Indianapolis 500, How Do We Love Thee?

Veteran race reporter Tony Rehagen speaks for us all with his catalog of reasons why we remain enduring fans of Indianapolis Motor City.

History

Indianapolis Motor City

The race that started as a testing ground for local car manufacturers is a yearly reminder that the city was once second only to Detroit in auto production. Nostalgia aside, the 500 is also a chance to take pride in the fact that we are still a world capital of motor-sports—from IMS to Raceway Park to the Speedrome.

The Founding Four

Before 1909, most car races were conducted on public roads or on dirt or grass horse tracks. Local entrepreneur and bicycle racer Carl G. Fisher envisioned something different in the farmland west of the city—a 3-mile oval. He and three guys whose names are largely lost to history (James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby, and Frank H. Wheeler) scaled it back to a mere 2.5-mile oval of crushed stone and tar that …

The Bricks

… would initially prove to be a disaster. That gravel-and-oil track quickly deteriorated, creating dangerous ruts that led to driver accidents and fatalities. So the owners covered the course with 3.2 million paving bricks from the Wabash Clay Company in Veedersburg—many of which supposedly still lay beneath the pavement of the legendary Brickyard.

The Wing & Wheel logo

The iconic logo of a flying tire that looks like something out of a psychedelic trip has been around since the start and has only seen subtle changes through the decades—mostly to the shape of the tire. (I swear, it’s changing. You saw it change, right? RIGHT?!)

Ray Harroun drove his No. 32 Marmon Wasp to victory during the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
The Marmon Wasp

Speaking of iconic, this 2,200-pound six-cylinder machine is reputed to have the world’s first rearview mirror, which driver Ray Harroun used frequently to spot his competition as he won the first-ever 500 in 1911 with a blazing average speed of 74.6 miles
per hour.

The Museum

You can see Harroun’s famous No. 32 year-round, along with other winning cars, trophies, and artifacts from the Speedway’s past—and get a bus trip around the track—at the IMS Museum.

The Basement Collection

It took me nearly a decade to use my press credentials and considerable charm to woo my way into the museum’s basement vault where priceless vintage automobiles, former pace cars, and pre-war motorbikes are parked. Now, I guess just anyone can pay money to get a 30-minute VIP guided tour. I’m not bitter.

Eddie Rickenbacker

The WWI flying ace and former 500 racer bought the track from Fisher for $750,000 and made a number of improvements, including the gradual paving of the bricks.

The Historian

Donald Davidson developed his encyclopedic knowledge of Indy 500 history as a teenager growing up in England. When he made his first pilgrimage to the track in 1964, he impressed so many locals that he was hired as a statistician with USAC, then the governing body of racing. He eventually became the official track historian, even teaching a motorsports history course at IUPUI. But we know and love him best for his WIBC call-in radio show, “The Talk of Gasoline Alley,” where, in his unique Hoosier-ized British accent, he shared not only his vast mind, but also his boundless heart for the race, the people, and the place we all hold so dear.

The Fashion

While thousands of fans dress for the rigors of the day in comfortable shoes and layers, plenty embrace the occasion to create the greatest spectacle in Americana attire—either denim and a t-shirt in varied levels of coverage, or an homage to the stars and stripes. Lady Gaga might have come the closest to establishing a classic 500 outfit, donning an all-black ensemble of cutoffs, a faded tee, and lace-up stiletto boots in 2016, when she rode shotgun with Mario Andretti to start the race. We’re still waiting for the 500’s answer to the derby hat. And it should be sunglasses.

The Pagoda(s)

The most recognizable landmark at IMS came in stages. The first pagoda was built in 1913 but was intentionally burned down after the 1925 race because it was deemed too close to the cars. The second pagoda was one tier taller and stood more than three decades before being replaced by the bland, cubic, and unfortunately named Master Race Control Tower in 1957. Fortunately, tradition was restored with the rise of the sleek, 13-story third pagoda in 2000.

Tony Hulman

This Terre Haute businessman didn’t just buy a dilapidated track that had sat dormant for five years during WWII and restore it to greatness. He relaunched and refined the race that would go on to take over the world and become racing’s “greatest spectacle.”

 

The Luminaries

AJ Foyt

From Daytona to Le Mans, Foyt has won just about every big race there is, but this Texas transplant will forever be ours as the first four-time winner of the race. Never one to just sit in a parade and wave, Foyt continues to participate in the 500 as a car owner.

Mario Andretti
Mario Andretti

The patriarch of one of racing’s royal families, Mario won the 500 just once. But he remains one of the track’s chief ambassadors, even driving celebrities and dignitaries around the oval in his famous two-seater.

Rick Mears

The four-time 500 champ is now an adviser for Team Penske.

Johnny Rutherford

This three-time winner has stuck around to drive the pace car and become a driver coach.

