Allow me to tell a personal story that’s only hazily related to racing. In 2003, when I went freelance and moved to Indianapolis to write about IndyCar racing, I found myself bored during the off-season and desperately missing the college basketball I’d covered before the move. I walked into Hinkle Fieldhouse one winter night, bought an absurdly inexpensive front-row seat, and fell in love with a basketball team.
Never dreamed that little more than seven years later, Butler University would be returning to the NCAA championship game for the second time in as many years. Never dreamed that there was a connection between Butler basketball and IndyCar racing, or that so much of what I enjoy about the two sports is somehow intertwined. Never dreamed that decency and respectability could prevail in a sport in which so much has been lost to avarice and dishonesty.
I knew about Butler long before I bought that ticket, of course, but that was the night it got under my skin. I stopped being a sportswriter for a moment and let myself become a fan again. It probably happened about the time that I realized the sinks in the bathroom of the old brick fieldhouse were there before I was born, or that Jesse Owens ran track there, or that the triumphant championship game scene from “Hoosiers” was filmed there. But that’s when it took hold of me, and that’s when I discovered the connection between Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Not long after that night, two friends – Brian Gordon and Tom Blattler – and I decided to go in together on a ticket package for Indiana Pacers games. Gordon, then with IMS Productions, and Blattler, then with Rahal Letterman Racing, and I had racing in common, so the outings were always entertaining, if outrageously expensive. For the price of a small used car, we had the same seats for a dozen games, complete with wait staff to make sure we always had a cold $10 beer.
Then came The Malice in The Palace, the beating of fans in Detroit by the Pacers’ Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, and several comically criminal episodes by Jamaal Tinsley, and the enthusiasm for the Pacers faded. We were done watching surly millionaires walk up and down the court as if we were the problem, done with expensive parking and concessions, done with pro ball forever. A few days ago while cleaning out a closet, I found a long lost T-shirt featuring the face of a Pacers player. No name, just a face. Can’t for the life of me put a name to that face.
While we were souring on the Pacers, we occasionally dropped in on a Butler game, so the next step seemed logical. We bagged the NBA tickets and Tom, Arni Sribhen and I purchased a block of four seats for an entire Butler season for about half of what one seat in the Pacers’ mini package cost, and went about seeking our basketball fix in a different way. The seats were sensational – front row of the west overhang, directly above the home bench, right behind the Ray’s Trash sign. If the band wasn’t full tilt into the fight song, we could hear what was being said during timeouts. When things got really good, the sign produced a nice bass thump when struck with a fist.
Once we started attending every home game, we recognized the relationship between IndyCar racing and Butler basketball. Ed Carpenter, a Butler grad, and his wife, Heather, were regulars. Arni, who knows every word to the Butler fight song, is coordinator of media relations for IndyCar’s PR staff, and we’d often ask others from the racing community to fill in when one or more from our group couldn’t make it.
And there were always racing folks in the crowd. Doug Boles, the IMS PR director, was often in the crowd. Tony George was a courtside fixture. Sarah Fisher, another Butler alum, once raced a tricycle against Carpenter at halftime of a game. Countless other Butler alums work at the Speedway or the IZOD IndyCar Series. Never a game went by without a racer or two, or a team owner, or series official in the crowd.
One Saturday afternoon, Mike Kitchel, the PR rep at Panther Racing, joined us for a game. He brought his dad, Gary, who played point guard for Richmond High in the Indiana state basketball tournament at Hinkle in 1969. He was thrilled to be there. It was like Gene Hackman was pacing the sidelines and Dennis Hopper was all cleaned up for the big game. Hinkle <i> spoke <i/> history that day directly to our row of seats. I fully expected Butler to run the picket fence. Gary relived an experience he’ll never forget, and it was our pleasure to see his reaction.
In some ways, I chose racing over other sports because of the people. I discovered early on that most racers were clever, had interesting backstories and were, above all, decent people. That stands to this day. I also found those same characteristics in Butler’s basketball team. It is a program with good intent. Its people are what make the program work, and that’s what attracted us – a few guys who had absolutely no previous connection to the university – to become diehard fans.
And then there was the dog, of course. Blue II, the school’s bulldog mascot, has gotten more national pub in the past week than IndyCar has had in the past year, appearing on ESPN, The Bob ad Tom Show, and several magazine covers. His handler, Michael Kaltenmark, is a former PR rep at Vision Racing and one of the nicest human beings on the planet. As for Blue, well, he seems to be enjoying every second of attention. I’m sure he’ll make a return appearance at the Speedway in May, as will coach Brad Stevens, who waved the green flag during a practice day for the 500 last year.
When I left Indy two years ago for Florida, the Butler season ticket was one of the most difficult things to leave behind. I went back twice last year, once for a game against Ohio State and then again for the Final Four. Before that championship game, we happened upon former Butler player A.J. Graves on the street, making his way to the game. He greeted us as if he knew us. Tom tells me he sees him in the bank occasionally, along with other past and present Butler players, and they’re always pleasant and patient with fans who want to chat.
But the best illustration of the Butler Way occurred at a game a few years ago. During a timeout, the public-address announcer told the crowd that a child was lost somewhere in the building. Instead of resuming play, Stevens consulted with the officials, who suspended the game while fans began searching. The child had somehow dropped through a small hole in the floor behind us and landed on the roof of a concession stand below. Unhurt and reunited with frantic parents, the kid got a standing ovation and the game resumed.
Think about that when you’re watching tonight’s championship game. You’ll fall in love, too.
Jeff Olson is a Versus contributor and has covered motorsports for 20 years. You'll find his weekly blog posted exclusively to INDYCAR Nation each Monday morning, then later on Versus.com