Kyle Lewis is an INDYCAR superfan if ever there was one. His bedroom is filled from top to bottom with autographed hero cards, racing gloves and visors. Simona de Silvestro, JR Hildebrand, and Tomas Scheckter know him by name. He has a spotter's guide from every race he's attended autographed by every driver on the grid. "Except for St. Pete [this year]," he qualifies. "I didn't get Scott Dixon. The Ganassi guys were pretty much on the run that whole weekend."
Before he gets home from one race weekend, Kyle is already thinking about how to get to the next. "If I earn a dollar," Kyle says, "I put it in a jar and it'll be saved to go to a race." In fact, Kyle just signed up for his college courses for this fall, and he's opted to study sports marketing so that he can work for a team someday and make it to every race on the schedule.
Kyle has been to Pole Day many times, but he had never been to Race Day at the Indy 500 before, and he was determined that this would be the year. It was going to be tricky since his high school graduation ceremony was the day before, but if he departed for Indianapolis immediately afterward, he figured he could pull it off.
And so, when he was woken up by a text from his father on the Friday morning before the race, he didn't think much of it -- he assumed that his dad just wanted to work out the details of the very busy weekend they had ahead. He drifted off to catch another half hour of sleep before getting back to him.
But when he called and his father answered, Kyle immediately sensed that something wasn't right. "He was in tears," Kyle remembers, "and so I knew something was wrong right away because my dad never cries." His father mumbled at first, and Kyle didn't understand him. "All I was heard was 'killed.' So, I shot up and I said, 'What?'"
Then, his father repeated himself, and Kyle heard his devastating news. Kyle's brother, 27-year-old First Lieutenant John Marshall Runkle, Jr., had been killed in active duty in Afghanistan.
After graduating from West Point in 2009, Lieutenant Runkle had been serving with the 101st Aviation Regiment in Afghanistan for a little less than a year. On May 26th, an IED went off and took down some members of his batallion. Lieutenant Runkle was among those who was going to their aid when a second IED was triggered. He and five others lost their lives.
Kyle remembers his brother as being very quiet and friendly. "He was one of the nicest people ever," Kyle shares. "The last time I had seen him, while he was at West Point, he'd gone to Korea. I used to collect coins, and when he came back, he gave me coins from Korea. I just found them yesterday when I was cleaning my room. It kind of hit hard."
In the face of such tragedy, Kyle had a hard time deciding whether to go ahead with his weekend plans. "My first thought was, I don't think I can even walk for graduation," he says. "I had grad practice in about an hour [after the phone call], and it was mandatory. If you didn't show up, you didn't walk, and I almost didn't go to that. The whole time, I was thinking about him. I almost didn't walk, but I couldn't take that away from my parents because they've been waiting for so many years to get to this point.
"And then, the Indy 500 -- I really almost didn't go to that. But then, I just thought to myself, John wouldn't have wanted me to do that. He knew how much it meant to me and how much I love INDYCAR. He wouldn't have wanted me to miss that for anything."
After deciding to carry on, Kyle mentioned his loss on Twitter and then left for graduation practice. When he checked his account hours later, he was stunned at the supportive replies he found. "I did not expect the feedback that I got," Kyle says. "It just goes to show you how much people really do support these troops and what they're doing. I was in tears. I mean, I expected some people -- like the close ones I talk to all the time -- to say something. But the amount of people was incredible."
In fact, Kyle got a personal reply from Simona as well. "I went to bed, and I woke up and I saw my iPod, and I figured, all right, I'll check it. And so I went on, and I had a reply from Simona. I didn't send anything to her, so I didn't expect her to even know because she doesn't follow me. I was just automatically in tears because that was so cool getting that from her. She's my favorite driver. Getting those words of condolences from her really, really made me feel good."
After the initial discussion on Twitter died down somewhat, Kyle figured that was the end of it. He expected his first Race Day at Indianapolis to be pretty low-key. "Basically, I was going to go there, I was going to do my thing where I was just going to stand outside the back of the garages and hope to snag whoever I could for an autograph to go with the collection. But even that I wasn't up for. My plan was if I couldn't do that, I was just going to go to my seat, sit there, and wait for the race to start."
But Jake Query of the IMS Radio Network had other plans. "I got a message from Jake telling me to DM him," Kyle recalls, "and I was wondering why." Jake asked Kyle to call him, and once they were talking, Jake got a rundown from Kyle of what his schedule and plans were for Race Day. He ran some ideas by Kyle such as spending some time with Panther Racing and getting a tour of the Pagoda. Kyle hung up the phone in bewilderment with no idea how Jake had learned about his situation. "I later found out," Kyle says, "that somebody messaged him to see if he could do something for me. A complete stranger. That was awesome."
On the morning of the race, Jake called Kyle and asked to meet him by the entrance to Gasoline Alley. "I walked over there, and I had never seen him in person, so I didn't know what he would look like," Kyle recalls. "So, I'm standing around, and I look like I'm lost looking around for him. And all of a sudden he calls me and he goes, 'What are you wearing, so it helps me find you?' And, of course, I was decked out in my Simona gear. I had my Simona hat, Simona polo. And he goes, 'Do you have a red book bag?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' He goes, 'Turn around.' And he was maybe 10 feet to my right!
"So, we walked over, and he asked me who I was with, and I told him, 'My friend, Andy.' And he goes, 'All right, we're going over to the Pagoda.' He signed us in, and we went on the elevator and we went up to -- I think it was the ninth floor. And up there was the security tower where there were CIA and FBI agents and stuff. And it was a great view of the track. You could see everything but the frontstretch because the frontstretch was blocked by a wall that was behind you. I took a few pictures of the garages from up there.
