5 Reasons why the Indy 500 is the greatest race on the motorsport calendar.
There is only one event known as the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” — the Indianapolis 500.
Since 1911 when the race debuted under the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes banner, motorsports fans from around the world have descended on Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the month of May to witness the best competitors battling for glory.
Sunday marks the 99th running of the Indy 500. The winner will either join the exclusive fraternity of 69 drivers who have won the Borg-Warner Trophy — or as in the case of active competitors Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay, continue to enhance their racing resumes with an additional Brickyard victory.
Any driver fortunate enough to have won the Indianapolis 500 will describe the experience as a life-changing event.
“This is what I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid,” said Hunter-Reay after winning the 2014 Indy 500. “This is everything that I have worked for. The championship, is right next to this one but this one is probably on top of that. This is amazing.”
But that’s just one of the many reasons the Indy 500 is the greatest race on the motorsports calendar. Here are five more:
The Indianapolis 500 stands as the oldest, most prestigious event in motor racing featuring drivers from around the world. Compared to the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans and the first Monaco Grand Prix, cars were circling the yard of bricks for a dozen years before sports cars raced around the clock at Circuit de la Sarthe and nearly two decades before William Grover-Williams won on the streets of Monte Carlo.
In 1911, two years after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened, the track elected to host just one race — a 500-miler on Memorial Day. An estimated crowd of 80,000 attended the first event won by Ray Harroun over the 40-car field. With the exception of the war years (1917-1918, 1942-1945), fans have made the pilgrimage to 16th & Georgetown for 99 seasons.
Starting in 1972 and nearly every May up until last year, Jim Nabors sang Back Home again in Indiana as part of the pre-race ceremony. Since 2003, native Hoosier Florence Henderson usually belts out God Bless America just prior to the National Anthem.
After the winner takes the checkered flag, he or she will celebrate with a cold bottle of milk — one of these oldest traditions in sports which dates back to Louis Meyer requesting a glass of buttermilk following his second Indy 500 win in 1933. After Meyer’s third win three years later, he asked for buttermilk again. Soon his ritual became customary. That same year, 1936, the first Borg-Warner trophy was commissioned. Today, the driver receives his “Baby Borg” at the public drivers meeting.
2. Indianapolis Motor Speedway
From the moment you approach IMS, it feels like taking a step back in time. A stroll to the start-finish line offers a glimpse of this motorsport mecca’s past — a three-foot path of the original bricks which once formed the racing surface before pavement was perfected. The speedway has evolved over the last century with new stands replacing old, the replacement of the original pagoda with a modern version has added to the landscape, while the track itself still measures 2.5-miles around and features 9-degree banking in the turns. The current stands hold more than 250,000 with a total capacity of 400,000.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield is unlike any other. While the debauchery of the notorious Snake Pit (nestled inside Turn 1) fizzled out in the mid-1990’s, there is no shortage of partying. For those seeking more wholesome activities, the IMS Hall of Fame garages a variety of winning Indy 500 cars, displays and exhibits. And if you to combine racing with hitting the links the Brickyard Crossing Golf Resort offers competitors and fans respite from the action. Where else can you find four golf holes inside a race track?
The most significant change at Indy over the last century is the speed of the cars. Competitors in the first Indy 500 were required to run faster than 75 mph over a quarter-mile in order to qualify. The average speed for the 1911 Indy 500 was 74.602 mph set by winner Ray Harroun. Fast forward to 1996 when Arie Luyendyk set records for the top speed of 239.260 mph in practice and a lap of 237.895 mph in qualifying. That same year, Eddie Cheever set the event record for the fastest lap — 236.103 mph. Two years ago, Tony Kanaan set the top average speed of 187.433 mph in his first Indy 500 victory. Scott Dixon earned the pole for Sunday’s Indy 500 with an average speed of 226.760 mph.
Only 69 racers can claim the title “Indy 500 winner”. Of that elite club, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears are the only drivers to boast four 500 victories. Among active drivers, Helio Castroneves, who won the event in 2001, 2002 and 2009, is the only competitor capable of joining that fraternity on Sunday. Should Castroneves reach that goal, it would mark the second time a Roger Penske driver has scored four Indy 500 wins. Team Penske hold the record for most victories at the Brickyard with 15. In comparison, The Captain’s current competition — owners A.J. Foyt, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti — each have four.
Should Ryan Hunter-Reay successfully defend his title this weekend, he would be the first driver to do so since Castroneves in 2002 and be just the 19th driver to have multiple Indy 500 victories.
Clearly, an individual has to be wired differently to drive a race car in excess of 220 miles per hour. With the recent rash of accidents over the last week due to the new aerodynamic configurations on the cars, as well as mechanical failures, it would be naive to forget that 52 men have given their lives while preparing for or racing in the Indy 500.
For those willing to take that risk, the rewards can be many.
Tony Kanaan will make his 300th career IndyCar start this weekend in the 500. Two years ago, he didn’t know if that day would come. Kanaan, 40, is adamant that winning the 2013 Indianapolis 500 didn’t simply transform his career, it changed his life.
“It was my last year,” Kanaan said of the struggling KV Racing Technology at that time. “People were like, ‘yeah, he’s not the same.’ It was a small team…But look what it made us? It brought us back — all of us. His (Jimmy Vasser’s) team. He got a good driver (Sebastien Bourdais), a good sponsor. I got the job I always wanted (Ganassi Racing). It meant everything apart from my personal side of my achievements. It really just changed my life.”
Whose life will it change on Sunday? Stay tuned.