There have been numerous pranks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the last two weeks, with many NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers living in close proximity to each other in preparation for this Sunday’s 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Someone filled Conor Daly’s hot tub with Orbeez. Colton Herta’s golf cart was turned on its side. Romain Grosjean’s scooter ended up on top of the famed Pagoda. The list goes on.
The pranking from within the motorcoach lot, and even outside of it, has been a constant talking point as drivers practice and qualify for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But it has also created a sense of camaraderie and fun within a paddock that can get very stressful at times.
For rookie Callum Ilott, who has been around for many pranks this month as he spends time with Daly, it’s a whole new world. On the international racing scene, rarely are this many drivers together in one place for this long.
“It’s different, but everyone’s super nice,” Ilott said. “It’s easy to integrate yourself into, and it just seems like a good laugh.”
Romain Grosjean, who is competing the full season for Andretti Autosport this season after running a partial schedule in 2021, said he’s never lived in a racing environment like what he’s experiencing at IMS.
On the Formula One scene, there were nearly two dozen races in different countries, so he didn’t spend near as much time at the racetrack as he is this Month of May. The driver environment and openness are something else that is new, and he’s taking full advantage of that.
“I like it,” he said. “(One day) I was talking with Scott McLaughlin, we had a good chat, then I went to see Scott Dixon and Devlin DeFrancesco, just hanging around. We’re all passionate about the same thing. We all love the same thing. It’s just good that we’re here, and we can have a bit of fun. It’s a long two weeks. You don’t always want to think about the racing side.”
The distractions from what’s happening on the famed 2.5-mile oval, which has included five days dedicated to practice, two qualifying days and then the lead-up to Indy 500 Race Day this Sunday (11 a.m. ET, live on NBC, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network) is reminiscent of the INDYCAR paddock over several different generations.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford recounted a story from the 1960s when he was dating his future wife, Betty. Her parents came to IMS to meet him for the first time, and he went to visit them in the grandstands.
As he was talking to Betty’s mother and father, an announcement came over the public address:
“Johnny Rutherford, please meet your wife and kids at the garage area gate.”
Rutherford said he looked down to the Public Address area and saw fellow drivers Chuck Hulse and Bobby Marshman exploding with laughter as they teased Rutherford during his introductory meeting with Betty’s parents.
“I would love to have had a picture of the look on (Betty’s dad’s) face,” Rutherford said. “Betty and I looked at each other and laughed. We knew what it was.”
The good-natured pranks are even reminiscent of the INDYCAR SERIES paddock just 15-20 years ago.
Bryan Herta, whose son, Colton, is looking to become the youngest-ever Indy 500 winner this weekend, said the current shenanigans that include his son and several other drivers remind him of when he was a driver and an owner.
When Herta was competing in the INDYCAR SERIES or serving as an owner (he co-owned Dan Wheldon’s 2011 Indy 500-winning car), pranks ran rampant around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The biggest culprits were Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Wheldon and himself.
“It was fun, and it was good-natured, sibling kind of stuff,” Herta said. “None of it was intended to do anything other than have fun. And still to this day, we call each other brother, and I think that’s how we feel about each other.”
While there were times when they went after each other, like the time Franchitti sawed Kanaan’s expensive bike in half, most of the time they ganged up on Wheldon.
Wheldon was the butt of a lot of pranks in the mid-2000s, and Herta said it was because they knew he would react exactly like they desired.
“Dan always overreacted,” Herta said. “Dan gave the best reactions. If you’re going to prank somebody, you knew if you pranked Dan you were going to get something. That’s why people do it, right? To get a reaction. My advice is if you don’t want to get pranked, don’t react, because then it makes it no fun.”
After Wheldon died in a racing accident in 2011 in Las Vegas, some of the pranks at IMS during the Month of May seemingly went away. But as drivers like Daly, Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta and more have found themselves part of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, the prank competitions have returned.
Bryan Herta believes Wheldon’s spirit is maybe as strong as it’s ever been as drivers poke fun at each other just like in the good old days. And with his son competing in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and being a part of the pranks, he’s glad to see the camaraderie and distractions back at the Racing Capital of the World.
“You know, it’s funny. It’s healthy,” he said. “What we do, it’s such a serious thing, right? There’s so much at stake all the time. Sometimes, to bring a little levity to the situation is healthy and a good thing. As long as everything is in moderation, it can help keep things in check and keep you from getting too stressed.”