Generations of Sycamores have had key roles in making the Indianapolis 500 a success, and this trio is helping fuel the 100th running of the race.
“… And it’s not that you necessarily need to be here by then, but it is if you want to beat the traffic,” joked Joshua Thoele, ’07.
And Dan Skiver, GR ’02, lives at the Speedway — literally.
“Race day, if you include the 24-hour period that starts at midnight the night before, I am usually still in the office making sure I have everything ready to go the next day,” he said. “During the month of May, I probably go home only two or three nights for the month. (On race day), I’ll probably get back to the campground anywhere from 1 o’clock to 2 o’clock in the morning. Then we’re up about 5 o’clock, and I’m trackside by about 6 a.m.”
Not that they’re complaining — getting there early does have its perks. “I love to walk down the front stretch before anyone else gets here, when the only things lit up are the Pagoda and the Pylon. To watch this place fill up in a matter of hours is a surreal experience,” Thoele said.
Most of us recognize the names of State alumni Tony George, ’85, and Jeff Belskus, ’81, who formerly led the Speedway, and Fred Nation, ’68, former vice president of public relations.
But these lesser-known names belong to Sycamores who serve in critical behind- the-scenes capacities: Dan Skiver, senior manager of event operations; Jason Orton, director of merchandising; Joshua Thoele, manager of timing and scoring.
And this year is different from any other year. It’s the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing — against the backdrop of a newly renovated Speedway.
“I look forward to the Indy 500 every year, but to be part of the 100th is very exciting. It’s such a historic event. It’s the type of thing you tell your grandkids about,” said Thoele, who started working at the Speedway as an intern while attending Indiana State.
For Orton, his job entails sending pieces of that history home with fans in the form of T-shirts, model racecars, cups and magnets.
“We give the opportunity for the fans to be able to take something home with them, a memory of the Speedway or something they keep for a lifetime,” Orton said. “That’s what makes it special for us and that’s why we have the opportunity to have jobs is because people are so passionate about this place. They have such an emotional connection.”
And Skiver is engaged in a delicate dance to ensure the fans’ experience — at home and at the track — is just as good as the drivers’ and sponsors’. Take the winner’s circle, for instance. Skiver isn’t the guy who hands the bottle of milk to the victor; he’s the guy who says how and — more importantly — when it should be handed.
“It’s that balance between TV obligations and radio obligations and sponsor obligations, but you don’t want that to overshadow what just happened. That’s the driver and you want them to enjoy that moment,” he said. “We try to create an environment where they can enjoy themselves but we can still get done what we need to get done. When it looks natural and fun — that’s when everyone wins.”
In racing, timing is everything. But for Skiver, it’s not keeping track of who wins, it’s making sure all the programming lines up with the TV and radio broadcasts, their numerous breakaways to independent programming and that the jets cross the yard of bricks when the last note of the national anthem is being sung.
“If my blood pressure were taken on race morning from about 9 a.m. till that green flag drops, they’d probably admit me to a hospital, to be honest. It’s complete chaos, it’s great,” Skiver said. “Ironically, it sounds like something that would be a disaster and something you’d never want to do — till you do it. That challenge of being right and making it successful, it’s addictive.”
He’s so concerned with time that when asked about the biggest celebrity he’s met, Skiver can’t really say. Sure, there’s Chuck Yaeger, Apolo Anton Ohno and some local professional athletes. But the time he escorted the Kardashians around, he can’t tell you to this day which family members they were.
“When you look at the anthem singers I work with — Jordan Sparks last year, LeAnn Rimes or someone who is even more local, Sandy Patty — to be honest, to me, it’s operational. It’s: Are they on time? They told me their anthem was going to be a minute, 18 seconds, they came in at a minute-16 and I have a lot of adjustments to make,” Skiver said. “Every once in a while I get to think, ‘Wow, that’s who that person was.’ I’ve met a lot of different celebrities here, but it’s the fans and those kinds of things that are actually more exciting to me.”
And the drivers. All three agree meeting the drivers — especially the veterans — is an honor.
For Thoele’s job, it may be surprising to learn that timekeeping is only part of what Timing & Scoring does. Distributing that data — now, that’s some heavy lifting.
“Timing is only a piece of what we do. As our needs and technology have expanded, we have developed systems to distribute a wide array of data. Whether it is the ticker on the TV feed or the car telemetry on the Verizon INDYCAR app, we are a big part of providing the data necessary to drive these systems. We are also responsible for the technology used in Race Control and have recently deployed an HD replay system that is capable of recording 48 channels of HD video simultaneously. At any point in time, we can pick any channel and instantly roll back to what we need to see.”
And this data is available for the hard-core fan, who downloads and analyzes the reports, all the way to the revelers in the infield who may (or may not) care about who’s in first place.
Given the new data-distribution aspect, don’t think Thoele and his colleagues don’t take their first order of business seriously.
“One of our closest finishes was in Chicagoland in ’07. First and second were only separated by .0005 of a second — about half an inch on the track,” Thoele said. “So, it is very stressful, especially on ovals, because we have very close finishes. You’re always hoping all the work and preparation you put in is going to pay off. So there’s definitely a lot of stress, especially here, because it’s a much bigger stage and especially with it being the 100th running.”
With such sophisticated technology filling his office each day, Thoele is often his friends’ and family’s go-to for tech support.
“I was home for Thanksgiving, and before I left, my mom asked, ‘Is there anything that
you changed that I can’t fix myself?’ I also get a lot of, ‘Hey, can you help me with my wireless?’ or ‘Which phone should I buy?’” Thoele said.
Orton has his own balancing act with more than 500 seasonal employees — many of them volunteers — operating the more than 80 gift shops around the venue. And this year, they’ve added to the gift shop inventory some higher-end collectibles to commemorate the 100th running.
“The majority of our stores are run by nonprofit groups that get a commission of the sales, but most of them have been here for 10, 15, 20 years,” said Orton, a sports management major.
The trio works tirelessly throughout the year to continue getting it right.
“Our facility doesn’t go to sleep after May. We get a couple of days where we let the 500 settle, but then we’re going right into what we’re doing in June and what we’re doing in July and getting ready for the Brickyard,” Skiver said. “You can’t rest on what you just did, and you can’t let what you just did get you down too much. You have to get back on the horse pretty quick.”
Because when you’re behind-the-scenes, no one talks about you until you make a mistake.
“I use the mantra of the offensive lineman — if somebody knows my name, it’s probably for the wrong reason,” said Skiver with a laugh. “I love being behind the scenes and knowing that people are depending on me.”