Why is the Indianapolis 500 such a big deal? Since its debut 100 years ago, the motorsports event has become much more than a race, reaching the level of cultural phenomenon. And it’s about more than the cars. Here’s a look at what makes Indy . . . well, Indy.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t just a place to see, but also to be seen. Motion picture stars like Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg and Morgan Freeman, along with new-age reality TV stars like The Kardashians (pictured) and famed athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong and Lynn Swann, have been seen wandering the paddock in recent years. Then there are some like the late Paul Newman (team co-owner), Late Night host David Letterman (team co-owner) and actress Ashley Judd (wife of reigning 500 champ Dario Franchitti) who have taken their need for speed to a different level.
Place of controversy
Such a prestigious event couldn’t be held without at least some disputes — and the Indianapolis 500 has had more than its share. From the trivial (Donald Trump was invited to be pace-car driver this year, but massive outcry led to him later pulling out citing “time and business constraints”) to the more significant (the 1995 event signaled the start of the “open-wheel split” which almost killed the sport in America), Indy has a knack for the dramatic. Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the fights between drivers.
While the winner’s sip of milk is perhaps the best-known practice of the Indianapolis 500, it is far from the only ritual. Race day is filled with moments that have been etched in time, from the ceremonial prerace release of balloons, the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana, to the four Gordon Pipers who greet the winner of the race (four signifying the car reaching victory lane on four wheels) and the ceremonial gulp of milk, Indy is all about tradition.
Girls, girls, girls
Mention “women” and “Indianapolis 500” in the same sentence, and you’ll likely spark a Danica Patrick conversation. While Patrick is the most successful female driver at Indy (fourth, 2005), she’s not the first — and likely not the last — as the tradition of women at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing looks to be firmly established. It all began with Janet Guthrie in 1977 and was later continued by Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher (who holds the fastest qualifying lap by a female), Patrick, Milka Duno, Ana Beatriz and Simona de Silvestro. This year, Patrick, Beatriz and de Silvestro will be joined by debutant Pippa Mann.
Family ties run deep in all of auto racing, but this year they will be obvious both on and off the track when the latest generation of two storied families take to the track. Graham Rahal, son of former winner Bobby Rahal (who has won the race as both a driver and an owner), will once more take on Marco Andretti, son of team owner and Indy 500 contender Michael Andretti and grandson of Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti, in the sport’s most prestigious event.
The Indianapolis 500 certainly knows how to create a spectacle — even before race day. With no guaranteed starting spots, this race has seen its share of drama during qualifying. In 1995, defending race winner Al Unser Jr. and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi were part of the powerhouse Penske Racing organization that missed out on the event. This year, Danica Patrick (pictured) and Marco Andretti were both on the verge of missing the race, making it in the the last minutes of qualifying.
At the cutting edge
Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been home to some unique innovations in the history of open-wheel racing. Most have been aimed at driver safety. Chief among those are the crash-data records that measure the gravity force of a crash (data which has led to many subsequent improvements); SAFER barriers, which have helped drivers survive horrific-looking crashes at high speeds; and — of all things — rearview mirrors. The first rearview mirrors to appear on any vehicle were at the 1911 500.
The need for speed is almost a primal urge, and the 500 finds a way to satisfy it. From the first running of the race, when little more than 74 mph was good enough to win, to 1996, when Arie Luyendyk broke the 237 mph mark, teams show up for the month of May looking for speed — and fans come in flocks to see who can do it best.
Not for the faint of heart
With fast speeds comes the added element of danger. From spectacular crashes that leave drivers relatively unscathed to more tragic events — 12 drivers have died as a direct result of accidents during the race (the last occurring in 1964) — the Indianapolis 500 is a risky proposition. Two others have died after competing in the race, one due to heat exhaustion and a second believed to be the result of contaminated blood received following a crash.
Where legends are made
The thing that makes the Indianapolis 500 most unique is its list of winners. The visitors to Victory Lane are a who’s who of motorsports — A.J. Foyt (pictured), Al Unser and Rick Mears lead the pack with four wins, but behind them are icons Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Emerson Fittipaldi and many others. A 500 win elevates drivers in the minds of fans young and old.