Making a motorsports pilgrimage to the Indianapolis 500 ahead of IndyCar in Iowa

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Hi everybody. I’m Philip Joens, a public safety and bicycling reporter at the Des Moines Register. I'm about to ride RAGBRAI for the 17th time. 

Welcome to Off Hours, a free weekly newsletter on all things entertainment from the Des Moines Register. You can subscribe for free

Speedway Indoor Karting in Indianapolis is a must-stop place for racing fans near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Speedway Indoor Karting in Indianapolis is a must-stop place for racing fans near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Deal

Here's the deal: Outside the north parking lot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, churchgoers sang songs for a service that only happens once a year.

Tens of thousands of IndyCar race fans walked past the little brick church, and the pastor singing songs outside, to the gates of the 2.5-mile oval track, which loomed over it. Blue sky and 80-degree weather greeted the worshipers on the first heavenly day like this since the 2019 edition of the greatest spectacle in racing.

This year, my friend Jason Strickland and I made our motorsports pilgrimage to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. In 2020 the race ran without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic and last year 135,000 fans, or about 40% of capacity, were allowed in.

So, this year's Indy 500 was the second most-anticipated edition in the last 30 years, several people we spoke to said. Only the 100th edition in 2016 drew more people. This year the race drew 325,000 people, just 5,000 fans shy of capacity, according to the Indianapolis Star.

Here's the scene we saw when entering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 106th Indianapolis 500.
Here's the scene we saw when entering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 106th Indianapolis 500.

My first in-person racing experience happened by sheer accident. Two buddies and I went on a trip to watch Missouri's football team play at Alabama in 2018. One of them was a more casual racing fan than me and asked me if I wanted to see the NASCAR Cup Series race at nearby Talladega Superspeedway the next day.

On that sunny October day, I felt my life change as the cars made the ground beneath me shake. The “ROAR” of the cars and crowd, the taste of “Sunoco Racing Fuel” exhaust fumes in the air and the smells of tailgates in the parking lot hooked me.

More: Off Hours: How to entertain a lively 4-year-old boy in Des Moines this summer

Talladega Superspeedway is where I fell in love with racing.
Talladega Superspeedway is where I fell in love with racing.

As luck had it, the next week NASCAR had its next Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway near Kansas City. At the time I worked in Missouri at the Jefferson City News-Tribune. So I asked one of my best friends, then News-Tribune and current Ames Tribune education reporter Phillip Sitter, to go. Sitter is not the sportiest person.

“NASCAR?” he said when I asked him if he wanted to go. But he was up for a Sunday trip and something new. When the cars took the green flag on a sunny 47-degree day and we shook Budweisers as the green flag waved, he screamed in my ear, “I think I’m in love.”

In the last five years, racing has become a great love of mine. I took my dad to his first NASCAR Cup Series race in October, and he wants to go again.

More: From the RAGBRAI 2022 route to its history, here’s everything you need to know about the annual ride

I took my dad Al, left, to the Kansas Speedway for his first race last year.
I took my dad Al, left, to the Kansas Speedway for his first race last year.

Comedian Jeff Dunham coined the now ubiquitous “They're making a left turn" joke in the mid-2000s that seemingly all people uneducated about motorsports still make.

Boeing 737-800 jetliners take off at around 150 to 180 mph, according to Delta Airlines. IndyCars race down the five-eighths mile backstretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at about 230 mph.

IndyCars work a lot like airplanes, but in reverse. Wings on the front and back of the car produce downforce, which hold the cars to the ground and allow them to accelerate through turns at such blistering speeds.

When a car loses downforce, like Colton Herta's did during the final practice for this year's Indy 500, IndyCars fly poorly and crash.

More: 55 summer shows in central Iowa from Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani to 'My Fair Lady'

My pal Jason Strickland, right, and I went to our first Indy 500 in May.
My pal Jason Strickland, right, and I went to our first Indy 500 in May.

Even on the bumpy surface at the 0.9 mile long Iowa Speedway, IndyCars hit almost 190 mph on the back straightaway, according to Motorsport.com. 

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, my friend Jason Strickland stayed with me so we could go to the two IndyCar races at Iowa Speedway. Herta also went airborne there. We can even be seen in the footage of the crash.

