Friday, May 27, 2016

25 Fun, Fascinating and Serious Facts about the Indianapolis 500

Logo for the 2016 race
Since its inception in 1911 The Indianapolis 500 has become an integral part of the Memorial Day weekend. While it may seem odd at first glance to honor America’s fallen with an auto race, holding races to honor the fallen have ancient origins. In Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, about the siege and sack of Troy, one of the heroes, Patroclus, dies in battle. Achilles holds games after Patroclus’ funeral, and the first event is a chariot race—the ancient equivalent to an auto race.

In anticipation of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500…“Wait! Whoa,” you say? “If the race started in 1911, shouldn’t 2011 have been the 100th race?” Well, yes, if the race was held every year since its beginning. In fact, the race was not held in 1917-18 due to WWI, or in 1942-1945 due to WWII. As we were saying, in anticipation of this year’s race, here’s a list of fun, fascinating, serious, and some sad facts about the storied history of this cultural icon.

1.  French Lick, Indiana, was the first location considered by the founders, Carl G. Fisher, Jim Allison, Art Newby, and Frank Wheeler. How does the “French Lick 500” grab you?

2.  They end up purchasing a 328 acre farm five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis for $72,000.00 in December, 1908. They incorporate it as the “Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

3.  The inaugural race—a balloon race—took place in 1909. The winner finished 382 miles away near Ft. Payne, Alabama.
1909 balloon race
4.  The 1909 season was catastrophic. The gravel and tar construction could not safely handle the motorcycle and auto races. After only the third auto race, racing was suspended at the track.

5.  The track was repaved…with bricks—3.2 million bricks weighing 10 pounds each. By the time construction workers finished the track, locals were calling it “The Brickyard.” The Brickyard has been an affectionate nickname for the track ever since. One yard of the original bricks mark the start/finish line of the track.
    6.  The first 500-mile race was held on May 30, 1911 and was called “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race.” 40 cars competed, 39 of them with 2-man crews—a driver and what was called a “riding mechanic.” One car, a Marmon Wasp, had only a driver, Ray Harroun, and he won the race averaging a little over 74 miles per hour.  To compensate for the lack of a mechanic who could look behind while the driver kept his eyes on the track, Harroun had a mirror mounted on struts above the coaming making the birth of the rear-view mirror.
    1911 Marmon Wasp
    7.  The 1911 500 also marks the first use of a “pace car,” conceived as a way to reduce first-lap mayhem. Since then, 27 carmakers—all of them American—have furnished pace cars. Chevrolet has paced the most 500s with 32 times.
    Chevy's 1st Pace Car: 1948 Fleetmaster Six (this example is a replica)
    8.  23 difference car manufacturers were represented in the 1911 Indy 500. Of those makes only three are still in business today: Buick, Fiat, and Mercedes.
      9.  In 1913, Frenchman Jules Goux drank champagne at each of six pit stops. He dominated the race, driving a Peugeot and averaged nearly 76 miles per hour. He’s the first European winner and the first to go 500 miles without a relief driver.
        10.  In 1914 a new rule goes into effect: no alcoholic consumption while racing. Coincidence? I think not.
          11.  Eddie Rickenbacker competes in four races before he enlists in WWI. Fortunately, he flew and shot a lot better than he raced. He became America’s “Ace of Aces” with 26 aerial victories. After WWI, Rickenbacker maintained his ties to racing, becoming the Speedway’s manager in 1927, a post he held until 1945.
            12. In 1936 the Borg-Warner Trophy was first presented. It cost $10,000.00 to commission and today is worth $3.5 million dollars. It is 5 feet-four inches tall, made of sterling silver, and has the names and faces of each Indy 500 winner inscribed upon it.
            Borg-Warner Trophy
            13. Also in 1936: Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Meyer regularly drank buttermilk to refresh himself on a hot day and happened to drink some in Victory Lane as a matter of habit after winning. An executive with what was then the Milk Foundation was so elated when he saw the moment captured in a photograph in the sports section of his newspaper the following morning that he vowed to make sure it would be repeated in coming years. "There was a period between 1947-55 when milk was apparently not offered, but the practice was revived in 1956 and it has been a tradition ever since."-

