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Drivers Start Your Engines

Next week will be the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500. For you local folks, you probably know more about this iconic race, or event, that what I could ever share with you. For those of you not from Indiana, the Indy 500 is the largest single day sporting event in the world, usually with anywhere from 200,000-400,000 fans in attendance. The official attendance is not disclosed by Speedway management, but the permanent seating capacity is upwards of 300,000, and infield and outside the track (on the race track property) patrons can potentially raise the race-day attendance to approximately 400,000.

This annual automobile race is held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in Speedway, Indiana. Speedway is considered a suburb of Indianapolis but it actually resides fully within the Indianapolis city limits as one of the older towns that was allowed to maintain its “City” status and operations once Uni-Gov went into effect, in 1970, expanding Indianapolis into a city that encompassed all of Marion County. The event is traditionally held over Memorial Day weekend, usually the last weekend of May.

The track itself is nicknamed the "Brickyard", as the racing surface was paved in brick in the fall of 1909. One yard of brick remains exposed at the start/finish line. The event is billed as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing is considered part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, which comprises three of the most prestigious motorsports events in the world, also including the Monaco Grand Prix (which traditionally falls on the same day as the Indianapolis 500) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It shares its date with NASCAR's 600-mile event at Charlotte, with drivers occasionally competing in both events, on this same day, which has become known as a racing Double Duty.

The inaugural race was held in 1911 and was won by Ray Harroun. The event celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, and the 100th running was held in 2016. The event was put on hiatus twice, from 1917 to 1918 due to World War I and from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II. Takuma Sato is the current champion. The most successful drivers are A. J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears, each of whom has won the race four times. The active driver with the most victories is Hélio Castroneves, with three. Rick Mears holds the record for most career pole positions with six. The most successful car owner is Roger Penske, owner of Team Penske, which has 18 total wins and 18 poles. Penske also has five wins at the Grand Prix, held two weeks prior to the 500, on this same course, which mirrors a road course using parts of the infield and parts of the oval. Ironically, Roger Penske purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and all it’s property and holdings, on January 5, 2020, becoming only the fourth owner of IMS. The previous owners were Carl Fisher, who built the track in 1909, Eddie Rickenbacker, who purchased IMS in 1927, and Tony Hulman and Hulman & Co, which had owned and managed the speedway since 1945 until 2020. Carl Fisher purchased the land for the speedway for $155,000 and in comparison, Penske paid an estimated $200M-$300M.

The event is steeped in tradition, in pre-race ceremonies, post-race celebrations, and race procedure. The most noteworthy and most popular traditions are the 33-car field lining up three-wide for the start, the annual singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana," and the victory lane bottle of milk. Also unique is that qualifying requires the driver to complete four, rather than one, timed laps. Qualifying has a separate weekend which has been known, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s, to pull in crowds nearing capacity.

There have been many milestone occurrences at IMS, most of which have been very positive for motorsport but also for the development, engineering, and advent of many of today’s automobile capabilities and luxuries. Many speed and endurance records have been broken and significant car innovations have occurred. The higher the speeds, the more aerodynamic the cars had to become, as the race track itself is relatively flat compared to many of the stock car and higher speed test tracks, and the advancement in these newer cars were necessary to keep them safe and avoid major crashes into the walls. However, the better aerodynamics led to better fuel economy. Fuel tank safety, high temperature engine components, and fuel mileage advancements are all some of the key improvements that have occurred, thanks to this race. Safety belts, harnesses, and helmets have found their origin and improved significantly over the years due to this race. Even the race tracks have evolved due to IMS testing. Safer Barriers were first tested and installed at IMS in 2002 and are now used in nearly every race track and in every motor sport throughout the world. These barriers absorb the force of a crash, into a wall, and have significantly decreased the serious injuries that were previously caused by such impacts.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of speed, engineering, and development has not always been positive. There has been a total of 73 people who lost their lives at the track; 56 of which were in race cars when they met their deaths. Forty-two drivers and 14 others who rode alongside as mechanics or replacement drivers. You see, until 1937 most cars carried at least two people, a driver and usually a mechanic. There have also been 10 spectators who have died at the track with the remaining deaths, of one each, scattered amongst bystanders, firefighters, safety crew members, team members, and a trespasser. There were also two maintenance workers who lost their life at the track due to a lightning strike which occurred during non-race work in July 1964. It is important to note that through all the safety advancements the speedway has made, the last drive to die at the track, which occurred during a testing session, was Tony Renna, October 22, 2003. The last driver to die at the tack, during a practice session, was Scott Brayton on May 17, 1996, and the last driver death, in a race, was 48 years ago when Swede Savage died in the 1973 race.

