It has been just about a year since the following historic scene took place at Monte Carlo. The dialogue will be paraphrased a bit, since even the principals recall the talk as being a bit fanciful. David Thieme, the shadowy financial genius who is head of Essex Overseas Petroleum Corp., looked levelly at his friend, the great chef Roger Vergè, and murmured, "Tell me. what kind of wine would you say goes with the Indy 500?"
Vergè thought about it seriously, looking at the ceiling and rolling the idea around on his tongue, and then snapped his fingers. "But, of course. I'd say something from Provence," he said. "Um, possibly one of my own Moulin de Mougins, say, the blanc de blancs. It's unassuming in its way, yet robust enough to withstand the roar of the race cars. As for the red, well [perhaps the hint of a Gallic shrug here, the palms up], possibly a Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau Lafite-Rothschild."
Thieme nodded, looking serious as always behind his tinted glasses, and said, "Fine, then. Pack up 15 cases. Plus your patès, of course—particularly the quail. And arrange for the caviar. We're going to Indianapolis."
And so a stunning social rite was introduced this May at the old Brickyard. With luck, it might become a glamorous tradition, more heady in its way than the annual 500 Festival Queen's Ball—which. Lord knows, is pretty staggering all by itself. For it turned out that David Thieme had, indeed, been serious about going to Indy with all of his exotic goodies, and, the next thing anybody knew, there were all these folks standing around his hospitality suite at the track. They were drinking the wines—not from paper cups, but real crystal—nibbling at the veal terrine with its piquant sauce verte, and eyeing the chocolate mousse. It also turned out, of course, that Vergè's selections were exactly the right wines to go with the 500, but that is getting ahead of the story. To fully understand the shattering significance of what Thieme has wrought, one has to go back a bit in time.
June 22, 1980
For almost as long as there has been an Indy 500, there have been hospitality suites at the track, corporate hideaways where various automotive sponsors entertain clients, friends and, of course, the motor sports press. The cement wall that makes up the backside of the old Tower Terrace grandstand is honeycombed with such suites. In spite of the fact that they are literally holes in the wall, some of the suites are quite lavish, complete with carpeting and paneling, while others offer little more than a linoleum floor, a desk or two and an old Kelvinator refrigerator full of beer.
Since most sponsors tend to be a bit lax about admission, all through May the suites become a freeloaders' row, and living the good life at Indy becomes a race within the race. It is possible for an enterprising reporter to stroll from spot to spot, polishing off a free beer and handful of Fritos here, a homemade sandwich there, or—if his timing is just right—some cold fried chicken for lunch, followed by more beer and potato chips down the line. Dozens of sportswriters return to their hometown newspapers with nearly all of their meal-expense money still squirreled away (you know who you are out there, you rascals).
And all of that explains why David Thieme and his associates, with their smooth wines and velvety sauces, came as such a shock to Indy. They were so different, so elegant. They were so, well, so continental, and in Indy, you can spot continental every time. Still, "We are not trying to falsely impress anybody or to put this place down," said Thieme. Nor was it a case of wretched excess, he said. "We just wanted to bring a touch of Monte Carlo ambience to Indianapolis."
That made perfect sense, since he lives like this all the time. A native of Minnesota, the 38-year-old Thieme now resides in Monaco, where his home and office at the Hotel de Paris overlook the sparkling harbor. His Essex Corporation wheels and deals in oil, maintaining a studied air of cool mystery about it all. Among the recreational things he does with his millions is sponsor a Formula I racing team, with the redoubtable Colin Chapman as chief designer and ex-world champion Mario Andretti as top driver. This year, in a U.S. tie-in with Roger Penske, Thieme is sponsoring the Indy-car efforts of Andretti in selected races that won't conflict with the Grand Prix schedule. The fact that Essex has nothing to sell, unlike most sponsors, makes this one of the great class acts of the year.
On the freeloading circuit, there will never again be anything as classy. And certainly nothing so incongruous. Where other hospitality suites offered salted peanuts, beer and salami sandwiches on Wonder bread, Thieme was serving up Iranian caviar, cold salmon with sauce Maurice, roast filet of beef feuilletage with sauce choron, Paris-Brest for dessert and—to wash it all down—a 1976 Le Montrachet and Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau Lafite-Rothschild. And, yes, it is absolutely true that one freeloader smacked her lips, holding out her glass for a refill, and said, "Lissen, is this here French wine imported?"
Was it ever imported. This here French wine, the Montrachet. for example, costs $96 a bottle. The Lafite-Rothschild costs $150 per bottle—and the Indy crowd was swilling it like it was Thunderbird or Annie Greensprings, while David Thieme looked on benignly. He entertains this lavishly on the Grand Prix circuit all the time, at every stop.
Thieme brought along Vergè, whose restaurant, the Moulin de Mougins, near Cannes, was awarded its third star in 1975. Vergè flew in for one day to supervise a prerace banquet at Indianapolis' brand-new Mon R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ve restaurant, which promises to be a mind-blower in months to come. On other days, food was rushed from Mon R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢ve to Thieme's suite at the track. Simply because it was convenient, the crystal, china, linens and fine silver service were rented for the occasion.
And when it was all over, when the last morsel of duck galantine was gone and the last glass of Chateau Haut-Brion 1970 had been poured, everyone agreed that this had been an extra-special, a vintage year at Indy. (In terms of hospitality, that is. Sadly, in terms of racing, Mario's car dropped out after 71 laps.) Thieme allowed that he just might decide to do it all over again next year.
One certainly hopes that he does. He had indeed accomplished his goal: to bring a bit of Grand Prix ambience to the Brickyard. Which, by the way, is not to scorn anybody at Indy. The Formula I crowd might dress fancier—nubby linen sport coats instead of nylon Pennzoil jackets—but when you get right down to it, gang, they're still just plain freeloaders like anybody else. You know who you are out there, you rascals.