The Indianapolis 500 is this Sunday and because it’s the 100th running, there has been more hype for this event than in recent years.
Maybe you are a diehard fan who watches every year or maybe you are watching for the first time. If this is your first time, know that many traditions, myths and things that we rely on every day have come out of the Indianapolis 500. And if you don’t know who to root for on Sunday, let us help you out with that as well. Think of this as a introduction to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Indianapolis 500 traditions
Drinking the milk
In victory lane, the Indianapolis 500 winner will drink milk provided by the American Dairy Association. The tradition started when Louis Meyer won in 1933. Instead of drinking champagne, Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk while in victory lane. After being photographed drinking the milk, the American Dairy Association looked at it as a great marketing opportunity and has provided milk for winners ever since. It’s become so big that a list of what kind of milk each driver will drink is revealed the week before the race.
Usually the first question everyone has is what happens if the winner is lactose intolerant. It’s not confirmed that a lactose intolerant driver has won but it looks like they don’t have a choice but to drink or at least act like they’re drinking the milk. It was mentioned years ago that Juan Pablo Montoya may be lactose intolerant and while there doesn’t seem to be any proof of that, it does seem like Montoya didn’t drink much milk in his 2000 and 2015 victory lane celebrations so that could be the case.
Kissing the bricks
A relatively new tradition, the idea of the winner kissing the bricks didn’t come from the Indianapolis 500. In fact, this tradition came from NASCAR. When he won the third ever Brickyard 400 in 1996, Dale Jarrett’s crew chief Todd Parrott had the impromptu idea to go and kiss the yard of bricks situated at the start/finish line. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was originally paved with 3.2 million bricks. Eventually, the bricks were paved over with asphalt on all but the frontstretch. And then asphalt completely encircled the track except for the bricks at the finish line. They are the original bricks from the original racing surface in 1909. After a short period of it being a sole NASCAR tradition, the Indianapolis 500 winner eventually took to kissing the bricks and it has now become the norm.
Why 500 miles and 33 car fields?
The Indianapolis 500 has always been 500 miles. Essentially, track builder Carl Fisher was looking for a race to last about seven hours to go through the entire afternoon and based on realistic speeds of race cars back then, it was determined that a race car could go 500 miles in seven hours so that explains that. As far as there being 33 cars, except for 1979 and 1997 when there were 35 cars in the race, every Indianapolis 500 has had 33 cars, no more and no less since 1934. AAA, who was the sanctioning body in the early days, determined that a safe distance for a race car being behind another is 400 feet. Divide that by 2.5 miles and that results in 33 cars being able to be 400 feet apart from each other and be able to fit on the track.
Indianapolis 500 myths and facts
Jules Goux drinking champagne to victory in 1913
A very popular story from the Indianapolis 500 came in the third race when Jules Goux drove to victory while drinking anywhere between four and six bottles of champagne while driving during the race between he and his riding mechanic Emil Begin. While it’s true that they had champagne, and they had drank some during pit stops, it likely wasn’t enough for either to be drunk. Its biggest purpose was to use the champagne as a form of mouthwash to keep their mouths clean while racing through the dust picked up by all the cars at that time.
The pace car crashed at the start of a race
The concept of a pace car started in the Indianapolis 500. While grand prix races to this day rely on a standing start, the Indianapolis 500 had a rolling start in order to try and prevent start crashes. In recent races, the odds of a crash at the start is about 50/50.
But while we’re on the subject of the pace car, a pace car actually crashed at the start of the race in 1971. Local Dodge dealer Eldon Palmer drove the Dodge Challenger with Astronaut John Glenn, speedway President Tony Hulman and ABC reporter Chris Schenkel. Supposedly, Palmer thought he was supposed to beat the cars to the start/finish line at the start so he drove down pit road as fast as he could, setting up a cone to give time for him to safely brake and stop. When he drove the car down pit road for real, the cone wasn’t there and Palmer missed his braking mark, causing him to jam on the brakes and lose control. He ended up crashing into a photographer’s stand at the end of pit road causing 29 injuries, two seriously injured but no fatalities. Hulman sprained his ankle and Schenkel relinquished his ABC hosting duties and sat out for the rest of the broadcast.
Safety advancements and features that are in our passenger cars
Races like the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans have been known not only for showcasing the best in performance, but also prototypes for things that we would someday see in our passenger cars. For instance, in a time where riding mechanics were used to tell you where other cars were, inaugural winner Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp was designed for one person in order to save a couple hundred pounds of weight on everyone else. When other drivers complained on safety concerns, Harroun created the first instance of a rearview mirror so he can see behind him.
Seat belts were first worn by Barney Oldfield in the 1922 race and while many race car drivers didn’t want to wear seat belts, deciding they would rather get thrown out of the car than potentially get trapped in a burning car, it eventually became the norm both on the track and on the road.
Other innovations such as front and four wheel drive, diesel and alternative fuel research, disc brakes as well as the concept of paving roads with asphalt or concrete rather than dirt can be attributed back to the Indianapolis 500 and the speedway. By trying to make racing safer, it in a way made the roads safer for all of us.
While there were safety advancements, that didn’t mean there weren’t fatalities in the Indianapolis 500. Just like on the roads we drive, racing isn’t ever going to be 100 percent safe and the safety goal is to keep getting as close as possible. While things have gotten safer in recent years, a total of 73 people have been killed including 43 drivers, 13 riding mechanics and 17 spectators, track workers or crew members. The last driver to be fatally injured during a race was Swede Savage in 1973 while the last IndyCar driver to be fatally injured at the track was Tony Renna in a testing crash in 2003.
