Santa Rosa Beach man has attended every Indy 500 race for the last three decades
Many spend the Memorial Day weekend grilling, basking or sunbathing at the beach and pool, or just relaxing. Gulf Place resident Tom Fillingim will spend the unofficial start of the summer season the same way he has for the past 32 years: at the Indy 500.
This weekend will mark Fillingim's 33rd consecutive year at the race. He has attended every one since 1981.
Not one to look back to the days of his youth when he grew up enamored with the sport, Fillingim thanks his mother for igniting the racing fire in him as an adult.
"I was driving my parents from Boston to visit my brother in Colorado, and we stopped at the racing museum in Indianapolis," he recalls. "My mom said to me, 'I would really like to see this race before I am gone.' "
Being a good son, Fillingim inquired about purchasing tickets for the next race, which required him filling out four pages of an application to get on a waiting list. But the effort paid off, and he scored with tickets for the next year.
Afterwards, Fillingim went across the road to a small hotel and inquired about making reservations for the weekend of next year's race. The people behind the front desk scoffed at his request and said there was no way as they were booked. Undeterred, Fillingim explained that he would have his parents here with him and asked if he could leave his name and number just in case they had a cancellation.
"They did and called me," he says now with a laugh. "We could walk to the track! Others who were staying down the road had to get up at 3:30 a.m. as all the roads were packed."
He no longer stays at that small hotel, but now is at the J.W. Marriot where most of the drivers stay — and he takes a limo to the track.
With limited visibility of the cars and track, his seats that first year weren't the greatest, he admits, but it was a start. And afterward, he had a full-blown case of Indy fever.
"If you have ever watched the race on TV, and then see it in person, you realize that TV does not do it justice as to how fast these cars go or how huge the track is. It's so huge that you can't see the whole track," he said.
Fillingim was so fascinated that he enrolled in racing school and drove the same type of race cars at tracks all over the East Coast in the junior series in the early 1980s.
Since Fillingim has raced cars, he has an understanding of what is going on inside the car.
"I know all the controls and dials, and if one of the cars passes and I notice something going on, I can sense what is going to happen if the driver does not correct it. Racing involves a lot more than putting your foot down on the pedal. It's setting up the car and working the controls. I know how hard it is," he said.
Fillingim renewed his tickets every year at Indianapolis, and as a standing ticket holder, seat upgrades can be requested. After that first year, Fillingim requested an upgrade every year for the next six years, moving around the track until he found the exact spot he wanted to be. He still has those seats at turn No. 1. He also took his parents with him every year for the next 17 years until they were getting on in age and just couldn't do it any longer.
Now, wife Michelle will usually accompany him. If she doesn't want to go, Fillingim has no problem attending alone.
"I am into the racing aspect and it's not a social event for me," he said. "The best is the race itself."
The best years of the 32?
1993 and 1994, he says without much thought. Those were the years he was able to attend with Team Penske, and they won.
"We were taken to the track and back in a limo with a police escort, and I sat in their suites with them and had all sorts of food and drinks served and attended the racing ball. Everything was first class. It was neat," he remembers.
The Fillingims will fly up to Indianapolis for five days, making sure they dine one night at St. Elmo's Steak House.
His mother has already told him she will be watching for him on TV.
"I just love the sport and the track," he says. "I'll go until I can't make it up there any more."