INDIANAPOLIS – While Tony Kanaan speaks on camera with a local TV reporter, he is interrupted by none other than Fernando Alonso, who offers Kanaan a hat bearing the logo of Kimoa, Alonso’s sponsor.
Kanaan takes a selfie while wearing the hat, posts the photo to Instagram, then puts the hat aside. “I could get in trouble for that,” he jokes.
Welcome to media day for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, a two-hour mishmash of humor, mayhem and insight that drivers enjoy more than endure. Held in the Pagoda Plaza’s North Chalet in the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, today’s spectacle serves as setup for Sunday’s spectacle.
Only this spectacle provides less tension and more laughs than Sunday’s race.
“I never really cared if people did or didn’t talk to me at these things,” Kanaan says. “But I’ve never had the experience people not wanting to talk to me, so I really can’t say. I don’t mind; I enjoy it.”
As Kanaan talks to one reporter, another interrupts.
“Who are you again?” the reporter asks facetiously.
“I’m Fernando. Tony Fernando,” Kanaan jokes back. “Nice to meet you.”
The free-for-all format – 17 drivers in the first one-hour session, 16 drivers in the second – is in its seventh year, and it continues to grow. Each driver is situated at a chair and desk while print and broadcast reporters jostle around them for quotes and angles.
With the Borg-Warner Trophy and two vintage Indy cars in the center of the room and Steak ‘n Shake serving free milkshakes outside, media day takes on a circus atmosphere. While Alonso is mobbed, 2017 pole sitter Scott Dixon answers questions about being robbed. While Kanaan jokes for a half-dozen cameras, Charlie Kimball quietly explains the mob of cameras surrounding Alonso to three reporters.
“Fernando deserves that attention,” Kimball says. “He’s a two-time world champion. You can’t argue with those credentials. I’d like to have earned that attention. I don’t want it for free. It would be inappropriate to ask for that amount of attention without having the credentials to have earned it. Being a winner and being able to have a list of accolades on your resume is what drives that attention, and that’s absolutely fine. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power waits for a crowd of reporters to arrive.
“If there are more people here, that means it’s great,” Power says. “That means we’re getting popular. I’m sure there’s a lot of Spanish media here for Alonso, right? That’s good. That’s exactly what we hoped having Alonso here would do.”
The race generates a mystique that draws drivers back year after year. It’s an aggravation they can’t put aside, in part because of its tradition and pageantry.
“This place gets further and further into your butt each year,” Kimball says. “Last weekend – qualifying weekend – I love that weekend and I hate that weekend. It’s stressful and yet it’s awesome. That’s part of what this place does to you. I remember waking up in the middle of February dreaming about racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t dream about media day as often I do about race day.
Media day also offers reporters the opportunity to hone in on their home drivers. While Alonso is mobbed by the international press, Takuma Sato, who will start inside the second row Sunday, holds court with Japanese reporters. Local reporters flock to Indianapolis native Ed Carpenter, while Brazilian reporters corner Kanaan and Helio Castroneves.
“It’s an important part to all of this,” Sato says. “It’s building up the momentum to Sunday’s race. It’s been busy the last couple of days in terms of media. We did a major tour Tuesday and went to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis this morning. We had fun with it, which is always good. It’s always positive to have a good reaction from fans.”
Back at Kanaan’s table, the party continues. He answers the serious, the sublime and the silly. Sausage or bacon? Bacon, of course.
“These are people that I’ve known for so long, it’s not really talking to the media,” Kanaan says. “It’s hanging with my friends, kind of. To be honest, it’s a relaxing moment. If you look around, we’re all joking around, and it’s two days before the race. We’re here to promote the race, and if you guys weren’t here, nobody would be watching it.”
The final practice before the race takes place Friday on Miller Lite Carb Day, from 11 a.m.-noon ET. It airs live on NBCSN.
Coverage of Sunday’s 200-lap race on the 2.5-mile oval kicks off at 11 a.m. ET on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.