The Indianapolis 500: A wild ride through history and tradition

Sun May 22, 2016 18:32:25PM | Categories: Indianapolis 500
Joe Dawson winning the 1912 Indianapolis 500 race.By: Public Domain

The Indianapolis 500 has been an American tradition for over a century. It is synonymous with Memorial Day, open-wheel cars, pork tenderloin sandwiches, the curse of peanuts, Florence Henderson, Jim Nabors and an ice cold bottle of milk. How do they all come together to make up one of the most attended sporting events in America, you ask? Well, it’s a long story.

It was 1909. Indianapolis Motor Speedway wasn’t the grand complex that you see today, it had humble beginnings. Being built mainly out of gravel and tar, the track was just as dangerous as the men who raced on it. It hosted small events such as car and motorcycle races, with lap counts that are dwarfed by today’s 500 laps. The first long distance race was held the very same year the track was built. It was called the Presto-Lite Trophy, with a whopping 100 laps. As race after race went by, the track began to wear, causing many severe injuries, as well as two fatalities. The race was shortened as a result.

Despite the dangerous conditions for the racers, the track was drawing in large crowds, as many as 40,000. This large flow of race fans had the owner at the time, Carl G. Fisher, convinced that he should improve the track. 3.2 million bricks were laid down to replace the hazardous gravel and tar, as well as a concrete curtain wall was installed around the track’s circumference. The newly paved track brought in 60,000 spectators in 1910 on Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. Since then, the Indy 500 has been held on or around Memorial Day.

Over the course of a year, the crowds were getting smaller. The track owners decided to put their focus on just one race a year, which resulted in a 500 mile race with a hefty purse of $25,000, which is over a half a million in U.S currency today.

The first Indy 500 in 1911, cemented many traditions and historical firsts. Traditionally, a car carried two people, the driver and the riding mechanic. The driver was there to, well, drive, and the mechanic was there to check oil pressure, and alert the driver to passing cars. Ray Harroun, a driver who had won the previous year at the Wheeler – Schebler Trophy, went down in history for not only his car’s unique design, but as the first racer to win the Indianapolis 500.

Harroun chose to ride solo, instead of double, which not only ticked off the competition, but also implemented what historians argue as the first rear view mirror for a motor vehicle. When they found out that Harroun was racing solo, the drivers protested, saying that he was a hazard on the track for not having a riding mechanic. He answered their concerns by affixing a 3in x 8in mirror to the dashboard of his car. Harroun said he got the idea while working as a chauffeur in Chicago, back in 1904. He saw a horse-drawn taxi cab with a pole sticking out of it and a mirror attached it. Harroun’s car itself wasn’t something to forget either.

It was called The Wasp. It was one of the few cars at the time to be ‘streamlined’. Most of the cars back then were circular/boxy things. Harroun and a few others built cars which were more aerodynamic, with smooth contours and narrow tail-ends. The mirror on Harroun’s car not only helped him see who was behind him, it also provided The Wasp with more downforce. In the 1960s, astronauts inspected The Wasp.

According to official Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian, Donald Davidson, the astronauts were very surprised by the design because of the year it was built in.

“They were fascinated by the shape and the tail and asked, ‘How did they know to do this?’” Davidson said.

Drivers and mechanics back then were merely employees of the companies that built their cars. It wasn’t so much driver pitted against driver, but company pitted against company. As the years went on, the popularity of the race took off, even peaking the interest of European auto makers, such as Fiat and Peugeot. This led to a string of European victories from 1912 to 1919.

The bricks began to disappear under a layer of asphalt as the complex modernized throughout the decades. This, in turn, created a hallowed site for speedway drivers, which is now called the Yard of Bricks. A 36 inch strip of the original bricks remains exposed at the start/finish line. In 1996 a tradition was started by NASCAR champion Dale Jarrett. After his victory at the Brickyard 400, which is hosted at the track, he and his team walked out to the finish line, kneeled and kissed the bricks to pay homage to the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Thus the tradition of “Kissing the bricks” was born.

The Indy 500 is more than just about the race itself. It is also known for many other traditions as well. Celebrities attend, much like they do at the Academy Awards, and believe it or not, they are greeted with a red carpet at the Indy 500 as well. Concerts are held, and parades are thrown with popular stars and starlets, sitting atop sparkling convertibles. In 1927 Purdue All-American Marching Band began performing near the finish-line, and has ever since. The song, “Back Home Again in Indiana” became a musical standard of the race, with actor and singer Jim Nabors, performing it from 1972 to 2014. With every American sporting event, you get the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as well as “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America,” which has been performed by actress and singer, Florence Henderson, almost every year since 1991.

To make a sporting event bonafide American, there’s a recipe that must be followed. Much like chicken fried steak or ice box pie, it requires ever ingredient necessary. Okay, so we have our athletes pitted against one another in desperate competition, check. It’s a plus if it involves danger, gasoline and high speeds, triple check. There must be music and pageantry in all of its pomp and glory, check and check. But all of this would be incomplete without one thing, food.

The culinary delight and tradition of the Indianapolis 500 is the pork tenderloin sandwich. It’s the Indy 500’s answer to the Kentucky Derby’s mint julep. It is a monstrous, artery clogging pork tenderloin that is deep fried in buttermilk and housed in a bun that is way smaller than the loin itself. Warning, it may require a fork and knife, or a handsaw.

So what is the deal with peanuts, and why are they the bearers of bad luck at the Indy 500? It isn’t as popular now, but this myth is said to go back to at least the 1940’s. Legend has it, that a car crashed on the speedway a long time ago, and in that particular car they found peanut shells in the cockpit. The pork tenderloin holds on and yet the lore of the peanuts have all but faded from popular knowledge. As of 2009, peanuts have been sold track-side, since.

Last but certainly not least, you have Indy champions drinking milk at the finish line. In 1933, Indy 500 Champion, Louis Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk after winning the 500 for the second time. After he won it a third time, he made the same request, but this time received a bottle. A photo was taken of Meyer, taking a gulp from the bottle whilst holding up three fingers to signify his third victory. A dairy company saw this as a great marketing ploy and began offering milk to the winners of the race after that. Milk has been presented to racers (give or take a year or two) ever since, with the choices of whole, 2% and skim.

Today, much has changed, yet still harkens back to the track’s good ole days. The cars no longer look like pieced together kitchen appliances on wheels. They are now sexy and space-age examples of modern ingenuity and science. 60,000 spectators is laughable now. They don’t ever disclose how many attend each year, but put it this way, the track seats 250,000, and they are packed most seasons. Many American sporting events claim they are the most significant of all time. The Indianapolis 500 is far from innocent in this age-old debate. It may not come in first, when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the majority of American sports fans, but with its charming traditions and history, it definitely doesn’t come in last.

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