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Sports The guy who watched 2020 Indy 500 from a tree reflects on the day: 'I had to turn people away'

17:27  13 may  2021
17:27  13 may  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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INDIANAPOLIS — Joe Malia will be in the first turn penthouse B, the same seat he's sat in for the past 20 years or so. Section 22, row E, seat ...

Malia didn't sit in that seat last year. No one sat in a seat at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the Indy 500 was held without fans due to COVID-19.

But Malia's name  -- or at least his idea -- has become race legend. He is that quirky guy from Chicago who conjured up a way to watch live -- on a platform in a tree overlooking the back stretch of the track -- the 2020 Indy 500.

a man standing next to a tree: With a great view of the back stretch, Joe Malia, of Chicago, stands in a makeshift treehouse outside the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. Malia, who has attended 39 Indianapolis 500 races, says he couldn't not be at the race for year 40. © Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar With a great view of the back stretch, Joe Malia, of Chicago, stands in a makeshift treehouse outside the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. Malia, who has attended 39 Indianapolis 500 races, says he couldn't not be at the race for year 40. "I paid them for this," he said of the homeowner's property and tree. "They built this for me. It's really the only spot you could do this. It took some investigating." Malia says he is rooting for Ed Carpenter Racing driver Ed Carpenter, the "hometown boy."

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"You certainly opened up a can of worms," Malia said Wednesday when he picked up the phone. We did? It was his idea.

Malia was referring to the IndyStar article that broke his tree-stand news and prompted an avalanche of calls from media outlets nationwide. Heck, he's still getting calls and has interviews set up this week.

Alas, his fame is waning. The calls are less frequent and people are back at the Indy 500 this month.

And that platform he had built in the kind stranger's yard? It's been taken down.

"I was kind of baffled by that," Malia said.

a person wearing sunglasses taking a selfie: Joe Malia drove in from Chicago Monday to take a grounds tour of IMS and scope out how he could make it to his 40th Indy 500 in a row. © Joe Malia Joe Malia drove in from Chicago Monday to take a grounds tour of IMS and scope out how he could make it to his 40th Indy 500 in a row.

So he will be in the same old seat he's always been in come May 30. And he's not quite sure how he feels about that. He knows which seat was better, but it was also surreal -- watching from that perch.

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"Even though I had the best seat in the house last year," he said. "I didn’t want to go back in the tree."

'How much to get up there?'

Being in the tree was quite a hassle when you get right down to it, especially before the race began, Malia said. People wouldn't stop coming by.

The news crews were there, then just about everyone else, it seemed, he said.

"It was crazy. It was crazy all morning because people wanted up there. They found out," he said. "People were coming by yelling up, 'How much to get up there?' I had to turn people away. We had five people up there. I don't know what the load rating was."

Malia brought his three sons and a rookie Indy 500 fan, like he does every year to share the race with. But when a man came by and told him his story, about how in the 1960s his family was so poor his dad would sneak them in the back fence, and then he started crying.

"'I was like, 'Hey man, you think you could make it up that tree?'" Malia said. "Today's your lucky day, man.'"

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The man made it up. The race soon started. Malia put his headphones on and reveled in the moment.

All Malia really wanted was to see the cars, hear the roar and watch the race as he had every year. He got that.

"It was like race day other than the crowd," he said. "But the race was the race. It was exciting."

When it was over, Malia's crew carved their initials into the tree, along with T.S. for winner Takuma Sato and the year 2020.

"We kind of felt it was a historical thing what we did," he said. "We somehow took just a terrible time and made some good things out of it."

Malia would like for his tree stand to go down in race lore, to be remembered long after he is gone.

"I daydream about it that when I'm gone my kids will be on their way home and some guy will call into a radio show talking about the Indy 500 in 2020 that didn't have fans," Malia said. "I daydream that my kids will call in and say, 'You're wrong. We were there.'"

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: The guy who watched 2020 Indy 500 from a tree reflects on the day: 'I had to turn people away'

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