Watching the Indy 500

Cars roaring around the famed 2 1/2-mile oval during the Indy 500. (IMS photo by Forrest Mellott)

There was an explosion of sound.  A howling pack of 33 open wheel race cars came screeching out of Turn Four, thundering down the front stretch. As drivers battled to get their cars into passing positions, the high-pitched roars of the engines hit like a punch, reverberating off the grandstands. I grinned. The fabled Indianapolis 500 had begun.

I grew up watching my dad spend every Sunday of Memorial Day weekend hunched over his carefully plotted charts of the Indy 500 race, meticulously ticking off laps, marking drivers’ position, tracking the number of pit stops, updating speeds, positions and weather conditions. I, too, became a fan, blocking out that same Sunday to stay home to watch the race. But this year, I saw “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” from the grandstands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The Indy 500 is the world’s largest single day sporting event.
  • It is the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the world’s most famous auto race.
  • Good for anyone whose blood gets racing at the roar of 33 high-powered engines. Families with older children who can enjoy three hours of loud, high speed racing and hot weather.

The traditional military fly-by is a pre-race tradition. (IMS photo by Shawn Gritzmacher)

May Is Indy 500 Month in Indianapolis

Come May, the Indy 500 permeates Indianapolis. Black and white-checkered flags are everywhere, from airline check in counters to flagpoles in front of the downtown hotels.  Banners announcing the race hang from lampposts. Businesses and restaurants on Massachusetts Avenue host a May-long “Mass Ave Artful Tread,” competition, in which each participant vies for prize for the most creative work made from used tires, many donated by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s Called the Indianapolis 500, but the Race Is Held in Speedway. The Speedway is in the town of Speedway, about 12 minutes west of downtown Indianapolis. Speedway takes on a carnival atmosphere in the days leading up to the race. Checkered flags and American flags  festoon homes and lawns. Fans set up their camps and party in RV lots.  Vendors sell turkey legs, tacos, t-shirts, parking places, necklaces with driver’s names spelled out with beads, sun glasses, scanners, bottled water and even tickets to see the world’s smallest burro.

Dario Franchitti on Carb Day (photo by Mary Ann Hemphill c 2012)

Pre-Race Traditions and Sights

1963 was the last time carburetors were in Indy cars, but the Friday before the race is still called Carb Day. It’s the final day of practice for the drivers, an hour to get their cars into ideal racing shape. By Friday night, a definite buzz pops up around Indianapolis, in the restaurants and in the hotel lobbies — a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement.

Saturday’s 500 Festival Parade in downtown Indianapolis includes floats, giant balloons, marching bands, celebrities –and Indy drivers. Famous drivers such as Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford are on floats or in classic cars.  Each Indy 500 driver rides in a convertible pace car.  Only the Tournament of Roses Parade and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade draw more spectators than this one.

Tradition runs deep at the Indy 500. It starts with the 5:33 a.m. Race Day cannon shot that signals the opening of the track gates. Those 33 minutes represent the number of drivers in the race. The parade of fans heading into the Speedway could be termed “The Greatest Spectacle in People Watching.”

I saw  it all — families, aging hippies, cool chicks with long legs, fat guys with tank tops and tattoos, race fanatics who probably have not missed a 500 in decades. Some exuberant fans costume themselves — hats, shades, earrings, shirts, pants — entirely in black and white checks. Spectators are allowed to bring in their own coolers (with size limits) and drinks (alcohol ok, glass bottles not ok).

Hundreds of balloons fly above the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS photo by Dan Boyd)

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the world’s largest spectator sports facility.  With more than 250,000 permanent seats and typically 50,000 more spectators in the infield, there are approximately 300,000 fans at the Indy 500. The infield is so vast that it could hold Vatican City, the Roman Colosseum, Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl and the Wimbledon Campus.

Pre-race rituals are timed to the minute. At 11:30 a.m., the Indy 500 drivers are introduced. At 11:53, there is a U.S. Military Aircraft fly-by during the singing of the National Anthem. The “Drivers to Your Cars” announcement comes at 11:56. Then the invocation, a rifle volley and “Taps.” Next, as hundreds of red, white and blue balloons were released, Jim Nabors sings Back Home in Indiana. For me, this signals the beginning of the summer.

“Start Your Engines!”

At five minutes past noon comes the long anticipated “Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” command.  Engines running, the cars move out row by row into the three required pace laps, drivers properly maintaining their starting positions, driving side to side a bit to warm up the tires. At 12:12 the green flag waved. The Indianapolis 500 was underway.

Seeing — and hearing — those powerful cars roaring around the 2 1/2-mile oval track was absolutely electrifying.  For 200 thrilling laps, each driver pushed his or her car and racing skills to the limit, jockeying for position, setting up passes, fending off passes and whizzing in and out of the pits for fuel, tires and adjustments. The high level of skills and strengths demanded of the drivers and their pit crews for 500 miles is astounding. Extreme heat made their jobs even harder this year. The thermometer hit 91 degrees, just one short of the record.  The heat on the track was worse — 133 degrees during Lap 140. Along with the cars, time sped by as the leaders maneuvered their way to the front, each pursuing their place on Victory Circle and its celebratory traditions.

Scott Dixon swigs the milk after his 2008 Indy 500 victory. (IMS photo by Dan Helrigel)

More Traditions Await the Winner

The joyful winner exuberantly swigs milk from a bottle, a tradition that began in 1933 when Louis Meyer requested a glass of cooling buttermilk after winning his second Indy 500. The 5-foot, 4.75-inch sterling silver Borg-Warner Trophy has bas-relief portraits, names and winning years of each Indy 500 victor. Legendary Indy drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Sr., and Rick Mears are the only drivers who appear more than three times on the trophy.

The winner kneels to kiss the bricks on the start-finish line. That famous “Yard of Bricks” is the remainder of the 3.2 million paving bricks that were laid atop the original stone-and-tar track in 1909. Watching the race in person, you realize just how very difficult it is to be the one to kiss those bricks.

Practicalities

  • To purchase General Admission Tickets for the Indianapolis 500 visit www.imstix.com
  • Reserved seats are sold by mail only, through an application process. The form is available at www.imstix.com.  You will be requested to indicate your first, second, and third choices.  Orders are filled by the date received as well as by the number of years a customer has purchased tickets directly from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  • The general public can purchase a Bronze Badge that provides gate admission and garage access every day EXCEPT Race Day.  Call the IMS Credential Office for purchase instructions and pricing:  317-492-6500.
  • Be prepared for hot weather.  Wear loose-fitting clothing, plaster on the sunscreen and drink lots of cool water.  The track provides dozens of misting  stations for cool downs.

 

About 

Mary Ann Hemphill has written about and photographed destinations around the world. She has contributed to several Fodor's Guides, and her travel articles appear in magazines, newspapers and on several websites. She has also written two iPhone/iPad apps: "Newport Beach Insider" and "Virginia's Historic Triangle, a Travel Guide."