Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Drive, An Unexpected Gig, and A Scary Flight From Weather

Wow! What a day. I woke up with the simple notion of getting to Indy, attending the USAC midget triple header at the Indianapolis Speedrome, and getting to my sister's house. Sounded simple, but it was anything but.

The weather has been aggressive, and yesterday was no difference. I put off my departure time due to a tornadic storm in Illinois. Instead of leaving I made a trip to my two banks, went to a car wash to vacuum the floor, and went to Lion's Choice for a 10AM lunch. Once all this was done I hit the road.

My bout with the weather began just before Vandalia as a nasty looking black sky was off to the North. I always have been extra careful with weather, but after this year's extreme season I have been reminded that severe weather is something that isn't to be played with.

The storm that I was seeing to my North was going slower than I was and eventually passed it. At this point in time I was wondering if I would even make the trip to the Speedrome as the weather surely would be rain and racing and rain don't mix when one is racing on ovals.

I kept an eye on the weather and stayed in communication with James who was already at the track and he said it was dry. I was still debating whether or not to go because I was thinking I was just going to be there with nothing to do except to observe. Observing was needed, however, as I am scheduled to flag there next week and that will be my first big car race at an oval that I am the flagman for.

Because of the importance of learning the routines and structure of the event at the Speedrome I went there and decided if it rained, it would rain. I didn't stress about it and at around 4 in the afternoon I made it to the Speedrome.

I saw all the people I knew and while I was standing at the gate Tom Hansing, one of the flagman of the Indy 500, and the person who I mentioned quite a bit last year, walked up. He passed, but then James and Tom started talking and my name was called so I walked towards them.

When I got to them I wondered what was up, and then I heard the words from James, "Okay, Aaron, Tom is chief stewarding tonight and you're flagging. Is this okay?" I was shocked and said, "What am I doing?" because I didn't believe what I had heard. The words were repeated and I rushed to my car and got my flags.

Climbing the flagstand was something I did with the biggest of grins on my face. As I stood atop I admired the view and all but shook in elation. This gig was highly unexpected and I was glad I put aside the thoughts of inclement weather.

As the start of practice approached I started to worry just as I did last year at the Battle at The Brickyard because it was new. The order of flags in my stand, the foot pedals that operate the light, and just everything else in general made it a new and unknown experience.
Whether I was ready or not (I was) practice began and Tom was walking me through the small differences in this type of racing over the .25 midgets I have been flagging. These words of advice I heeded with as much respect as one could have.

Practice concluded and I breathed a sigh of relief because I didn't screw anything up. Not that I was expecting anything less, but I know starting out bad is, well, bad.

During practice I had been looking towards the Southwest and saw this ominous black mass nearing. I was hoping it would go North, or South, but I wanted it to go anywhere but where I was. As the invocation was given and the national anthem sung rumbles of thunder rang through the air. In fact, the first bit of thunder heard was on cue with the line, "... the bombs bursting in air..." This was not a good sign.

Drip... Drip... Drip... the drops started slowly, but we got the first race on track and we did get to the point of starting the race. The cars rolled around the track and then, as they came out of turn four, I threw the green flag. This was my first green flag of a big car race. I was so excited, but just as fast as I waved the green flag I was told to throw the yellow flag for rain.

The cars exited the track and as they did the weather got more aggressive. The drips became a steady flow of water. I rolled up my flags and headed to the tower thinking this would be a minor delay.

Up in the tower I got out my phone and looked at the radar. My anxiety level was raised as I saw this big red blob headed towards the track. At this point in time I was just a little bit anxious as there were no warnings associated with this weather. Then, just as I sighed that breath of relief, the sirens came on.

The next time I checked my phone the county I was in had a tornado warning. In terms of weather advisories, the tornado warning is the most severe and here I was with no basement and no idea what to do. What I did do was try to put on my calm face; storms used to be one of my biggest fears. I would avoid school at all costs if there was a tornado watch because I didn't feel safe at school. I stayed calm, and I also followed the other USAC staff to the semi-truck trailer.

