INDIANAPOLIS – For retired auto mechanic Dennis Hiemstra, it's become a tradition: Packing up the family, making the 240-mile drive south and attending the Indianapolis 500.
To save money in tight times, their 20th trip was a bit different.
Hiemstra, his daughter and four grandchildren ages nine to 16 slept three to a bed in two double beds at a $130 hotel room more than 30 miles from the track. They brought plenty of food from Kalamazoo, Mich., and planned to scale back on race-day mementos.
"We just can't afford souvenirs, and we're eating off the dollar menu at McDonald's and packing our own food," said Hiemstra's daughter Chantel, 33, who is a year out of college and still searching for a job as a dental hygienist.
"We ended up all crammed up into the same hotel room. But you've got to do what you've got to do to get here," she said.
Signs of the recession were evident in Indianapolis long before Sunday's race. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway laid off employees, lopped two days off practice time and closed a hotel just outside the track's second turn. Downtown Indianapolis hotels that typically sell out during race weekend dropped their three-night minimum stay requirements for the weekend.
Still, many fans said they wouldn't miss the race but conceded they were making different choices about the frills.
For Chad Platt, that meant his 10-year-old son, Zachary, would get only one souvenir from his first 500 — a $20 model of New Zealander Scott Dixon's No. 9 car.
Father and son rose at 6 a.m. Sunday so they could make the drive from nearby Plainfield, Ind., to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in time to get free parking in the infield.
To save on the costs of vendor food, they packed their own lunch and sat eating M&Ms and potato chips in the shade of a tree before the race started.
"We're going to buy one sandwich for ourselves — the rest we brought," said Platt, 43.
Speedway spokesman Ron Green said the track stuck with its basic advertising campaign but emphasized the race's value for families. Reserved seats for Sunday's race ranged from $40 to $150, he said, and unlike most sporting events, the track allows fans to bring in coolers and picnic baskets.
"You compare it to the Super Bowl, the Masters, it's one of the most affordable major league events in the world," Green said.
That didn't stop Chicago residents Barry and Linda Grabert from setting a race weekend budget for the first time.
The Graberts have attended every Indianapolis 500 since 1972. This year, they set a $750 limit that included a few nights at a rustic $140-a-night cabin in Brown County State Park 70 miles south of Indianapolis, as well as their meals, gas and a few souvenirs.
The couple, who are in their early 60s, bought a $50 Danica Patrick T-shirt and baseball hat at a vendor stand inside the track. But they planned to buy few other souvenirs.
"You just have to plan ahead and save ahead," said Linda Grabert. "You have to pick and choose now what you're going to do on your vacations."
Hobie Combs of Greenfield, Ind., who was hawking bags of kettle corn along a stretch of vendors just outside the track, was also filling the pinch.
Combs said sales of his corn — which goes for $8 for a big bag and $5 for the small confection — had fallen noticeably since last year, when he set up his booth in the same area.
"I'm hoping that when they come out after the race they'll be hungry," he said.