Janet Guthrie receives silver dollars from her sponsor after qualifying for the race in 1977.
Janet Guthrie

She made history as the first woman to ever qualify for the Indy 500. While Guthrie might not frequent the track like some of these other names, her presence is always felt—especially when a female driver is on the grid.

 

The Month

The Mini

Is it the months of training? No. Is it getting up before dawn, flipping a coin to predict the weather, then packing yourself into corrals with 30,000 other drowsy runners? Of course not. It’s not even the beautiful downtown scenery or the chance to do a lap around the track itself. The mini marathon that serves as the unofficial green flag for the Month of May is worthwhile because, rain or shine, the entire city comes out to line every foot of the 13.3-mile course with live music, refreshments (including some adult beverages), and high fives and cheers of support for total strangers, which reminds us why we love this city.

OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon
REV

Proving that Hoosiers can still manage to get dolled up to commemorate May, this annual gala where the public gets to rub tuxedoed elbows with drivers dressed to the nines enters its 10th year of raising money for the IU Health Foundation.

Grand Prix

Look, it’s decidedly NOT the Greatest Spectacle in Racing (see Ed Carpenter’s take in No. 29). But the IMS road-course race gives us a reason to head to the Speedway for wheel-to-wheel action and do a dry run before Memorial Day. So, we’re not complaining.

Hometown Drivers

They walk among us. They humor our starts and stares when we spot them at The Fashion Mall or Whole Foods or standing in line at Starbucks. They don’t get offended when we mistake them all for Conor Daly. In return, every May, we cheer like hell for them.

Bump Day

We didn’t know how much we missed Bump Day until they took it from us in 2014. Thankfully, they moved the bumping procedure back to the second day of time trials in 2019—restoring our blessed Day of Bump.

Carb Day

Want to relive the 500’s glory years of the 1970s? Just come to the Carb Day concert and watch acts like Rick Springfield, Foreigner, Kool & the Gang, Journey, and Steve Miller Band.

Last Row Party

Annual proof that Indy doesn’t just love a winner.

 

The Experience

Playing hooky for a random practice

If you set an out-of-office reply, it doesn’t count. Go on Fast Friday, one of the speediest days of the month, when some drivers pay hooky themselves by sandbagging to avoid showing how much power they are pulling.

The Two-Seater

Riding shotgun around the famed oval costs $500 and feels like your neck will snap if you turn your head. Imagine real race conditions—going up to 180 miles per hour sitting atop a Dallara chassis. The IndyCar Experience gives you an understanding for the sport better than anything else can.

The New Speedway Main Street

The Speedway founders’ vision for a lively (horse-free) town near the track took about 100 years to come to fruition, and now Main Street between 10th and 16th streets buzzes with shiny restaurants and shops befitting the Speedway’s world-renowned status. From the posh new Foyt Wine Vault to the old-timey Charlie Brown’s Pancake & Steak House, it’s a racing destination that couldn’t exist anywhere else.

Badges

As a lifelong collector of press credentials and badges, I can attest that no event surpasses the 500 in terms of quality. But as nice as the lanyards and cards are, it’s the pit badges (gold, silver, or bronze—often commemorating a specific moment or occasion, such as Tom Carnegie’s last year as announcer or the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s 500 win) that bring out the collectors.

Gasoline Alley

Aside from the Yard of Bricks, it’s probably the most famous part of the Speedway. For most of the Month of May, it’s the best place to get a close look at your favorite driver, car, and team at work. You just don’t want to see them there during the race.

The Old Snake Pit

What happened in the Old Snake Pit stayed in the Old Snake Pit. Suffice it to say that alcohol (and perhaps some other substances) was consumed, clothes were often optional, and when it rained, there were mudslides. At least we’re pretty sure it was mud.

The Snake Pit
The New Snake Pit

Some people just come for the EDM concert, others stay for the race. And still others don’t realize they’re
at either.

The Yellow Shirts

Have fun at the race—but don’t act up too much. These security guards take their jobs very seriously (so it’s probably a good thing they ditched the pith helmets).

The Coke Lot

For campers who like their parties to last more than one day. Despite that fact, the lot is named for the soda—we swear.

Pork Tenderloin Sandwich

I mean, you just gotta.

Avoiding Peanuts

Legend has it that there was a fatal accident in the 1940s, and crew members found peanut shells in the cockpit of the twisted wreck. Ever since, goobers at the race have been strictly taboo. Good riddance, they’re a mess anyway.

Coolers and BYOB

Strapped to your back, slung over your shoulder, pulled on wheels behind you, or carried in tandem with a pal, the cooler you pack to the race is as essential as your ticket. Just remember to leave a little room to bring a snack or sandwich to soak up some of that beer.

IU Health Emergency Medical Center

If things get too far out of hand (or in case of freak accidents), there is free care for fans and drivers during the race.