IndyCars will return to central Iowa at the Iowa Speedway July 22-24 for a doubleheader of races at 3 p.m. Saturday with the Hy-VeeDeals.com 250 Presented By DoorDash, and 2 p.m. Sunday with the Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300 Presented By Google. Yes, drivers go wheel to wheel and 550 miles over the two-day event.

I would love to be there. Iowa Speedway fell off the IndyCar schedule last year and Hy-Vee, which is a big IndyCar sponsor, brought IndyCar back to central Iowa. But I cover RAGBRAI, and those dates coincide with Day 0 and Day 1 of RAGBRAI.

Hy-Vee CEO Randy Edeker (right) fell in love with racing just like me. Here he stands next to IndyCar race Jack Harvey (center) and Bud Denkerm president of the Penske Corp. from an event in West Des Moines in March.
Hy-Vee CEO Randy Edeker (right) fell in love with racing just like me. Here he stands next to IndyCar race Jack Harvey (center) and Bud Denkerm president of the Penske Corp. from an event in West Des Moines in March.

Top 3 Things to Know about the IndyCar races in Newton

1. The biggest names in IndyCar will be at the race. Marcus Ericsson, who won the Indianapolis 500 and sits atop the points in IndyCar, will be there along with Colton Herta, Romain Grosjean, Conor Daly and Rinus Veekay. Hy-Vee-sponsored driver Jack Harvey will be sporting the black and red Hy-Vee livery on his Honda.

Can you go wrong with Tim McGraw, Florida Georgia Line, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton? No.
Can you go wrong with Tim McGraw, Florida Georgia Line, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton? No.

2. Big entertainment is part of the doubleheader weekend. Country singer Tim McGraw kicks off the weekend on Saturday, July 23, with a 1 p.m. concert to get the Hy-VeeDeals.com 250 Presented By DoorDash race started, followed by Florida Georgia Line after the race. Then on Sunday, July 23, Gwen Stefani performs at noon, followed by the Hy-Vee Salute To Farmers 300 Presented by Google and Blake Shelton afterward. Rumor has it that a lot of celebrities such a Donnie Wahlberg and Drew Barrymore will be on hand, as well.

More: Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line headline Iowa's IndyCar race

The Iowa Speedway in Newton hosts the entire Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend July 22-24.
The Iowa Speedway in Newton hosts the entire Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend July 22-24.

3. A free day at the track. On Friday, July 22, fans will have the opportunity to experience the opening day of Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend at the Iowa Speedway for free during Free Family Friday. Gates open at 2 p.m. for the first practice of the Indy Lights cars and then the NTT IndyCar series practice session from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Fans can access the 7/8th-mile racetrack afterward and head to the infield paddock to look inside the garages. Drivers hold an autograph session and meet-and-greet from 6 to 7 p.m. Fans can visit Victory Lane to take selfies on the podium, hear live entertainment on the Turn 4 Stage from Cody Carter and Damon Dotson and chow down at one of the 50 food trucks on hand.

Are you a racing fan? Tell me about some of your favorite drivers by dropping me a line at pjoens@gannett.com.

Eat This, Drink That

BLT— $10: Sometimes you can't beat a classic. The BLT at the Nineteen 14 in Minburn is simple, affordable fuel in Minburn during a bike ride on the Raccoon River Valley Trail. The ambiance of the the renovated train depot the restaurant sits in, adds to the simple, but pleasant dining experience.

The Ninteen 14 in Minburn is a great pit stop for cyclists on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
The Ninteen 14 in Minburn is a great pit stop for cyclists on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.

Get it: The Nineteen 14 at 210 Fourth St. in Minburn is open Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday. Hours vary by day, but it is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

More: The 11 hottest restaurants in Des Moines right now: June 2022 edition

A cold Windy Wheat Ale is the perfect drink after a day of riding.
A cold Windy Wheat Ale is the perfect drink after a day of riding.

Windy Wheat Ale — $4 for an 11-ounce glass, $7 for a 20-ounce glass. On June 26 when I was on the Raccoon River Valley trail winds gusted up to 29 mph from the northwest. Kinship Brewing's Windy Wheat Ale hit the spot. Windy Wheat has tastes of citrus and mild bitter notes. It reminded me of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat.

