Little 500 drivers, fans bond during pre-race autograph session

May 26—ANDERSON — Within minutes of hearing a reminder over Anderson Speedway's public address system Saturday, nearly 100 fans had lined up outside a pavilion behind the main bleachers to get autographs from the drivers competing in the 76th running of the Little 500.

The autograph session has become one of the most well-known elements of the race day experience, its popularity fueled by what drivers and fans alike said is a unique bond between the two groups.

"In the racing community, there are some of the best people you'll ever find," said Gary Evans, who made the 45-minute drive from Fountaintown, southeast of Indianapolis, with his grandson to take in the race.

"Whether it's NASCAR or any other kind of race you go to, there's a high standard of patriotism and honor, and they show it. They're very proud of their fan base, and they show that."

The 33 drivers participating in the race signed cards, programs, checkered flags and other memorabilia for nearly 45 minutes before heading back to the pits to make final preparations for the race. Their conversations with the nearly 300 fans who filed past their tables were brief, but handshakes, fist bumps and pleasantries were abundant.

For many of them, a shared passion for racing is the common ground on which those conversations begin.

"We love the same sport, right?" said Kody Swanson, a three-time Little 500 winner who has become one of the most popular drivers on the 500 Sprint Car Tour. "I feel fortunate to get to participate in it and compete, but I'm a race fan, too. I enjoy that aspect of it and the chance just to try to help make new fans and make the fans we already have enjoy it that much more."

Other drivers appreciated the opportunity to get their minds off racing for a brief time before the green flag flew.

"It helps keep my nerves down, because if I start thinking about the race right now, my nerves just skyrocket, so it helps settle me," said Justin Harper, a Denver, Indiana, native competing in his fifth Little 500.

Speedway officials said the anticipation connected to the autograph session has become an integral part of race weekend.

"It does more for the drivers than it does for the fans, actually," said Rick Dawson, president of Anderson Speedway. "The fans...want to meet the racers and see them because they're used to seeing them in the race cars, but more than that, these drivers want to be with the fans and meet the fans that are watching them and cheering them on."

Evans said the chance to meet and greet their favorite drivers is a highlight for him and his grandson, who he said is part of a generation to which he hopes to pass along an enjoyment and appreciation of the sport.

"We grew up with racing, and the younger generation is starting to come right along with that," Evans said. "It's fun to see the drivers interact with the children. That's what it's all about."

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.