The rain picked up, the winds picked up, but only for several minutes. As fast as it began it slowed up. The rain turned back into drip mode and I once again breathed a sigh of relief. The event was called at this point in time as so much water fell and there was more storms lined up behind the one we had.

Eventually I followed Tom out to the parking lot and as we did the bottom fell out of the sky and it rained harder than it had before. Also, the sirens went off again.

I survived one bout with the sirens so I didn't panic. I used my phone again and looked at the wording of the warning and I found out a storm that was producing rain wrapped tornadoes was eight minutes from my location. Eight minutes! From all the devastation and tragedy that we have seen in Missouri my tolerance for this weather was over. I was not going to play around with this weather and I hammered the accelerator to get out of the path of these storms. I had no basement, no shelter, my only option was to out run it.

I got on the road and headed to I-465 with the sound of the sirens blaring. The word "intense" describes nothing of what I was going through. The sky was now a twisting mix of black and gray clouds. The storm was moving in and it was circulating. This was bad and I had to get out of it.

As I neared the interstate I noticed a slew of vehicles parked under the overpass. I had an experience under an overpass in 1999 that was almost as bad as it could have been. The story is in my book, but the van my dad and I was in started to lift off ever so slightly before it set back down. Because of this I may have been a little more sensitive to what was going on, but I decided I was not going to stay stationary.

When I got on the interstate the winds picked up and the skies started swirling even more. The only thing I knew was that I was in trouble. Oddly enough at this point in time my phone rang and it was my mom so I answered and put her on speaker phone.

She asked me if I was okay as I think the Weather Channel was saying Indy was getting pounded. I said I was highly concerned and I decided at this point in time that my childhood debate of speeding and tornadoes was coming true. That debate, which you can read by clicking that link, was, "Is it okay to speed if there are tornadoes?"

When I got to the Southeast turn of I-465 I looked to my right and saw the start of a funnel cloud. I had had enough of this and I put the hammer down. 70mph, 80 mph, 90mph and even higher. I was not going to stand by and wait for it to get me. I could hear the sirens over the rain and my mom, who was still on the phone, and I was getting more and more concerned. When I got to the Pendleton Pike exit the rain was so great that I could not see. Because of this I got of the interstate and then started driving West. Why did I go West? I don't know and this was the point that I lost direction. I was so frazzled, so overwhelmed, that I was driving with no direction and no reason. There was green skies to the north, swirling and possibly tornadic skies to the south, and a sky that I can only describe as death black to the west, and I was driving west.

I told my mom at this point in time that I was calling my sister who was watching local television and she said that, "You need to go north ASAP. Just go North, if you get six miles north you will be out of the path of the storm." This gave me direction.

I called my mom back and I got closer and closer to getting to the interstate. The roads were vacant and I got caught at an extended red light. I am a rules stickler, but looking in my rear view mirror I could see the black wall cloud nearing. Because of this I went back to the speeding and tornadoes and I decided to break the law once again by running the light. Then I ran another light, and one more and I was back on the interstate driving towards safety.

Once I got the northeast side the skies cleared up and I was able to breath again. Were there tornadoes on the ground? I'm not sure, but I wasn't going to wait to find out. I had to get out as I have experienced a storm once and to feel powerless is something I am never going to do again. Did I overreact? I certainly don't think so; I think the only flaw in my actions was when I started driving aimlessly due to being so overwhelmed.

Eventually I got to my sister's and my friend Ryan, who came here last year to attend all the races (this Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500) called to say he was in those storms I had gotten out of.

So that was my day. I thought it would be a day with a lazy tone to it, you know, one of those take it easy days. Days have a way of ending up not how we planned and moving forward I am going to pay attention to the weather a little bit more and I hope to avoid, if this ever happens again, that moment of driving aimlessly.