It’s almost time for one of the biggest car racing events in the U.S., the Indianapolis 500!  The largest single-day sporting event in the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a permanent seating capacity of 257,000 and additional infield seating, which raises the capacity to approximately 400,000.  Thousands more race fans look forward to watching it on television during the Memorial Day holidays.  This year’s race will be held Sunday, May 24th.

The Indianapolis 500 was first run May 30, 1911, which drew an astonishing 80,200 spectators, who paid $1 each to see this open-wheel race.  The winner of the race was Ray Harroun, who drove a Marmon “Wasp”, which was equipped with his invention – a rear-view mirror!  He was the only driver in the race to drive without a riding mechanic.  It was the responsibility of the mechanic to let the driver know when traffic was coming and keep a check on the oil pressure of the car.  The “Wasp” sits on display with approximately 75 other interesting and historic race vehicles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, on the grounds of the speedway.

There is a fascinating history behind the race.  Here are two of the many traditions of the Indy 500:

  • Gasoline Alley.  The garage area is still known as Gasoline Alley, even though gasoline hasn’t been used since a 1964 terrible crash that killed drivers Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs.  In 1965, they were fueled with safer, less volatile methanol.
  • Milk.  This tradition began in 1933, when winner Louie Meyer hurried to his garage and grabbed a bottle of buttermilk from an icebox.  A photographer just happened by and snapped a picture of Louie enjoying the milk.  Indiana dairy people thought this would be a great publicity idea and sold the idea to the speedway, who has let them provide a bottle for the winner every year since then.

Speedway historian Donald Davidson believes that the pace car was introduced in the 1911 race.  According to Mr. Davidson: “they thought there were too many cars for a standing start, that it would be safer to lead them with a passenger car and release them with a flag.  We think that’s the first mass rolling start for a race anywhere.”

This year’s pace car (safety car) will be a Chevrolet Camaro, to be driven by Josh Duhamel.  The pace car or safety car limits the speed of cars during a caution period, which is caused by debris, collisions, or weather.  At the end of the caution period, the pace car exits at the proper place on the track and the cars may resume racing.

If you are among the lucky ones to see this great event, be sure to take some noise protection earplugs and sunscreen!  Probably one of the most exciting parts of the day will be the traditional “Lady/Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!”