By Sherri Coner
A few minutes and a few yards after excited fans heard, “Gentlemen, start your engines” and saw the green “Go” flag wave, they were horrified by crunching metal, flying car parts and billowing smoke.
“There was a crash on the first lap; I was right in front,” Tom Sponsel said of his first Race Day experience in 1966.
Eleven race cars were mangled, and 11 drivers lost their chance to pocket more than $700,000, the largest sum ever offered.
A lifetime obsession
That terrifying but exhilarating moment in Race Day history forever changed Sponsel, a 13-year-old boy at the time, selling newspapers.
“I was hooked,” Tom said with a laugh.
When Memorial Day weekend in 1984 arrived, Tom was a grown man with a wife and children.
In the crowd of fans and coolers on that particular Race Day, Tom’s only son, TJ, tagged along.
That year, TJ was only 8 years old at the time. But he was mesmerized by the deafening rumble of engines as a blur of brightly colored cars hugged the turns.
Like father like son, TJ was hooked.
Each year, the excitement is high, and the traditions are hardcore.
For example, where they park on Race Day has never changed.
Where they sit is also set in stone.
Turn four has always been their destination.
Nothing drives these guys out of their seats, either.
The best three hours of the year
“I try my hardest not to leave my seat,” TJ said. “It’s the best three hours all year.”
These diehard Race Day fans have braved everything from scorching heat to dropping temperatures to pouring rain.
No matter what the weather, “It’s my favorite day of the year,” TJ said with a grin.
In fact TJ tried to sneak off to the track instead of participating in his college graduation.
But his parents and grandparents nipped that idea in the bud.
This Race Day, 40 people will be seated in the Sponsel family’s beloved turn four seats.
One aunt, four brothers, Tom’s daughter, Natalie Hopkins and her son, Brock Hopkins, TJ’s daughter, Maddi, 20 cousins and a sprinkling of friends will be there.
Three generations and decades of memories
“There’s three generations this year, our 40th year at the track,” said TJ, a Bargersville resident.
With tears in his eyes, Tom said, “I really like how patriotic the pre-race ceremony is.”
Watching newbies react to the world’s largest sporting venue is another highlight.
“They can’t comprehend the size of the place,” TJ said of the 253-acre track. “And that first lap, with cars going 230 miles per hour … the look on their faces. …”
Occasionally, Natalie stirs some sibling rivalry by trying to grab the seat beside their dad.
According to TJ, that idea is non-negotiable.
His sister can’t sit beside their dad; it’s not part of this four-decade kind of day.
Of course they’re seated side by side.
“My dad was the best man at my wedding,” TJ said. “He’s one of my dearest friends.”
Once a race car driver claims victory and down the traditional pint of milk, all 40 family members and friends head home.
But even then, Race Day doesn’t end for TJ.
“TJ is like a kid in a candy store on Race Day,” said Kelli Sponsel, TJ’s wife as she looked at him and laughed. “What do you do when you get home from the race?”
“I re-watch the race on TV,” TJ said with a laugh.
TJ Sponsel’s tips for the best Indy 500 Race Day experience
- Arrive at the track between 8 and 9 a.m.
- Walk the infield: around the museum, the garages and the pagoda. Great people watching and a sense of all that is THE Indy 500.
- Pack smaller coolers. IMS doesn’t let larger coolers in, and the concession stands can be inconvenient. Pack snacks and plenty of drinks.
- If you are sitting in the third and fourth turns, park off of 30th Street.
- As soon as the race ends, head to your car. Leaving your seat and heading to your car quickly helps you beat the rush.
- Be in your seat at least 30 minutes before the green flag. The national anthem, flyover and other prerace ceremonies are second to none.