In Speedway Indiana, you either grow up loving car races or you hate it. There is no in between. I spent some formative years of my childhood in the city of speed. I have strong memories of watching balloons float into the sky from the front yard. I recall sitting on metal benches and eating chicken from a boxed lunch. Even when we moved, Memorial Day weekend was the grid from the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis 500 radio broadcast. My first Indianapolis 500 was 2015. It’s an imposing race, but it’s not imposing to know what’s happening and what this race is all about. So if this is your first year attending the race – it’s going to be amazing.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway
First thing first, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) is in Speedway Indiana – NOT Indianapolis. It may be a bit of detail, but it’s really important to the people of Speedway. Technically the IMS is a racing facility. It opened in 1909. Within the facility is also the IMS Museum that has various exhibits that rotate and owns too many historic racecars to feature at any given time. If you have a moment during race weekend, it’s worth a visit. There’s also an 18-hole golf course, fourteen holes are outside of the track, and four are inside of the track.
If it’s the Sunday before Memorial Day and you’re at the IMS, you’re here for the Indianapolis 500. A five hundred mile INDYCAR race that takes place on the oval track. You’ll hear them talk about the four different turns on the track. People use the terms straightaways and short chutes. The straightaways are the longer length of track between Turn 2 and Turn 3 and Turn 4 and Turn 1. Connecting Turn 1 and Turn 2 as well as Turn 3 and Turn 4 are the short chutes. As this is a race on an oval track, the will not run if there is any moisture on the track (hydroplaning at 200 miles per hour is not good).
The Indianapolis 500 – Some Background
The very first race was in 1911, when it was called the 500-Mile International Sweepstakes. It was all imagined by four men in Indianapolis who took the original motor speedway and really built the track as everyone knows it today. Except back then it was all brick. This, by the way, is why there is a yard of bricks running through the complex and many people use the term Brickyard to describe the track. This year will be the 103rd running of the race. There have been some years where the race was not run due to gas shortage or World Wars.
The fastest speed recorded? Arie Luyendyk during qualifying in 1996 had an average speed of 237.498 mph. A 737 needs to go 184 mph to lift off the ground.
Traditionally, thirty-three cars will run in the Indianapolis 500. There have been years where fewer cars have run and years when more cars have run. In recent years, if more than thirty-three drivers have applied to race, they have to go through a qualification procedure to set the field and who will be the pole-sitter for the race (this will be explained later on).
The cars on the track are IndyCars. They’re an open-wheel racecar. Open-wheel cars, as the name suggests, have the wheels outside the body of the car. They also have very minimal protection around the driver who tends to sit in the middle of the car. If you think about your street car, the wheels are pretty much in line with the body. IndyCars are not at all like your street car.
A few facts about the cars you may wish to know. The tires are provided by Firestone and are either a hard compound (black) or a soft compound (red). The engines are either by Honda or Chevrolet. The body of the cars are made by Dallara. The cars use ethanol fuel by Sonoco. Also while the cars are known as IndyCar the series that governs this race and many others is called INDYCAR.
What Happened Before the Race
Preparing for the Indianapolis 500 (Rookie Orientation and Fast Friday)
Rookies in 2019 have had no other oval track on the schedule. All of the races before this are road or street courses, where the drivers are on tracks similar to flowing country roads. The IMS is the first oval they will race on. In order for rookies to even practice on the oval track, they have to undergo a rookie orientation program. Yes this track is so demanding that the drivers have to prove they can handle it. The program is three different phases. The first phase is the driver maintaining a 205 mph average speed for ten laps. The second phase is fifteen laps at 210 mph, and the final phase is fifteen laps at 215 mph. This year rookie orientation took place on April 24.
Drivers have three days of practice on the course before Fast Friday. These practice days start at 10am and end at 6pm, weather permitting. If you hear the term “happy hour” it’s the last hour of practice where the temperature of the track is ideal for quick speeds. Teams will use the days to figure out the right set up for the car and allow their drivers to practice passing and driving in traffic. The final day of practice before qualifying weekend is Fast Friday. Everyone is making the final tweaks before qualification, and they’re allowed an elevated boost level of speed. This is the practice day of incredible speed. It’s a great non-Race day to be at the track.
Qualification Weekend has gone through numerous changes, including this year. Qualifications used to take place across two weekends and has been shortened to one weekend. This is the weekend where the field of 33 is selected and then placed in their proper spots. Last year, at the end of qualification, James Hinchcliffe (Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsport) did not make it into the race – he was bumped. It was a bit of a shock to most people.
This year’s format is a bit different. The total number of cars allowed for the race is thirty-three. On Saturday, every driver will get at least one chance, consisting of four laps. If everyone has done their guaranteed try, drivers can go back for additional attempts. At the end of Saturday positions 10-30 will be set, and those drivers are done qualifying. Sunday is the speed show. The day starts with those drivers hoping to be in spots 31-33 all getting one last shot. Just one. Three people will make it in, and whoever is left doesn’t get to race. The final part of qualifying is the Fast Nine Shootout. The fastest nine drivers all get one more attempt. They’re all gunning for the pole position, position number 1. It is an epic speed show. Last year it felt like each driver was faster until ultimately hometown driver Ed Carpenter nabbed the pole.
