One word can describe Indianapolis during the month of May: excess. Speeds in excess of 230 mph for the Indy 500. People in excess of 350,000 descending on the city for race day. The excess of ... ahem ... "celebrating" at the renegade Friday/Saturday night tailgating sessions in the track parking lot. And that's just your typical May; this was no typical year. This year marked the 100th Running of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," and the Indy 500 planning committee pulled out all the stops.
This included an insane lineup for the annual festivities in the "Snake Pit," the section of the Speedway infield notorious for its own excess (which, historically, has included copious amounts of drinking, partying, and Mardi Gras-style nudity). Since 2012, the Snake Pit debauchery has also featured an electronic music festival. Yes, you read that correctly. A music stage with superstar DJs performing DURING the race! This year’s raving-meets-racing event featured Skrillex, Martin Garrix, Zeds Dead, and DJ Mustard. That’s like a mini Main Stage lineup for ULTRA or EDC! With a General Admission ticket to the race and additional wristband purchase for Snake Pit entry, you could rage to thundering electronic beats as early as 7am. And the music didn't stop until the checkered flag waved.
For many locals, it’s not surprising that DJs have crashed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Midwest, and Indianapolis specifically, has a rich history in electronic music dating back to the rave scene of the early-90s. In those days, a soft local economy and premature urban revitalization projects meant that abundant manufacturing and commercial retail space lay dormant. With clandestine "techno" music parties mushrooming across the country, these shuttered Indy buildings became ad hoc venues for a diverse array of regional and national DJ talent, including some of today's legends of dance music. Indy's relative proximity to Chicago, Detroit, and the college towns of Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky made the city an easy stop along the weekend circuit that ravers would trek, hitting all of the major parties state-by-state. It didn’t take long for industrious local promoters to start throwing some now-legendary events in the Circle City.
Fast forward to today and, in the four years since the Motor Speedway started hosting DJs, "EDM" and "May-in-Indy" have become synonymous. Satellite race events have gotten bigger and more abundant. Take, for example, Thursday’s pre-race party at downtown's Blu Lounge featuring Dirtybird records boss Claude VonStroke. It was the perfect way to start your engine for the weekend.
Blu Lounge is in the center of Downtown Indy, and the buzz from the sector's bustling bar district definitely ramped up the crowd's energy ahead of VonStroke’s midnight time slot. Blu is a shotgun space, with a fantastic tin ceiling and front-of-house dancefloor that creates a very intimate "Boiler Room" type setting for the DJ booth. Local promoters Slater Hogan and John Larner, themselves former touring DJs, run Keepin' It Deep, the event production company hosting VonStroke. They have cultivated a dance-savvy audience in Indianapolis, which many of their guests making their Indy debut don't expect. John Larner gives us some perspective: “A lot of the headliners we book tend to play a little basic because they assume the Indy crowd isn’t educated. For these parties, we’ve started to make it a point to prepare our headliners to just go for it and do their thing because our crowds expect it.”
There’s a different energy seeing major talent perform in a smaller venue. Large Indy-hosted events like the 500, the Superbowl, and the NCAA Final Four give opportunities not only for these venues to book high-profile talent, but also give the artists a chance to focus on the music more than the spectacle. On this night, Blu Lounge filled up quickly and was a sweatbox by 1am. It’s not often that the entirety of the VIP is throwing shapes and losing their shit, but by the time VonStroke played a 10-Year Anniversary mix of 'Who’s Afraid of Detroit?', the velvet rope crowd was joining the main dancefloor, shedding layers of clothing, climbing the furniture, and cutting loose in approval.
The following night Maxim Magazine hosted a very different type of event, a red carpet gala that leaned heavily into EDM, featuring Tiesto spinning for an exclusive crowd of glitterati. Produced by Karma International, with energizing mixers by Red Bull, Life Support recovery shots, Steak & Shake serving burgers and fries, and specialty sips provided by Hangar 1 Vodka and Maestro Dobel Tequila The party was staged at Pan-Am Plaza, formerly a large public ice skating rink renovated into a 3000+ capacity event space. Indianapolis Colts players Andrew Luck and Hugh Thornton walked the red carpet, as well as Indiana favorite son David Letterman. Flo Rida and opener DJ Irie were in attendance, with Flo giving a surprise performance of “My House” prior to Tiesto taking the stage.
Tiesto’s performance ticked all the right trance-meets-pop-EDM boxes to satisfy the lively crowd on the dancefloor, while the left, center, and right VIP areas teemed with the there-to-be-seen celebrity crowds. Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated swimsuit models rubbed shoulders with local race team owners, businessmen, scenesters and those willing to spend the wedge of cash to get a General Admission ticket to witness it all.
It’s strange to consider that, as recently as 2011, the thought of electronic music as the entertainment focus of such a high-profile event would be ludicrous. A short 5 years later and Indy’s “beautiful people” crowd is clamoring to attend a show with not just electronic music as the featured performance, but a trance music legend and burgeoning US pop star in Tiesto. The contrast between the make-you-sweat urgency of the VonStroke gig and the slick semi-detachment of the revelers at the Maxim party means there really is something for every party-goer during Indy 500 week. For those new to electronic music, these events can be a catalyst. For the old guard, they're validation that, while Indy has often been looked down upon as “flyover country,” they’ve always been here carrying the flag and now is their time.
Indianapolis certainly went big for the 100th Running of the 500. There can be little doubt that things will be grander, more spectacular, and more excessive when May 2017 rolls around.