A very scary day – It’s been 15 years since the ‘race day’ tornado

Near the Intersection of State Road 37 and Southport Rd. Photos taken by Gerry and Jamie Bielinski

We entered race weekend warm and humid in 2004. As I recall, I had a very uneasy feeling in my stomach about the threat of an outbreak of tornadoes on Sunday, for the Indianapolis 500. I recall specifically leaving work Thursday night telling colleagues and producers that this could get bad, with multiple rounds of severe storms and a high likelihood of tornadoes on Sunday. With 250,000 people possibly in attendance and sitting outdoors, my uneasy feeling would unfortunately come true.

The race day started warm, humid and unstable. Thunderstorms grew severe in the mid-morning with numerous Tornado Warnings issued before the start of the race.

A dry window would develop as a warm front lifted into central Indiana. Conditions would again turn sharply later in the day.

After a few delays, the race was running but now running later into the afternoon. That added to the uneasiness as we hoped to get it in and over before the next wave. The next wave came as expected and storms turned violent before 6 p.m.

At 6, a tornado was spotted in Morgan County just south of I-70, near Little Point. This would be the storm that came dangerously close to the track. There were now multiple reports of tornadoes in and near Mooresville. At the same time, a tornado was spotted on the southwest side.

The day would produce 100 tornado reports nationwide, with 24 confirmed in Indiana that day, making it the fourth largest number of tornadoes for the state on record.

The EF2 tornado entered southwest Marion County and tracked through the south and southeast side of the city, tearing up homes and business. Remarkably, no one was killed but there were several injured. At one point, the storm lifted off the roof of a nursing home near Beech Grove. The tornado would lift near Mt. Comfort nearly two hours after touching down.

For the first time in my life, I would see a tornado. From my vantage point, travelling north on 37 in Johnson County, the tornado became visible over a tree line looking northwest toward SR 67 and I-465. The tornado would become blocked from view but while watching the horizon, transformers were blowing as I described the storm over the phone while we broadcast on-air. It was truly amazing to see but I knew we had a real threat to life as the storm traveled into the more densely populated south side of Indianapolis. This storm took aim on many of the same locations that were hit just two years earlier, in September of 2002.

The final report is linked here from the NWS Indianapolis which included their survey of damage.

A portion of their report reads:

The strongest of these tornadoes was the Indianapolis tornado, which briefly achieved F2 strength on the southeast side near Keystone Avenue between Raymond and Troy where there was significant damage to numerous homes, a nursing home and an elementary school. 26 nursing home inhabitants were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries, and the rest were relocated as the building was inhabitable. This tornado occurred within 10 miles of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where crowds were leaving the Indianapolis 500 race. In addition to this tornado, the Monrovia tornado was rated F1. All additional tornadoes from this particular supercell were rated F0, a rating corresponding to moderate tree damage and damage to outbuildings and signboards. There was also a lightning fatality in Veedersburg in Fountain County as a 24 year old male was struck while on a baseball field.

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