“Honey, you have a bit of butter dripping down your chin,” said Robin Miller as he handed me a napkin. I am not normally this messy, but then again, I am not normally eating a piping hot ear of fresh corn doused in melted butter and parmesan. This is a day of ‘I don’t normally.
I don’t normally make it a habit of eat -ing something that takes three hands and a bushel of napkins. I also don’t normally let people call me ‘honey’- but Robin Miller gets away with that, from him it’s a term of endearment. Above all, I don’t normally hang out with a bunch of IndyCar drivers outside of work. Today was a special occasion.
“Welcome to the 11th annual Robin Miller and Tony Kanaan Day at the Indiana State Fair!” yelled Robin triumphantly. The quasi-famous writer turned NBC Sports Pit reporter looks forward to this every year. A staple in the IndyCar paddock, Miller arranges for a group of drivers, their significant others and varying IndyCar workers to spend an evening together at the historic Indiana State Fairgrounds munching on Midwestern delicacies and learning about the racing history of the property we were on.
This year’s driver lineup included Tony Kanaan (of course) and his wife Lauren, Conor Daly, James Hinchcliffe and his new bride Becky, and IndyCar rookie Marcus Ericsson and his girlfriend Alex. Both Marcus and Alex were from Sweden and had yet to experience the true red white and blue fair before. They were the guests of honor.
Once our party arrived at the correct Pork Tenderloin tent, of which there are many, we set off.
“We come every year,” explained Lauren Kanaan “we bring our kids on their own night, this is more just fun amongst friends. The Indiana Dairy Association booth is always the first stop to get grilled cheeses… Tony can even eat it in one bite!” Walking up to the circular-shaped black and white cow painted building, I could see that everyone else at the fair that night had the same idea. After slowly shuffling to the front of the line, Robin tossed a couple of bills to the teenager inside and said, “Give me however many grill cheeses that is.” Walking away with a comically teetering Dr. Seuss- like stack of grilled cheese sandwiches, he handed them out to anyone that might want one in our group. I was determined to try everything.
It was a similar routine going with fried Oreos, fried cookie dough, fried cake batter, fried mozzarella sticks, fried cinnamon donuts, fried funnel cakes, and – Robin’s favorite—fried apple turnovers. Ever the adventurist, Marcus tried everything as well. “Actually, the fried Oreos are pretty good!” he chewed, wiping away a smear of powdered sugar.
Aimed at the colorful midway, we slowly progressed towards the games. Strangely enough in the crowd, fans occasionally stopped us to take a picture but more often stared and whispered in recognition. Everyone was most excited to see Tony, for his career in IndyCar has been the longest and he was the only one with his face on the BorgWarner trophy.
“Let’s see how athletic you are!” yelled Robin as he steered Marcus to the nearest basketball shooting game. “Have you ever held a basketball or thrown a football- and not the soccer kind of football but the football kind of football?” Marcus shook his head with a nervous grin starting to form. What did he sign himself up for?
“Here honey, we have this group here and everyone is going to take a turn. We will just keep shooting until we win some.” A couple hundred dollars and lots of attempts later, we as a group toted numerous 4 ft. tall stuffed animals with bulging eyes. Though James, Conor and Tony each won their own, Lauren Kanaan was far and away the best at the carnival games, walking away with a prize under each arm and a massive stuffed elephant perched on her shoulders.
“The fairgrounds are around the big horse track here-,” pointed Robin “That dirt track was where they always held the Hoosier Hundred. The likes of AJ (Foyt) and Mario (Andretti), Parnelli (Jones) and Jim (Hurtubise), all those guys that raced Indy in the 50s, 60s, 70s, they all raced here as well. They raced open wheel Champ cars- what they now call Silver Crown. If you could win the Hoosier Hundred, you’d for sure have a ride for Indy. It was a different time.” Robin sighed and passed around more napkins. Sadly, the Hoosier Hundred had its last year at the fairgrounds this past May and the facility was set to be paved over. Robin telling these stories was his way of preserving what was left of the history.
The sun set as we listened to stories from Robin. Kanaan appeared to have fallen asleep with his head rested on a giant stuffed animal. Marcus and Alex spoke to each other in Swedish and we all were starting to sweat out the sugary sweetness from what we had eaten earlier in the night.
We parted ways and I waddled back to my car, filled with stories and fried dough and tired from laughing. I cannot wait to come back next year.