Fatalities have led to such innovations as fireproof suits and hard helmets (yes, drivers used to race in a t-shirt and slacks with a leather helmet), fuel cell limits and soft bladders to withstand impact without rupturing and catching fire, improvements to pit entrance to make it easier for cars to enter the pit, setting a pit speed limit, the HANS device to keep a driver’s head from violently moving forward and SAFER barriers to help absorb impact when a car hits the wall.
Who to watch out for this year
If you are tuning in for the first time, there is a good chance you probably don’t have a driver to root for. Let us help you.
If you are looking to root for a likely winner, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing has dominated IndyCar over the past decade so you can’t go wrong choosing a Penske (Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, Simon Pageneaud) or a Ganassi (Max Chilton, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball) driver. If you are looking for more info on these drivers or want to root for someone else, here’s a selection of drivers as well as a fact about them that gives you a better understanding of their story.
Former Indianapolis 500 winners
Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002 and 2009) – Won ABC’s Dancing With the Stars in 2007. Can become the fourth driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times. Starts 9th.
Scott Dixon (2008) – With 39 American open wheel series wins, Dixon has the most wins among active drivers as well as tied for fourth all time behind A.J. Foyt, Mario and Michael Andretti and tied with Al Unser. Starts 13th.
Ryan Hunter-Reay – (2014) – Chose the number 28 to honor the 28 million people with cancer and for his mother who died of colon cancer. Starts 3rd.
Tony Kanaan (2013) – After winning, Kanaan got a tattoo all down his right arm incorporating his Indianapolis 500 win, his 24 Hours of Daytona win as well as his wife and children. Starts 18th.
Buddy Lazier (1996) – Now semi-retired, only driving in the Indianapolis 500 for his family’s team, Lazier won his sole Indianapolis 500 while suffering a broken back. Starts 32nd.
Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015) – Has won two Indianapolis 500’s in three starts as well as defending champion. Also won the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix meaning he can join Graham Hill as the second driver to ever win the Triple Crown of Motorsports if he were to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Starts 17th.
Matthew Brabham – Son of legendary sports car racer Geoff Brabham and grandson of legendary Formula 1 racer Sir Jack Brabham. The Brabham’s will be the third third generation family to compete in the Indianapolis 500 with the Unser’s and Andretti’s. Starts 27th.
Max Chilton – Formerly in Formula 1, Chilton came to the United States to try his hand in IndyCar and now races full time for Chip Ganassi. Starts 22nd.
Spencer Pigot – The defending Indy Lights champion, Pigot has moved up through the American racing developmental ranks and now has a part time race deal with former champion Bobby Rahal. Starts 29th.
Alexander Rossi – Racing full time for Michael Andretti as well as a reserve driver for the Manor Formula 1 team. Last year, became the first American to race in Formula 1 since Scott Speed in 2007. Starts 11th.
Stefan Wilson – Brother of Justin Wilson who was killed in a crash during the Pocono IndyCar race last year. He has a one-race deal this season for the Indianapolis 500. He is sponsored by Driven 2 Save Lives, a cause that helps people with the process of becoming an organ donor, something that his brother did before he died. Starts 30th.
Other notable drivers
Marco Andretti – As a rookie 10 years ago, lost to Sam Hornish Jr. on the final stretch. The Andretti family has only won once in 55 attempts. Starts 14th.
Townsend Bell – Only racing in the Indianapolis 500, Bell is a commentator on NBCSN’s IndyCar coverage for most other races. Starts 4th.
Ed Carpenter – Owner/driver who also owns Josef Newgarden’s car (starting 2nd). Is the stepson of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, whose family owns the speedway. Starts 20th.
Bryan Clausen – A throwback to the early Indianapolis 500 driver, moving up from sprint cars and dirt tracks to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Clausen still races on dirt and short tracks but has raced in the Indianapolis 500 twice. Starts 27th.
Conor Daly and Graham Rahal – Along with Marco Andretti and Matthew Brabham, Daly and Rahal are also sons of former Indy racers (Derek Daly and Bobby Rahal). Daly starts 24th and Rahal starts 26th.
J.R. Hildebrand – Five years ago, Hildebrand hit the wall on the final turn of the final lap while leading the Centennial Indianapolis 500. Dan Wheldon passed Hildebrand to win. Starts 15th.
James Hinchcliffe – In practice for last years Indianapolis 500, Hinchcliffe suffered life threatening injuries when a piece of suspension impaled both his legs in a practice crash. One year later, Hinchcliffe starts on the pole. His owner, Sam Schmidt, was a racer who became a quadriplegic in a crash. Recently drove a Chevrolet Corvette at 152 mph while operating the car with his head and eye movements. Starts 1st.
Charlie Kimball – Racing with type 1 diabetes, Kimball has a special feature in his steering wheel that monitors his blood sugar while racing and can tell him to pull into the pits if he has any complications. Racing in IndyCar since 2011, Kimball hasn’t seen any complications due to diabetes while racing. Starts 16th.
Pippa Mann – The lone female in the race this year, Mann has been spending her spare time as well as crowd funding for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer research. Susan G. Komen is also sponsoring Mann’s car. Starts 25th.
Takuma Sato – Racing for the legendary A.J. Foyt. Sato was so close to winning the Indianapolis 500 but crashed in turn 1 of the final lap while trying to pass leader Dario Franchitti in 2012. Starts 12th.