Get it: Kinship Brewing at 255 Northwest Sunrise Drive in Waukee serves drinks from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 2 to 10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 7 p.m. Sunday. The place has become a cool hangout spot. Kinship also has a kitchen and its hours vary by day. 

More: A guide to 20 Des Moines metro breweries and the bike trails closest to them

Father John Misty
Father John Misty

48 Hours Off

Friday night: Father John Misty headlines night one of 80/35, the music festival that takes over the Western Gateway neighborhood downtown. The festival returns after a two-year hiatus. Other acts to anticipate? Japanese Breakfast and Guided by Voices on Friday and Charlie XCX making her first Iowa appearance on Saturday. Two-day tickets start at $95. Lots of food and drink vendors keep you hydrated and fed during this monster festival. It's good to have live music back.

More: A guide to the return of the 80/35 Music Festival 2022 with Father John Misty, Charlie XCX

Grab some books from one of the best independent bookstores in the state.
Grab some books from one of the best independent bookstores in the state.

Saturday morning: Happy birthday to Beaverdale Books. The indie bookstore at 2629 Beaver Ave. celebrates 16 years in business from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with cookies, lemonade, discounts and other specials.

More: Local favorite Beaverdale Books brings on a new co-owner to join founder Alice Meyer

Sunday afternoon: Roald Dahl’s "Matilda The Musical" comes to the Des Moines Playhouse at 831 42nd St. to tell the tale of Matilda overcoming her neglectful parents and a cruel headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Her lovable teacher Miss Honey sees Matilda's gifted personality and encourages her imagination and psychokinetic powers to teach classmates and grownups to stand up for themselves and find their magic within. This showing on Sunday at 2 p.m. features an ASL-interpreted performance. Tickets start at $29.

IndyCar drivers Jack Harvey of the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda and Josef Newgarden of the No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet drove their cars down Grand Avenue in Des Moines back in June.
IndyCar drivers Jack Harvey of the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda and Josef Newgarden of the No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet drove their cars down Grand Avenue in Des Moines back in June.

Watch it

"Speed Racer"

Emile Hirsch, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman and Christina Ricci star in this modern take on the classic Japanese cartoon "Speed Racer." The movie got poor reviews at the time of its release because of its extensive use of green screens. Since then it's become a cult classic because its colors pop on screen and its complex take on the cartoon's light and dark themes.

When I heard the Motor Racing Network broadcast of the that first race at Talladega it reminded me of the commentary in this movie and hooked me on racing.

Stream for free on Pluto TV or rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu and Redbox for $3.99.

What's your favorite racing movie? Tell me about it by dropping me a line at pjoens@gannett.com.

Around Town

The infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has four holes of a golf course designed by legendary golf course architect Pete Dye. Jason Strickland and I found golf balls in a water hazard during a trip to the speedway on Fri. Aug. 13, 2021.
The infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has four holes of a golf course designed by legendary golf course architect Pete Dye. Jason Strickland and I found golf balls in a water hazard during a trip to the speedway on Fri. Aug. 13, 2021.

My Day Job

For the past two months I've been preparing to ride on and report from RAGBRAI. I'll peel back the curtain here. On June 23 photographer Bryon Houlgrave and I traveled to Schaller, Iowa, where we met with Dru Kenny, 27, whose popcorn farm is on the route. Kenny told us that RAGBRAI gives people a chance to learn where their food comes from and gives his farm great exposure to outsiders and potential customers. I also rode with the Dream Team, which tries to change the lives of disadvantaged youths through cycling. The Dream Team is celebrating its 25th anniversary and I talked with three teens in the program this year.

In 2021 I covered my first RAGBRAI by bike for the Des Moines Register. Photographer Bryon Houlgrave snapped this candid shot in Ackley 15 miles into a ride on Wed. July 28, 2021.
In 2021 I covered my first RAGBRAI by bike for the Des Moines Register. Photographer Bryon Houlgrave snapped this candid shot in Ackley 15 miles into a ride on Wed. July 28, 2021.

Follow my adventures at desmoinesregister.com and on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

Next week, the entertainment team goes in search of the best burgers in the Des Moines area. Thanks for reading.

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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Off Hours: The best bets for the IndyCar race at the Iowa Speedway in Iowa