The Red Carpet

The most celebrity-rich environment in the city all year attracts movie stars and musicians who, by the time they have reached the carpet outside the pagoda, have soaked up the race excitement and can barely contain their own. It’s a magically unjaded moment.

David Letterman

Sure he’s a world-famous comedian and late-night TV legend. But the fact that he always used his platform to celebrate the 500 champion and that he blocks off every Month of May from his celebrity schedule to return as a team owner and compete in the 500 reminds us that he once was a lanky, gap-toothed Hoosier from Broad Ripple High School who loved—and most importantly STILL loves—this event.

People-Watching at Pagoda Plaza

Talk about the Crossroads of America. This spot is the confluence of everyone from the super-famous to the super-rich to the super-fan. Keep track of them all with this handy checklist of the characters you’ll spot on any given race day:

Turn 2

One of the fastest places on the oval, just as cars are accelerating out of the short-shoot, this vantage also offers one of the few views of the entire track. 

Slang

Listening to the folks in the pits and garages talk makes you think you’re on a different planet. Interestingly, a lot of IndyCar lingo revolves around tires. Like when you’ve got slicks on and want to be sure they’re at the correct camber and toe settings (not to be confused with “tow”) to maximize grip, while at the same time watching for blisters on
the tread.

Meet Me on Lap 180

It’s a big track and a long day. You don’t have to spend every waking hour together. So pick a rendezvous spot (the pagoda, the media center, the museum parking lot, Turn 3, etc.) and make sure you catch the checkered flag (and the mass exodus) with the ones
that brung ya.

Sun protection

As cool as the tube-top, cutoff tan is, melanoma is not. Please: SPF 30 or above. And don’t forget to hit the ears and nose and reapply at least once or twice throughout the day.

Urinal Troughs

For decades, the infield bathrooms were the site of unspeakable horrors. Good on track owner Roger Penske and president Doug Boles for cleaning it up. Good on them, too, for keeping the urinal trough tradition. (Not so good on them for trying to monetize the decision with those commemorative trough t-shirts.)

Merch

The bounty ranges from the usual hats and t-shirts to essentials like noise-canceling headphones and beer-can koozies to kitsch like Christmas ornaments, golf balls, and license-plate frames. Every year we tell ourselves we have enough junk at home. But honestly, who couldn’t use another dog scarf?

 

Pre-race Traditions

6 a.m. Aerial Bomb to Open the Gates

If anyone in the vicinity was hoping to sleep in, sorry. It’s race day.

Purdue Marching Band

This pre-race tradition has our favorite origin story: In 1919, a group of Purdue students looking to earn credit toward military training (and get into the race for free) showed up with their band instruments and played. More than a century later, these Boilermaker musicians are as inseparable from the 500 as the checkered flag.

500 Festival Queen/Princesses

It’s not about the tiaras and sashes;
it’s about scholarships, community outreach and philanthropy, and acting as ambassadors for the race.

The Borg-Warner Trophy
Borg-Warner Trophy

At 110 pounds of sterling silver, this is more monument than trophy. It’s a wonder the exhausted winner can lift it—a testament to adrenaline. Race day is one of the few times the Borg-Warner is touched by flesh, not white gloves.

Driver Introductions

Let’s face it: IndyCar drivers aren’t exactly household names anymore. For every Andretti and Foyt, there are dozens of names and faces that are largely anonymous, even in Indy. Except for this moment. As the 33 drivers walk from the pagoda, past the whooping and screaming fans, and onto a stage to wave as their names are announced, they are rock stars.

“Back Home Again in Indiana”

Sing along. Even if you don’t know all the words.  

National Anthem and Flyover

The fact that this is Memorial Day weekend makes these traditions even more important.

Invocation

It’s also Sunday—this’ll cover you for missing church (if you practice).

Bagpipers

On Gasoline Alley, the drone of bagpipes and the sharp beat of snare drums are just as familiar as revving engines and howling IndyCars. For 60 years, the Indianapolis 500 Gordon Pipers have provided the background music at the Brickyard.

Taps

In the midst of hundreds of thousands of people, a moment of absolute stillness pierced by the mournful call of bugles matches the sheer power of 33 ripping high-performance engines.

“Gentlemen, Start Your Engines”

If you don’t cry during taps, you will now. Then you hear the roar, and it rattles your bones. Racing purists jump up and down, pumping their fists toward the sky. It’s pure, unbridled excitement.

 

…And Ladies

Janet Guthrie

First female to qualify and start the race, 1977.

Lyn St. James
Lyn St. James

1992 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.

Sarah Fisher

Nine-time 500 starter (tied with St. James for the most by a female driver), first to win a pole position for an IndyCar Series race. She’ll also drive the pace car this year.

Danica Patrick

First female to lead the 500 and win an IndyCar Series race.  She has the highest Indy 500 starting position (4th) and finishing position (3rd).

