How to Attend the Indianapolis 500 on a Budget

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Photo: Jonathan Ferrey (Getty Images)

Attending a racing event comes at a cost — and the bigger the event, the bigger hit to your bank account. As the premier motorsport event in America, the Indianapolis 500 can get very pricey if you’re not ready for it. But as I, a certified poor kid, can attest, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, you can attend the Indy 500 on a pretty tight budget, so long as you know what you’re doing.

Plan Early

The best way to score cheap tickets for any race is to start planning well in advance of the event. If you buy your Indy 500 tickets as soon as tickets go on sale, for example, you’ll be greeted with much lower prices — and more options — than if you try to book the week of the race.

The same goes for hotels and flights. While most everyone in the general Indianapolis region knows to permanently inflate prices around the Memorial Day weekend, you’ll have a much better shot of scoring a deal several months in advance than you would if you were trying to book lodging today.

Split the Costs

The easiest way to save money — and my biggest secret to attending races on a budget — is to travel in a group. Your lodging costs will be drastically reduced if you post up with friends. That $250 rental car or $80 Uber ride is a lot more affordable when you’re splitting the cost four ways.

It’s not always glamorous. I’ve stayed in a one-bedroom hotel with no fewer than six people and squished four people into a small tent before, and it’s not exactly comfortable. But it is cheap, and sometimes you have to sacrifice a little comfort to keep your wallet happy.

You’ll Probably Have to Travel

According to a Money.com story from 2016, the average out-of-town attendee spent between $785 and $900 on flights to Indianapolis for the Indy 500. That is, to put it lightly, a no-go for those of us looking to save money at every turn.

Your best bet is to find an alternative means of travel. I used to fly to Boston and then road trip to Indianapolis with a friend. I’ve flown into Chicago or Detroit and rented a car with a few friends, then drove into Indy for the race. I’ve even taken the train! Just make sure you’re doing the math; a $500 flight to Chicago and a $300 rental car isn’t a steal unless you’re able to split the rental car costs with a friend.

If you really have to travel directly into Indianapolis, set up a Google alert for flight price fluctuations as early as possible. You’ll receive an alert when tickets are cheapest, so you’ll know when to book.

Getting to the Track

Arriving at the track and attempting to park on race day is, politely, a shit show. Traffic is always backed up, even if you arrive early or leave late, and parking can get expensive on race day (though there are plenty of locals who are happy to let you park in their lawn for $5 to $20).

Driving to the track and parking is totally fine if you’re showing up with a ton of friends — but my group has actually started taking Ubers on race day morning. Just before we hit heavy traffic, we ask the driver to let us out and leave a generous tip; that way, we’re able to split costs, the driver doesn’t have to sit around in traffic and can get another ride, and we can finish up the last stint on foot (which is generally faster than driving). We then usually end our day splurging on some hot food at a restaurant in Speedway; by the time we wrap up dinner, Ubers are cheaper, and traffic has cleared.

Another great option? Biking! If you can rent a bicycle for the weekend, there’s a good chance it’ll be cheaper than renting a car, and you can chain it up in Speedway.

Finally, if you’re able to stomach the Coke Lot, you can camp there and walk into the track — but that’s generally an awful experience

Be Prepared to Be a Little Uncomfortable

Your lodging for the Indy 500 probably isn’t going to be great if you’re doing the race on a budget. Hotels are going to be expensive, no matter how early you book. Airbnbs anywhere near downtown Indy or Speedway will also be expensive. You’re probably going to have to compromise somewhere.

You can get a hotel or an Airbnb, but your best bet is to nab a place that’s a good distance from the track while also splitting the cost with some friends. Or you can camp at the track, which isn’t particularly enjoyable, since the Indy 500 campgrounds are packed with Snake Pit partiers and no permanent bathroom facilities.

Pack Your Own Snacks

The call of track food and beer will be strong. Resist the urge. You can bring large coolers and backpacks into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; take advantage of that fact by stocking up on your own food and drinks. You can thank me when you avoid spending $8 on a can of shitty beer because you’re able to pull a cold one right out of your bag.

Pro tip: avoid bagged ice and instead freeze some slightly-less-than-full bottles of water. You’ll keep your beverages cold, but you’ll also have a cool drink of water when you realize you’ve drank a little too much of the other stuff.

Where to Splurge

If you’re going to splurge anywhere during your Indy 500 adventure, spend the extra money securing a solid seat. General Admission for the Indy 500 is fine, but having a dedicated seat makes the rest of your experience so much nicer, since you can hang out in the Pagoda Plaza to watch the pre-race festivities and then later have a decent view of all the action.

If you buy a GA ticket right now, you can get one for $45. If you want a reserved seat, however, you can grab one for as low as $55. If you want the most expensive seat at the race, it’s still only $135. I can attest that the more expensive seats are worth it; many of them are shaded, which means you can avoid the race day sunburn, and they’re located near permanent bathroom facilities. Wins all around!

What about the Bronze Badge?

Hardcore IndyCar fans will likely have heard of the Bronze Badge; buy one of these and pin it to your lapel, and you have gate admission and garage access to every day of the Month of May — excluding race days (like the 500 or the GMR Grand Prix; those are both extra fees).

But at $160, it’s not worthwhile if you’re just popping in for a short while on, say, Carb Day and Race Day. Save your money and opt for a Bronze Badge when you can hit up a qualifying session or practice day to watch the action from Gasoline Alley.

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