Dispatch from the Brickyard, Indianapolis, Indiana: I’m trying to decide if the 2014 California Avalon Cabernet or the 2017 Columbia Valley 14 Hands Merlot will go better with my goat cheese, pear, and micro arugula beet cup. Well, what the hell, it’s an open bar… I’ll start with the Cab and follow it up with the Merlot when I sample the braised beef en croute.
I pass the elegantly printed menu to my wife and lean back on the richly padded white leather sofa. To my left is one of the three bars in the Sky Lounge. Above it, the largest TV outside of Times Square. To my right, tastefully arranged seating groups of couches are interspaced with bar-height tables decked out with crisp linen, fresh flowers, sparkling wine glasses, and polished flatware.
Wearing black ties, waiters and waitresses circulate among the race fans, carrying trays of hors d’oeuvres. Doormen open the double glass doors of the lounge as a shuttle van deposits another half dozen fans at the end of the red carpet for the finals of the 2017 Red Bull Air Race season. Now this is the way to enjoy an air race.
It’s just too bad there’s no racing going on.
I turn and look out the long bank of windows that face the racecourse. They’re splattered with rain. Ugly grey clouds are nearly kissing the tops of the white and orange pylons, which sway back and forth in the wind.
The final day of Race 8 in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship is off to a bad start. Meanwhile, the official hostess of the club, British TV personality Abi Griffiths, keeps assuring us that even if the race is cancelled there’s a full lineup of fun activates scheduled for the club, and that a great day is on tap.
It will take more than two glasses of wine to convince me of that, I think, as I glare at the sky.
Well, it’s old news by now, but luckily, a bit past mid-day, the weather (barely) cleared enough for the main event — although the Challenger Class heats were cancelled, and their winners decided based on the previous day’s qualifying runs.
But battling the elements, the Master Class flew all three of their heats, half the racers being bumped out in each round as they progressed towards the podium.
It’s fun stuff, I’ll grant you that, but at one point the breathless announcer, caught up in the action and his own rhetoric excitedly gushed, “Remember folks, this isn’t acrobatics, this is air racing!”
No, it isn’t.
Not in my book. A competition? Yes. A damn fine spectator sport? Sure. A demonstration of superb flying skill? Absofreakinlutely. But an air race? Ha!
The Red Bull “Air Race” is really just a series of timed acrobatic performances, engineered into a complex global competition. It has more in common with Olympic gymnastics than traditional air racing, if you ask me. Heck, no two “racers” are ever on the course at the same time.
But like I said, it’s fun stuff. And easy to follow.
Fan support and the fans themselves
Unlike the Reno Air Races, the official Red Bull race program has an excellent section explaining how the heats are designed and how pilots move through the system, as well as detailing the various time penalties that can be assessed. I guess I won’t be writing Red Bull Air Racing for Dummies any time soon!
As the racing finally got underway, members of the Sky Lounge crowded out on the soggy outdoor terrace to watch the runs and cheer for their heroes, returning to the warm sanctuary of the lounge between heats. Back inside, a quickly updated race board showed us the results of each pairing as the pilots advanced from the round of 14 to the round of 8 to the final four.
So just whom was I sharing the lounge with? In the seating group to the right of my gang was the family of Master Class racer Pete McLeod of Canada. My first clue to their identity was the giant Canadian flag they draped over the back of their couch. The second clue was their “crew” lanyards. McLeod lost at Indy in the Round of 14, but took the Bronze for the global championship.
At the next seating area toward the main bar were the wife and child of Race 5 from the Master Class, Cristian Bolton of Chile.
Sharing our conversation pit were French employees of watchmaker Breitling. Their lyrical language wasn’t the only non-English one being spoken. The air was alive with conversations in Czech, German, Japanese, Spanish, and languages I couldn’t sort out. Was that Swedish or Danish?
But it wasn’t just the race families, world travelers, and the rich and famous making up the Sky Lounge. One table over from us was the home-schooled son of a police officer, a boy of about 10 who painted and repainted his cherished collection of die cast Red Bull race planes as the season progressed to match the livery of his current favorites. I felt compelled to give him a Sport Air Racing League challenge coin for his race collection.
Beyond the truly classy environment, the generous bar, and the excellent food, we had special visitors. The Red Bull doctor came in and spoke. Pilots drifted in, signed autographs, and posed for selfies with fans. Even 2014 Word Champ Nigel Lamb was on hand.
My Sky Lounge pass — a thick plastic badge trimmed with titanium-colored metal featuring an embossed three-blade propeller, and complete with barcodes, holograms, and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale logo — also granted me access to the race airport and the pit area.
But as you might have guessed, all this luxury and all these perks did not come cheaply.
A heavy investment
The cost of a Sky Lounge pass for the final day of the final race of the season — and the crowning of the 2017 world champion — was $670 per person. The lounge was open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 pm on the final day of the race, so watching the race in high style cost me about $103 per hour.
OK, if you just fainted, consider that you’d be hard-pressed to rent a Cessna 172 for that rate, and the Cessna doesn’t come with all the Red Bull you can drink, much less smoked paprika seared mahi-mahi or stout grilled flat iron steak with a horseradish demi gaze.
That said, for a family of five, it felt a bit like making the down payment on that 172…
So did I get my money’s worth? Sadly, unlike my recent less-luxurious experience at the National Championship Air Races’ Checkered Flag Club, I’d have to say no.
Because even though I had a grand time, and while Red Bull and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway absolutely nailed the luxury experience with the atmosphere, service, food, booze, guests, and more, they failed on the key element of watching an air race.
The view, frankly, sucked.
The Sky Lounge’s “unrivaled views” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were, in my opinion, worse than poor. I guess I had expected that in this high-end racing venue, the Red Bull folks would take over some sort of skybox high on the grandstands at the racetrack.
Instead, we were in a tent-type building set up on the flat ground in the center of the speedway, forward of the famous Pagoda. We had a good view of the start gate and the first turn, but that was about it. The chicane pylons on the backside of the course were largely hidden by trees, and the finish air gate was completely hidden from view.
The cheapest seats in the grandstands, at $25 each, had a better view of the race than we did.
Based on video clips I’ve seen online, this may be unique to the Brickyard. Or put another way, I don’t believe that all of the Sky Lounges have such terrible views.
Still, given the cost, the view of the race should be splendid at any venue, much less the grand finale, so this was the deal killer for me, and I can’t picture myself going back.
But that said, my peeps weren’t in 100% agreement. At the end of the day, before the shuttle van was even through the tunnel under the race track taking us back to our members-only parking lot — which was closer than the crew parking lot — my air race-loving 91-year-old mother turned to me and asked, “So, when’s the next race? Do I have time to unpack when we get home?”
For a full rundown of the final race of the season, go to AirRace.RedBull.com.