Indianapolis 500 – Indianapolis, IN
In recent months, we’ve seen our fair share of things racing around an oval track. First it was the Daytona 500, where we waited through rain delays and jet engine explosions to see our first NASCAR event. Then it was the Kentucky Derby, where we got an up-close lesson on both powerful thoroughbreds and how NOT to win money gambling on horse racing. And now the Indianapolis 500, with its funny-looking cars, multitude of crashes and lead changes, and staggering number of spectators.
But as we’ve told you many times before, each event, each race, and by extension each state is a new experience.
Modern track racing can be traced back to Indianapolis, at a time when most of the world was busy doing city-to-city races. Built in 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway complex hosted a random smattering of events before deciding on a 500 mile contest in 1911. Race organizers offered a $25,000 purse for the event, which quickly led to it becoming a prestigious automobile race. The first “500″ was held at the Speedway on Memorial Day, May 30, 1911, with a field of 40 starters. Ray Harroun, driving a Marmon Model 32-based Wasp racer, outfitted with his new rearview mirror invention, was declared the winner. 80,000 spectators were in attendance, and an annual tradition had been established. Since then the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has grown to become the world’s largest spectator sporting facility, with more than 250,000 permanent seats. The Indy 500 race has also become one of the most important events in the world for auto racing, and is also the largest single-day sporting event in the entire world.
Now about those funny looking cars…
Unlike NASCAR, who uses everyday stock cars, you’re not going to see any of the cars being driven in the Indy 500 on a Sunday stroll around town. Open wheel race cars have changed drastically over the years, with the look and feel of the cars morphing with each new technological advancement. Low to the ground, wide tires, and aerodynamics have taken precedence, allowing for much faster automobiles. Both styles of cars have the same horsepower, but the Indy cars handle it with a much lighter and thinner frame.
The differences between Indy car racing and NASCAR doesn’t end there though. Unlike stock cars, Indy cars have less specific body shape guidelines, so small tweaks here and there during a race by the pit crew can see drivers make dramatic moves to the front. Indy cars also have smaller gas tanks which means more frequent trips to pit row for the drivers, leading to more gamesmanship by teams deciding whether or not to pit. Lastly, and more unfortunately, the faster speeds and more position changes leads to more crashes during Indy car races. More crashes means more caution flags though, which allows cars that were behind the opportunity to catch up to the rest of the pack.
All of those factors make for an exciting product, especially during this specific race which saw a record number of lead changes and a race that could’ve been won by a number of different drivers. After a caution on lap 187 (there are 200 laps that make up the 500 miles), Tony Kanaan led the race, but when the green flag waved he soon fell to fourth behind Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato. Teammates Franchitti and Dixon traded the lead several times until the start of lap 199, when Franchitti took the lead from Dixon and Sato followed him through into second place. On the final lap, Sato attempted a pass on Franchitti in turn one but spun out and hit the turn 1 wall. Franchitti won the race, with Dixon second and Kanaan third under the final caution flag of the day. Although the race ended under caution, the last 10 laps featured exciting racing and lead changes, leading up to a dramatic final lap.
But the action on the racetrack actually pales in comparison to what’s going on elsewhere in the Speedway. We’ve experienced crazy football tailgates, festival parties, and the infield at the Kentucky Derby. All very fun and impressive in their own rights. However, after experiencing the infield and surrounding areas of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indy 500, all of those events now seem like tea parties. Because although the Speedway has over 250,000 permanent seats, that doesn’t account for the hoards of people in the infield, as well as the thousands of race fans who decided that tailgating outside of the stadium was as close as they’d like to get. All in all, more than 400,000 people were estimated to be in or around the Speedway for the 2012 Indy 500.
At the end of a blistering hot day surrounded by more people than we’d previously thought possible to attend a sporting event, we left the Speedway with a complete understanding of what makes the Indy 500 so revered by fans. The devil is in the details of course, which is precisely what makes the Indy 500 experience hold up against high expectations. All of the particulars that we lamented while at the Daytona 500 were more than on point in Indianapolis.
In addition to the exciting product on the track, the Speedway itself was an experience. At the Indy 500, you can literally bring the tailgate party INSIDE of the racetrack. For a mere $30, hundreds if not thousands of cars (the early bird gets the worm of course, this time out of a mezcal bottle though) were able to drive right onto the infield, with large groups setting up shop early in the morning. And people brought anything and everything, from bag boards, to full tents with tables and chairs, and even couches. And unlike the infield at the Kentucky Derby, you could actually see what was racing around the track because of handy grass viewing mounds surrounding the entire infield. Your car with full bar and food could be less than 15 yards away from you while 10 yards (and two fences) in front of you, cars are zooming by around 200 mph.
The infield is not for the faint of heart though. Every college within a 200 mile radius of Indianapolis sent a small army, with this year’s dress code being best described as “redneck irony combined with unbridled Americana” (Tank tops, cut-offs, stars and stripes everything, and of course, way-too-short hand-cut jorts). There’s even a party within a party, the “Snake Pit”, which offers lives music onstage, food carts, corporate branding, absolutely no view of a race car, and debauchery.
Make it past this gauntlet or carve yourself a good space with a large group early in the morning, and you’ll be rewarded with the perfect combination of sports and entertainment. The walk from the stadium seating area to the infield is an event itself, as you walk underneath the track as cars drive over your head making a nearly ear-splitting roar and shaking the earth around you as they go by, which was definitely one of my favorite aspects of the race.
It could be said that many sporting events nowadays could be better watched on a sparkling flatscreen TV at home rather than in person. And while that may be true in this case if your primary focus is on every detail of the race itself, I can tell you that being at the Indy 500 is entirely more than the cars going around the track. It is one of America’s signature sporting events, and should be experienced by all at least once in their lifetime. Even if you know nothing about nor have any interest in cars, you’ll be hooked by the roar of the engines and the roar of the crowd in person.
We all love fast cars and freedom.