"And then we went over to the other side where you could see the frontstretch, and that's the media center. And Kevin Lee and a few other guys were up there. And Jake was telling them what he was doing and why he had me and Andy up there, and then Jake took a picture of me and Andy and everybody.
"And then Jake looks at me and goes, 'You want to go to the roof?' I'm like, 'Who wouldn't?!' So, we go up to the roof, and that was incredible. The only thing above you is four guys with guns. So, we're walking around, and he's telling me about how few people have been up there. It was really cool. As I described it to myself, Heaven is on top of the Pagoda in the middle of the track."
At that point, Jake needed to lead a tour, so he called Mike Kitchel, PR Representative for Panther Racing. "Mike met us outside the Pagoda," Kyle remembers, "and we hopped on his golf cart. He took us over to the hauler, and he gave me and Andy a hat and a JR shirt. I swapped hats so I could have some sort of supporting the troops gear on because I didn't have any, so I wore that for the rest of the day." Then, JR Hildebrand came out of the hauler and joined them on the golf cart. They chatted on the way over to the team's hospitality area where JR was about to speak to a group of military personnel. "It's really cool," Kyle says, "what they do with bringing in a bunch of the troops and talking to them. I got to stand there and listen to him. Then, JR had to go get ready for the race, and we went back to the hauler and dropped JR off there. And then Mike looks at us and goes, 'You want to go in the garages?' I'm like, 'Yeah, sure!' And he goes, 'All right, I'll try and sneak you guys in.' We just got on the golf cart, and he goes, 'Be quiet, act cool, and you'll get in.' We just drove right on by, and we got in the garages! So, that was pretty cool."
Kyle and Andy walked around there until Andy went his own way to get to his seat for the race. Shortly afterward, Kyle met back up with Jake. "Jake was broadcasting on the IMS Radio Network on a little porch right above where my seats were," Kyle says, "so he offered to give me a golf cart ride over to the seats since he was heading over there. Jake couldn't get a hold of a golf cart, so we had the long walk from the Pagoda all the way to turn 2, which turned into a real journey." After trying to cut through the garages but being denied because Kyle didn't have a garage pass, Jake took them through another short cut through the hauler parking area. "As we're walking down," Kyle recalls, "Danica [Patrick] comes out of her trailer. I've never seen Danica without a swarm around her! So, I was just like, 'Good luck, Danica!' And she was like, 'Thanks! Enjoy the race!' That was cool! And then [Alex Tagliani] comes out, but he has a sandwich in his mouth, his helmet in one hand, and a drink in the other hand. And I'm like, 'Good luck, Tags!' And he gives me a little head nod. So, it was kind of funny just walking through the haulers, and especially seeing Danica with nobody around her."
When they reached turn 2, Jake had yet another surprise for Kyle. "He asked me if I wanted to go up to the porch with him," Kyle says. "We went up there, and I'm like, wow! This is incredible! And it was about a little less than an hour before race time, and so we're sitting there and they do the drivers' introductions. They announced the troops that had going out around the track, all the guys from the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, everything. That was pretty emotional."
Kyle went to his own seats about half way through the race, and that's where he was for the final lap. He was very enthusiastic when he thought that JR Hildebrand was going to take the win. "I had pretty much made the statement that other than Simona I was going to cheer on JR just because he was the only one in the field flying a military paint scheme, and that was even before I knew that Panther was going to do that stuff. So, I was pretty much cheering on Simona and JR for the entire race. I like JR -- I always have -- but I definitely cheered him on harder on Sunday." Kyle's heart sunk when JR hit the wall, but he was still heartened by JR's performance. "When we were riding around on the golf cart before he left, I had told JR, 'Race your heart out for John for me.' And he said he'd try his best. Even though he hit the wall and finished second, I think he did a pretty good job at it."
After the checkered flag fell, Jake had one more surprise for Kyle and Andy: post-race garage passes. Kyle got to spend some more time talking to drivers and teams. He stopped in to visit with HVM Racing where he had a chat with Monica Hilton, the team's PR Representative. After accepting Monica's condolences, Kyle asked if Simona was around. Monica went inside and came back with a Blue Bunny ice cream and Simona. "Simona came over," Kyle remembers. "She gave me a hug and she asked me what happened and how I was doing. And I asked her how her hands were, and she said they were feeling all right. And then, Simona asked Monica to take a picture of us and post it on Twitter.
"And then, I finally met the person behind @FollowAndretti on Twitter. As I was starting to walk away, Kim [Jackson, Corporate Communications Manager for Andretti Autosport] walks over and goes, 'Are you Kyle?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And she starts talking, sent her condolences again. And she goes, 'We got you something.' And she hands me a signed hero card from each of the Andretti drivers and an Andretti Autosport hat signed by Mario Andretti."
By the end of the day, Kyle was completely overwhelmed. "I really wasn't expecting any of that," he points out. "It definitely helped me keep my mind off of everything." Jake told Kyle that his goal was to make sure that Kyle was able to enjoy his first Indy 500, and that goal was absolutely achieved. "It was definitely one to remember," he says.
When Kyle thinks back on how important INDYCAR was to him even before this weekend and then reflects on how he feels about it now after all of the support and encouragement he received, he finds himself at a loss for words. To Kyle, INDYCAR is now "basically like family," he says. "I don't know how else to put that."
Steph Wallcraft (@99forever) is co-editor of MoreFrontWing.com (@MoreFrontWing), your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Steph can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.