This will be my fifth and perhaps last trip to the famous Indianapolis 500 Auto Race. In the midwest, this is a tradition, much like the Kentucky Derby in the Ohio Valley, the Boston Marathon in New England, and the Gay Freedom Day Parade (just kidding!!!!) in San Francisco. But this really is middle America at its best. Families of all shapes and ages spend the month out at the race track. On race day, they begin arriving at sunrise. set up the vans and campers in the infield, and prepare the first of many meals throughout the day. The female family members are equally represented, and just as knowledgeable about Indy car racing and their favorite drivers.
Though this town is owned by Colts quarterback, Peyton Manning, the Indy 500 is like a religion here. Every one and every business is geared for the race weekend. It starts at an early age, with school age kids wearing Indy 500 T shirts. Many fans have a stop watch tied around their neck. Almost all of them have binoculars, several layers of sunscreen, and a large beer belly hanging out of a faded tank top.
Some of the many events to look forward to besides the big race are the Parade the day before, the Indy 500 Museum, the sound of 33 cars starting their Honda engines, and a large barbecued turkey leg. Every year, I ask what happens to the rest of the turkey. No one seems to know, and certainly no one cares.
The flight from San Francisco, via O’Hare in Chicago, and on to Indy in a puddle jumper, is always full of race fans. I always rent a car, just for convenience, and to help handle the hot and humid weather. But on race day, it is best to take a Race Day shuttle bus from any one of several downtown locations. With a crowd of around 350,000, there will be a some traffic, and lots of drunk drivers.
The most popular driver, Danica Patrick
We are actually celebrating the Centennial of the race from 2009 to 2011. The track opened in 1909, and the first race was held in 2011. Three Indiana businessmen pooled their resources to build the speedway as an auto testing ground. And as most race fans know, the first race was won by Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp on May 30, 1911. He had the first rear view mirror, primarily because he did not have a mechanic riding with him to serve as a lookout!
Among the many traditions are the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” by Jim Nabors. Florence Henderson is always here to sing “God Bless America”. And the Purdue University Marching Band plays the National Anthem every year. Gasoline Alley is the nickname for the garages that house the race cars, and their team of support staff, spare parts, and secret weapons. The Pagoda, finished in 2000, is a symbol of the Speedway, as much as the finish line of the remaining bricks. It stands 13 stories tall. The yard of bricks at the finish line is all that remains of 3.2 million street paving bricks.
The winner’s drink of milk is also an Indy 500 tradition. Three time winner Louis Meyer drank a bottle of buttermilk in victory lane in 1936. A dairy industry executive vowed the make the bottle of milk a yearly tradition.
The Tony Hulman Family purchased the track in 1945. The Hulman’s made their fortune in the Clabber Girl Baking Powder Company. By 1955, chief announcer Sid Collins coined the phrase, “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. It was not until 1953 that the race was covered in its entirety on the radio. The track is 2.5 miles long, with 5/8 mile straight-aways, 1/4 mile turns, and 1/8 mile chutes between turns 1 and 2, and 3 and 4. The banking of the track is at only 9 degrees and 12 minutes. Three drivers have won the race four times:
A. J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser. The youngest winner was Troy Ruttman, at the age of 22.
Five women have raced in the Indy 500. The first was Janet Guthrie, followed by Sarah Fisher, my favorite driver, Danica Patrick, and Milka Duno (a real joke of a driver). This year, I would expect about two or three more to join this elite club. The last driver to win as a rookie was Helio Castroneves in 2001. The race is filled with a grid of 33 cars, or eleven rows of three, based on qualifying times during the month of May. The fastest lap ever turned on the Speedway of 239.260 was by Arie Luyendyk in 1996 during a practice lap.
As I have mentioned before, I do have ties to this race. First, my Dad came here twice in the Fifties when he was alive. He loved racing, and I first visited here to honor him. I wish I could have brought him here now. Second, the two-time winner of the 1953 and 1954 races was Bill Vukovich from Fresno. He grew up down the street from my Mom’s family in Sanger, CA. He was known as the “Mad Russian”, and drove fast and aggressively, perhaps leading to his death while leading the race in 1955.
The National Anthem will be sung by Kelly Clarkson and Seal. Jim Nabors will do “Back Home Again in Indiana”, and Flo Henderson will do “America, the Beautiful”. It will be a great weekend for racing. Forget those bumper cars called Nascar, this is the real deal!!!