Every year, a major part of my race-group’s Indy 500 experience is making home in the Coke Lots for the weekend. A few days of camping across the street from the Greatest Race Course in the World with some of the best race fans to be found anywhere… nothing could go wrong, right? No, this could not be further from the truth. Four days in lot 1C is analogous to stepping foot on another planet. A tent city constructed in the middle of the 13th largest city in the nation that houses weary race fans from all over the world.
For good or bad, this is the “classic” way to experience a race weekend in Indianapolis. For 100 years, the world has descended on the area around the Speedway in lieu of the hotels away from the track. The community of Speedway, Indiana and even more so, the neighbors of IMS have been the front line of Hoosier Hospitality… But this is the Coke Lot we are talking about.
The Coke Lot is a special footnote in the annals of IMS lore. Make no mistake, it is the easiest place to stay for out of towners; you can even buy camping passes directly from the Speedway ticket office. But if you are not prepared for the journey ahead, you could be shocked with what is witnessed within the confines of 25th and Georgetown Road.
This is no normal camping area; this is a treeless wasteland where the only oases are stands of port-a-potties spread throughout the five block test of personal fortitude. Upon arrival, the most pressing battle to be fought is against the sun. And let it be known, YOU WILL NOT WIN. As soon as the morning sun breaks over the horizon, the entire “campground” is flooded with skin blistering radiation that will not relent until too late in the evening for it to matter. A canopy/tarp/ninja suit/tall car is needed for any chance of survival past day one. This single item is more important than any chair/tent/cooler you think you may need; second only to your race tickets.
Once you have a home base of operations, you will need to define your borders. These will be under relentless attack all weekend long. Protecting your territory becomes a blood sport as soon as you turn the car off in your chosen destination. RV’s will take as much as anyone will give them, other tent campers will attempt to annex the farthest reaches of your make shift providence and the outer banks of your sovereign nation will become trash dumps for your neighbors and passersby. You MUST protect your borders by any means necessary.
Once night descends on your derelict quarters, all bets are off. They say the crazies come out at night and this is doubly true for the 500 weekend. Not only is the Memorial Day Classis known as the greatest race in the world, the night before the 500 is the biggest party outside of Mardi Gras in New Orleans all year long. And you have to be prepared for such. Locals with no interest in the race, minors looking for some fun and anyone passing by all join the party for the evening. Thankfully, most of the top level debauchery has moved to Georgetown Road, but you must keep a vigilant watch of the action around you. Shenanigans can strike at any time.
Even with all of this constant insanity, the Coke Lot is not a totally unlawful place. The fearless and faithful yellow shirts are there to protect your safety. Yes, there are state police patrols; the only problem is that there has to be a blatant felony in progress for you to attract more than a casual wave from our friendly police. They do a fantastic job of making a tough situation bearable, but it takes a community to maintain public safety. However, the yellow shirts are underpaid extra eyes that probably drew the short straw and got stuck out in the campground. These poor guys are spread too thin and have more stress on them than I would wish on my worst enemy. Say thank you to your local yellow shirt. Would you take their job?
With all of that said, the Coke Lot is a magical place. We have camped in the exact same spot for nearly ten years and most of our neighbors have as well. Inevitably we run across the same people year in and out. These are some of the best race fans in the world and you are reminded of such nearly every moment when you are out there. Being a pure fan and staying outside the Speedway has been the way generations after generations of race fans have made home for the weekend. The Coke Lot contains come of the most knowledgeable fans outside of Donald Davidson I have ever met. They may be place fans, but their love of Indy in unquestioned.
There is something intrinsically unique about waking up in the Coke Lots on raceday morning. Unzipping your tent, walking out and saying hello and good morning to all of your neighbors; everyone is cooking breakfast. The campground smells like something out of a bacon and sausage filled dream, and what is everyone’s morning noise of choice? Bob and Tom. No matter where you are, you can hear those voices that are now synonymous with driving to the Speedway. Ask anyone who their pick for winner is and you may be caught bench racing for too long to even partake in the amazing breakfast being prepared. The Coke Lot is a community of the most hardcore indycar fans and it only exists in one place, for a single weekend once a year.
A weekend of camping in the sorry excuse for a campground that is the Coke Lot can be a daunting task to undertake. For the uninitiated and underprepared parties, it could be the weekend from hell. For a well-oiled camping group, it can be a very fun and special weekend. It has become a yearly event for my group of racing nuts that started with my friend’s parents letting us camp with them many years ago. It has evolved into our own trip, with our own families. As time marches forward and on, an old tradition passed from parent to child has become a new tradition. Camping has become woven into the fabric of our race weekend and it is nearly as important to the yearly experience as the race itself.