              14. By 1945 the Speedway was in a bad state of repair. Rickenbacker seriously considered selling the complex to real-estate developers, but in November 1945, three-time 500 winner Wilbur Shaw brokered a $750,000 deal that transferred ownership to Tony Hulman. Shaw became Speedway president.
                15. 1950 marks the first documented use of the phrase, “Gentlemen, start your…” Originally, the complete phrase was “Gentlemen, start your motors!” In 1952, or maybe 1953, the phrase was changed to the now iconic, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

                16. In 1952 Ferrari makes its first and only 500 appearance.
                  17. In 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first female driver to qualify for the Indy 500. The Speedway management insisted that the starting command would not be changed. After a lot of “hoo-ha,” when the time came, Tony Hulman said, “In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines!” She qualified again in 1978, and the phrase used was simply, “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!” This has been the form whenever female drivers have qualified (“Ladies” being used if there are multiple female drivers.)
                    18. Going back to the 1950s, in 1955 Alice Greene, then a young copywriter, coins the phrase “greatest spectacle in racing.” Race announcer, Sid Collins, makes it a cultural phenomenon by using it at every commercial break by saying, “Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing.”
                      19. Nine women have raced in the Indianapolis 500: Janet Guthrie (1977-79); Lyn St. James (1992-97, 2000); Sarah Fisher (2000-04, 2007-10); Danica Patrick (2005-11); Milka Duno (2007-09); Ana Beatriz (2010-12); Simona de Silvestro (2010-12); Pippa Mann (2011); and Katherine Legge (2012).
                        20. Three drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 four times each: A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977); Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987); and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991)
                          21. Eight drivers have won as Indianapolis 500 rookies: Ray Harroun (1911, inaugural race); Jules Goux (1913); Rene Thomas (1914); Frank Lockhart (1926); George Souders (1927); Graham Hill (1966); Juan Pablo Montoya (2000); and Helio Castroneves (2001)
                            22. In the must go faster department: The fastest official lap ever of 237.498 mph was made by Arie Luyendyk during qualifying May 12, 1996. Luyendyk made a faster lap of 239.260 mph during practice two days earlier. It was the fastest lap ever at the Speedway, but practice laps are not official.
                              23. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the world’s largest spectator sports venue. The entire complex covers over 1,000 acres and the infield, at 253 acres, is big enough to fit the Roman Colosseum, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, Churchill Downs, the Wimbledon tennis complex, and Vatican City with room to spare.
                              Wow, that's big!
                              24. There are 250,000 permanent seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If they were set up in a single line they would stretch 99.5 miles, a distance from the Speedway to just shy of the junction of I-74 and I-275 outside of Cincinnati, Ohio.
                              99.5 miles
                              25. By the numbers: 1.3 gallons of fuel (methanol) burned per lap, per car; 124,000 gallons of beer, 24,000 gallons of Coca-Cola, and 475 gallons of ketchup to accompany 8,000 pounds of pork tenderloin sandwiches, 10 tons of “Track Fries”, 10,000 pounds of hamburgers, and enough hot dogs and brats that, if they were laid end-to-end, would reach around the oval 3 times; 45th—the Speedway on race day becomes the nation’s 45th largest “city”; $996,400.00: cost for a team to race at Indy, 4,900: average number of tires used by a team during practicing, qualifying, and racing; 44: the average number of tires used per car during the race itself ; 33 drivers from 11 countries; and, sadly, there have been a number of deaths: 38 drivers (14 in the race, 5 in qualifying, 17 in practice, 1 in testing, and 1 during his driver’s test), 12 riding mechanics, 5 spectators, 2 firemen, 2 pit crew, and the perhaps the most tragic and bizarre of all—1 young boy who wasn’t even at the race track. Wilbur Brink, age 12, was in his front yard on Georgetown Street during the 1932 race when Billy Arnold crashed on lap 162. A wheel that broke loose bounced out of the track and across Georgetown St., where it struck young Brink, killing him instantly.
                              Current Logo

                              Sources: Too many to list. If you're interested contact one of the librarians at  You can also find many of the sources used by Googling "Indianapolis 500 facts".

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