After cautions from coworkers about sunburns, hangovers, and sore feet, I dressed for the occasion like I was being dropped off on a desert island. Floppy sun hat and protective buttondown. Good socks and tennis shoes. Banana Boat SPF 50, tucked into my cooler between ice and water and Sun King’s Osiris (cans only!). “Other than that,” I warned my hometown friends who were joining us, “I have no idea what to expect.” Least of all how much I would love the race.
The blow-your-hair-back speed, the pageantry, the people watching—yes, the spectacle, in all the word’s connotations—surpassed my expectations. Plenty has changed about the race in its 99 runnings, and we explore those elements, from safety measures to car design. But we also pay homage to those aspects that made me fall hard that first year, like the sport’s characters. My favorite will always be Al Unser Jr.—I was obsessed with his Turbo Racing Nintendo game growing up. You’ll find him and 32 other mavericks in our ranking of the top drivers ever.
Too bad there aren’t more women on that list. That’s just one of the improvements we suggest if the race wants to last another century. Deborah Hearn Smith, CEO of Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, has the right idea: She takes a group to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every May to talk with mechanics and drivers, in the hopes the trip will spark an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.
In the meantime, Hoosier ingenuity plays out on a small scale every race day. Like the man I saw last year who made a backpack from a Bud Light box and American flag duct tape. Something tells me he would do fine on Survivor, too.