You can feel the sounds of Indy Car engines deep in your chest if you’re close enough to the track. You can hear the roaring hum miles away — from our house in Mapleton Fall Creek the engines sound like an angry swarm descending upon Indianapolis. When I was a child, this sound was always accompanied by a litany of driver names I’d hear on the a.m. radio and television – Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, Janet Guthrie, Tom Sneva, A.J. Foyt. Hearing these names, and the engines, is a special kind of poetry for this Hoosier.
Last year I spent a few days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with my friend and photographer Hadley ‘Tad’ Fruits. Tad is like a brother to me. We’ve worked on many projects over the years, even a few that have been featured here on PATTERN; I love to work with him because I learn something new with every project. He shows me beauty in unexpected places and brings my attention to design details in places we’ve experienced a hundred times.
So we went to practices, Pole Day, and of course the race — the 100th running! We went to look and listen, a little unsure of exactly what we were trying to see.
In part, I was searching for some small connection to the memories of my father, gone now 20 years. He loved the race even when he was young and I remember him listening to it on the radio in the back yard while he smoked cigarettes and worked on his vegetable garden. And me, on our wooden deck: a skinny kid racing around an orange toy car with a number 14 on it.
I was even less sure what Tad was looking for, but I saw how the track was a bit of a second home for him. His mother, Bettie Cadou, was a legendary journalist and the first female reporter to be allowed access to the “pits” to cover the race. Tad has spent more time at the track than I, even working for a while as a photo journalist to cover the race when he was in his twenties.
Spending time at the track is an escape, a place to go to that is nothing like work and somehow connected to our childhood.
There is so much happening at the track, such a spectacle, that it can be more interesting to see what is overlooked. In Tad’s images you can find evidence of this — some of my favorite images of his are a kind of sideways glances, quick captures of moments that distract him from the center of what he’s looking at. He’s always lining up angles and framing a situation; a quiet narrative from behind his lens. I think that in the same way “the dude abides” for the famous character Jeff Lebowski, the “world aligns” in Tad Fruits’ images. The more I look at his work, the more I see the world. And I hope that you see more, too.
It is the places in-between that make the track special. It’s the little moments and the pauses, that turn the enormity of this place into something that feels local and personal.
Those instances when you identify a moment or a space that reminds you of the immensity and the intensity of the race, and describes what a challenge it must be for the drivers and teams to get a car to go over 200 miles an hour, and then turn left. Behind the design of the car and engine, there’s a human — a brother, sister, friend, someone trying to do the impossible. The track is a place where we go to watch the idea of speed and the idea of human risk.
But, really, it’s a bit hard to actually see the cars during the race (they flash by), and difficult for the casual observer to understand what all they are doing from our seats in the stands. At the same time there’s a present awareness that one of the cars might break traction from the track and careen into the wall, exploding into hundreds of pieces.
In this way, the speedway represents a celebration of taking risks, of pushing your nerve to its limit. This is what we’re really watching and what I appreciate the most.
I saw Tad do this, too. Push himself. When the race was over, media passes around our necks, we were able to go down to Victory Lane and watch the rookie, Alexander Rossi, pull his machine into the celebration: millions of people focused in on this one moment and celebration. Cameras, reporters, fans, and sponsors everywhere. I was trying to get out of the way of it all, feeling a bit overwhelmed, but then all of a sudden I saw Tad above the car in the VIP media area — I’m certain he wasn’t supposed to be there.
If you know Tad, you know that he’s a wonderfully kind and generous man, and perhaps even a bit shy. Me, I’m more of the outgoing, loud one. So imagine my surprise when in the middle of all that media jostling for the Indy 500 winner’s attention, Tad began yelling:
He got the whole team to look up.
Click. Alexander Rossi.