The Friday before the race is Carb Day. Short for Carburetion Day. Originally it was the last time when teams could tune the carburetors in their car. There have been no carburetors since 1963, but the name isn’t going anywhere. It’s quite the spectacle of a day. There’s the final practice session in the morning and then the junior series holds the Freedom 100. Finally, teams participate in a pit-stop contest. As far as non-race events, there’s a huge concert in the afternoon. Some bigger names include Kid Rock, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Journey. For 2019 it’s Foreigner with Kool and the Gang opening for them. It’s good people watching, but don’t get separated from your group in the concert area. That never ends well!
Following Carb Day is Legends Day on Saturday. There is no track activity on Saturday. There is a big memorabilia show at the museum, the autograph session for all of the drivers, and the day ends with a concert by a country artist. Those of us who grew up in Speedway know Saturday as the evening when you would walk (or drive when it was open to traffic) Georgetown road. It’s a tradition I still do to this day. You see some interesting things the night before the race. Just again don’t get separated.
Race day starts with a 6 a.m. pyrotechnic being set off to signal gates are open. It used to be first come first serve for most spots – and there are still some areas that way. Of course, people driving into the track on Race Day started their day much earlier. Starting at 8am, there’s activity on the track with various bands, military salutes, past winners, VIPs, and the 500 princess taking laps around the track in pace cars and other memorable vehicles.
The field is introduced in reverse order with their fellow row mates. Once drivers are introduced, the real ceremonial part of race morning starts. There’s an invocation by a local religious leader. Taps is placed followed by America the Beautiful and God Bless America. Every year they have a new singer take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” which ends with a fly-over. The most important song though is “Back Home Again in Indiana”, for years it was sung by Jim Nabors. Nabors’ last performance was in 2014, and the track had a few fill-ins until 2017. Jim Cornelison sings the national anthem for the Chicago Blackhawks, and he now sings Back Home Again in Indiana. It’s not uncommon for half the people in attendance to tear up at this moment. I do, everyone around me does, and no one cares.
There are a few parade laps, and you’ll know it’s time when the cars line up in rows of three. The green flag drops and everyone watches, breathlessly, as the cars all head into Turn 1.
If you’ve never seen an INDYCAR race before, they just don’t continue to go around and around and around. These cars are being pushed to the absolute limit of performance (as are the drivers) and may suffer mechanical issues, on top of normal tire wear and fuel consumption. Throughout the race, cars will dive into pit lane where a specialized crew will change all four tires and refuel the car in seconds. It’s magical and it’s a place where a lot of things can happen. Last year rookie Zach Veach’s car caught on fire three different times during pit stops. If you are wondering what the disturbance is in Turn 3, it’s an EDM concert in the area known as the Snake Pit (which is a cleaned up version of what the Snake Pit used to be).
When the first person hits 500 miles (or 200 laps on the 2.5-mile track), the race is over. They’re brought to victory circle where a wreath is placed around them, and as tradition mandates, they drink a bottle of milk. Typically though after being in a hot car for hours, more milk is spilled then drank. The tradition of the milk started when Louis Meyer asked for milk after he won. He used to drink milk after a long day of working on the family farm and found it a fitting beverage after a long hot race.
Then there’s a victory lap around the track while everyone tries to get out of their seats and back to their homes.
There will be, as I’m writing this, thirty-six cars attempting to make the final grid for the race. Each driver has a unique story and a reason to cheer for them. INDYCAR does a great job of listing the drivers and information on their website. You can read about all the drivers here: https://www.indycar.com/Drivers . If you’re looking for some to cheer for, here are some suggestions.
Past Winners Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi, and Will Power (last year’s winner)
Rookies Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Santino Ferrucci, Marcus Ericsson, Patricio O’Ward, and Ben Hanley
You’ve Seen them on TV Helio Castroneves (Dancing with the Stars), James Hinchcliffe (Dancing with the Stars), Alexander Rossi (Amazing Race), and Conor Daly (Amazing Race)
They’re Trying to Make History Helio Castroneves (joining the exclusive 4-Time winner club) and Fernando Alonso (being the second triple crown winner)
Aside from watching the race, a few things you can do to have fun. Wear something checkered. We take the checkered flag pretty seriously. Play the Blue Flag drinking game (they wave the blue flag to tell a slower car to move over). People watch. Also if you can, rent a scanner and headset and listen in to the in-car communications. At least five drivers will curse during the race.
For me the best part of the race is when that green flag drops and the cars thunder pass. I can’t explain why, it’s just the best. But the whole month is special; I’m there for the podcast and for fun. We have our own traditions including where we sit for different days. So if you’re going for the first time, relax and enjoy.