Milka Duno

Made 43 IndyCar Series starts, including three 500s, with a best finish of 19th.

Ana Beatriz

Two-time winner in Indy NXT (formerly IndyLights). Made four Indy 500 starts with a best finish of 15th.

Simona de Silvestro

2010 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.

Pippa Mann

First female driver to win a pole at the IMS (2010 Freedom 100).

Katherine Legge

Started the 500 twice. As of publishing time, she’s the only female driver currently entered in the 2023 Indy 500.

 

In Memoriam

Jim Nabors

We’ll never not hear his voice in our heads when “Back Home Again in Indiana” is sung.

Florence Henderson

Not to be outshined by her fellow mid-century TV-star-turned-Indy-icon, Mrs. Brady performed 23 times at IMS, singing everything from the anthem to “America the Beautiful” to “God Bless America.” In 2016, she got to be Grand Marshal, her last appearance at the Speedway before her death later that year.

Tom Carnegie

No doubt drivers will continue to make history at the Speedway. But no one will ever set a “New track record!” again.

The Unser Brothers

Al and Bobby Unser remain the only brothers to both win the race. Together with Al Jr., they grabbed a dynastic nine 500 wins. More than that, they remained ambassadors of the race long after they retired.

Mari Hulman George

She’ll be forever known as the person who signaled drivers (and fans) to “start your engines,” but the former chairperson of IMS had a much more profound impact behind the scenes as caretaker of the race, the Speedway, and as one of the 500s most passionate fans.

The Old Motel

Drivers and pop-culture stars—even the Beatles—were treated to the unpretentious environs of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel built in 1963, many staying in the same rooms each year. It closed in the late 2000s—although there are still hotel-style suites in the base of the Turn 2 grandstands, where VIPs and some IMS staff stay the night before the race so they don’t get stuck in traffic 

Robin Miller

A chronicler of more than 50 years of racing history and one of the strongest voices in the sport, perhaps the most impressive thing about Miller was that he always had time for an aspiring journalist who was new to the press box.

Dan Wheldon

Unfortunately, racing is a deadly sport. But while other great drivers have perished while chasing the checkers, none had a passion for the Indy 500 outpacing that of this native Brit. He finished his career with two second-place Indy finishes with underdog Panther Racing and then the unforgettable win in the final 1,000 feet of the 2011 race, for his second Borg-Warner—and the last win of his abbreviated career. He was 33.

Larry Bisceglia
Larry Bisceglia

The auto mechanic attended his first race in 1926, and in 1950, after two second-place finishes, he took the checkered flag—as the earliest arrival at the gate on the morning of the race. He soon became famous as the first fan in line for decades, and his 1951 Chevy truck covered in decals was the Marmon Wasp of the infield. Ford gave him a brand-new van in 1967, and Bisceglia also covered it with racing stickers. He donated the Ford to the IMS Hall of Fame Museum before passing away in 1988 at the age of 90.

 

The Race

The Green Flag

It’s go time! (Nevermind the fact that the fans have been “going” since 6 a.m.—or earlier.)

The first pit stop

This is when things start to get interesting. A single slip-up in the pits can erase leads and dash dreams in less than a second.

The First Caution

Yellow flag: When race fans can rush to the bathroom for THEIR first pit stop. 

The Last Lap

Sometimes the white flag drops on a mad dash to the finish, other times it’s essentially a victory lap for
a dominant winner, but for fans it signals …

The Finish Line

…the (almost) always satisfying conclusion to a long day.

 

The Aftermath

Kissing the Bricks

One of the first things the winner does with their family and the whole team. Nevermind that those bricks have just been driven on 200 times by more than two dozen sets of melting tires.

Milk

Nothing like a shower of milk on a simmering May day in Indianapolis (at least it’s not buttermilk, like Louis Meyer drank when he started the tradition in 1936).

Winner’s Wreath

The wreaths have been around since at least 1960, once designed by an Indy florist who had also consulted for the Rose Bowl parade. But recent wreaths feature a more exotic bloom: 33 Cymbidium orchids, one for each car in the starting grid.

Baby Borg and Championship Ring

As we mentioned, the Borg-Warner is heavy (see No. 60). These are much more portable and practical tokens of achievement.

Volunteer Cleanup

Let’s just take this opportunity to thank these kind and brave souls—and remind everyone else to pack out their trash.

Sitting in Traffic (no, really)

It’s been a long day, a long weekend, and a long month. You’re hot, you’re exhausted. This is a chance to decompress and slowly (and we mean sloooooowly) pull away from the sea of humanity. Look at the bright side, most of us don’t have to go to work in the morning.

The Press Tour

A whirlwind day-and-a-half press tour of NYC. From the New York Times to the Today Show, Indy owns the media cycle.