, walking around on his own, only to discover that I had lost my pen. It was a touch frustrating, but sometimes that's the way the cookie crumbles.
Meanwhile, as I was getting thwarted all over the track, Mike was having himself a banner day:
They may be hard to make out in the photograph above, but he was lucky enough to get both Marco and Mario Andretti to sign their names on his souvenir program. Mario freakin' Andretti... outside of A.J. or maybe Al Unser, I don't think there's a bigger fish to land! That lucky duck always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
I should have hung out with Michael, as I even brought a card of the most famous name in American motorsports along with me, just in case:
Wouldn't that 2013 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions single look just wonderful with an autograph on it? Next year, I'm going to give Mike my cards and just have him go to town. I don't know what he does or where he goes, but it's working out for him!
While I wasn't lucky enough to score any autographs while I was wandering about the Speedway grounds, I didn't walk away empty-handed. In my wandering travels, I happened upon a folding table that was manned by some organization called "Ark Encounter." I'd never heard of this biblical org, but they did have a few stacks of these oddball trading card/post card/hero card hybrids that I was all to happy to grab for the low, low price of free:
Apparently, they have some kind of sponsorship/partnership deal with hometown Indy veteran, Conor Daly. Conor, like Graham Rahal, is also a second-gen racer, the son of Derek Daly, who competed at the Brickyard and in the Formula One ranks, contributing to his son's popularity. All in all, not a bad name to attach yourself to for a little bit of local exposure.
These cards are about the size of a postcard, printed on thin cardstock, similar to that of the ubiquitous hero cards associated with the sport. We get a checkered flag border around a white background, overlayed with a photograph of Daly's A.J. Foyt Enterprises road course car. Also included is a photo of the young racer in his white fire-suit, which blends right into the color-less background. Options are limited when it comes to Indy cards and free is always a worthwhile price, so I was thrilled to come across this oddball.
Flipping over to the backside, we get a brief bio for Conor. Can I just mention that it seems a bit presumptious to list him as having already started the 2017 Indianapolis 500? Granted, there are only 33 cars entered this year, meaning every team that shows up will make the grid; that said, injuries happen (just ask Sebastien Bourdais) and problems occur. It seems like bad Juju McGumbo to me.
Additionally, we learn just what the "Ark Encounter" is all about. Without getting to deep into the topic, all I can say is that I'm certain that I won't be visiting this place anytime soon... or ever.
That about did it for my trading card related finds; but, I did make one more souvenir purchase before I went back to find my seat for the qualifying sessions:
For the first time in all of my years of visiting the speedway, I noticed that the gift shop immediately next to the track museum (highly recommend, btw), which shares space with a concession stand, is an entire storefront full of "get rid of this stuff NOW" clearance-priced items from years past. As a penny-pinching race fan and collector, this was a dream find. My wife picked up a couple onesies for our friends with toddlers that are obsessed with anything that has wheels and I grabbed the above magnet of my guy Graham Rahal. Our total for the three items was just under seven bucks... that won't even buy you a burger and a Coke at the neighboring concessions.
This trading card-sized magnet hails from the year 2014, when Graham and his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad drove with the National Guard livery. It wasn't the best of years, as Graham finished dead last (33rd) in the 98th running. Still, this might be as close as I ever get to a Graham Rahal "card" and it was basically free with the extreme discounting. Plus, it looks good on my fridge:
Nestled right next to my wife's 3D cat magnet and our wonderful engagement announcement. I don't know why, but it seems like the perfect spot for my favorite race car driver.
After all of that souvenir and autograph hunting, it was about time for the qualification sessions to start, so we journeyed to our usual post in the upper grandstand of turn one to take in the festival of speed. All in all, I can say that I was extremely enthused with my card-related findings during the downtime. I fully expected to come home skunked, as I so often do when it comes to Indy cards, but I ended up with plenty to show off on the ol' blog. That combined with seeing Scott Dixon win the pole with the fastest individual lap and complete qualifying run in 21 years, Graham running respectably, and getting to spend some quality time with my family in our most hallowed tradition certainly made for a wonderful afternoon.
Now, I'm counting down the days 'til Sunday, when the green flag will drop on the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500. My fingers are crossed that this will be the year that Graham Rahal get his face engraved on the Borg Warner Trophy.
I love the month of May!