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Back Home Again in Indiana(polis 500)

May 21, 2021

Today we’re going “indy” with these interesting facts about auto-racing’s annual Memorial Day weekend event, the Indianapolis 500.

Perhaps the Indy 500 is so big because it’s contested in a place that is literally huge. You could fit the entirety of Vatican City inside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway… and Yankee Stadium… and the Rose Bowl… and the Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs. There’s even a golf course inside it.

La course d'Indianapolis 1911

The first ever Indy 500 — so named because the race spans the equivalent of 500 miles — was won by Ray Harroun whose car averaged 75 miles per hour. That’s regular highway speed now for a lot of drivers, but in 1911, it was positively face-meltingly fast.

Many major sports championships have a post-win tradition — spraying champagne on each other, or putting a wreath of roses around a racehorse’s neck, for example. At the Indy 500, the winner traditionally and triumphantly drinks a glass of milk. This has nothing to do with Indiana’s adjacency to America’s dairyland. Winner Louis Meyer started the idea in 1936 by drinking a glass of buttermilk, because after many hours in his car, he was hot, and his mother told him that buttermilk refreshed on a hot day.

 Plenty of concessions are sold to feed spectators over the many hours of the Indianapolis 500, with peanuts added to the menu relatively recently, in 2009. According to Indianapolis Motor Speedway lore, it’s because flying peanut shells somehow flew from the stands into a car, and under the gas pedal of a competing car, causing the driver to crash out of an early Indianapolis 500 race. 

Another Indy 500 superstition advises against the color green. From 1921 to 2014, drivers wouldn’t race in a green car, because in 1920, Gaston Chevrolet won the race in a green car and then died in a race in Beverly Hills later that season.

1971Indianapolis500PaceCar

The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest event in the Indy Car circuit, a completely different entity (which uses completely different vehicles) than NASCAR. But about 10 racers have driven in the Indy 500 in Indianapolis and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day. Tony Stewart did it more than once and did it best, finishing in sixth place at the 2001 Indy 500 and third at the Coca-Cola 600.

The Indy 500 is a big deal, and organizers get celebrities involved wherever they can, from singing the national anthem before the race to taking a lap or two in the ceremonial pace car. Among the famous faces to take the wheel: actor James Garner, singer Marty Robbins, test pilot Chuck Yeager, talk show host Jay Leno, and astronaut John Glenn. This little photo op in 1971 almost killed Glenn — the brakes in the pace car failed and it crashed into a wall. (He was okay.) 

Hundreds of laps tend to separate the victor from the runners-up pretty effectively, but not in 1991. That year, Al Unser, Jr. won the Indianapolis 500 in a photo finish over Scott Goodyear… by just 0.43 seconds.

Unser’s father, Al Unser, Sr., shares the record for most Indianapolis 500 wins. He won four times, just like Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt.

 

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