On a personal note, I started going to the track in the early 60’s and continued going to every race through 1979. I have been fortunate enough to attend a few races since then but I will always have some very fond memories of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Amongst these memories are the first turbine powered cars of Andy Granatelli. The first car, driven by Parnelli Jones, was two laps better than any car in the field, and he led 171 of the 200 laps. But unfortunately, a $6 bearing faltered with only three laps to go and the car that had totally dominated the 1967 race had to settle for 6th place. Granatelli returned in 1968 with four new turbine powered cars with bodies made by Lotus. Unfortunately, the not-so-fond memory was when one of these cars crashed in qualifications and the driver, Jim Malloy, died from his injuries four days later. Three of these cars made the race and they were 2-3 mile per hour (MPH) faster than most the cars in the field and they quickly dominated qualifying and the race. The race was quite competitive with one turbine in, or battling for, the lead, the entire race but sadly, with just 9 laps to go, the engines failed on the leader and the second turbine still running. (the third car was eliminated in an earlier crash) These were very cool cars which looked like a flying wedge, with hot pink paint schemes, and they made more of a woosh sound when they passed you versus the roar of the bulky cars of the day. They were so quiet, exciting, and colorful.

I also have fond memories on the 1975 race when my family, and good friend and adopted roommate for one year, Randy Dover went to the race. It was a super race and very closely fought until the heavens opened up and the rain drenched the entire course. The race was just 26 laps from completion so the race was called and the leader declared the winner. But what was most memorable about this ending was the rain and its affect on these cars. You see they run on slick tires and cannot maneuver very well at all in the rain. So, these cars, which because of the rain were now only going 10-20 MPH, were sliding all over the place, bouncing off of each other and the walls - it was quite amusing, and yes, we all got soaked to the skin. Cars would slide backwards off the track into the cabled barriers and spring back off the cables like they were shot out of a cannon – it was a rare yet very cool sight to see.

One thing veteran fans will learn about the race, is that if it gets delayed for a day or more, it’s one of the best, or should I say cheapest, tickets in town. Even though the last week in May is usually a very rainy time in Indianapolis, the race has actually only been delayed by rain 13 times. So, you see, because there are so many people that drive and fly in for the weekend, to see the race, that if it gets delayed until a day or more later, most of these folks cannot stay. Thus, many seats become available and the ticket staff will usually let you in without a ticket, when the race is re-run a few days later. This happened in 1986 and 1997, so keep an eye out for these future opportunities.

My final “fond” memory of this grand race is in 2004. Let me set the stage. From 1980 on, we no longer attended the race but race day became a family tradition. The entire family would come together at my parents’ home, just north of Edinburgh, and enjoy an all-day barbecue, swimming, and listen to and score the race. Of course, we had a race “pool” going as well to award the first place, second place, and first car out, a prize to whichever lucky family member that had drawn these particular drivers names. It has been a long-standing tradition for 40 years, which for my part only, did not occur once, in 2004. This happened because my cousin Charla surprised her husband JD with finish line tower terrace tickets to this race for his birthday. So, Charla cleared it with the family for me to become their tour guide for the race. Now this in itself would have been memorable enough, however it was just the beginning of a truly very interesting and most challenging race day.

I picked Charla and JD up at their hotel and headed toward the track. We found the perfect neighborhood parking place and headed into the track, full of anticipation for a great race in super seats. The weather forecast was possible rain and storms, as it usually is that time of year, but an interesting twist to the forecast gave us some pause. You see, spring time tornados are not that uncommon in Indiana and this particular forecast predicted tornados were “likely.” I mentioned to both of my guests that this was a common forecast…EXCEPT…for the term “likely” when referring to possible tornados. I had always heard “possible” forecasted, but never before heard the weather people say “likely.” So, we’re at the race, our great seats gave us a perfect up-close view of all the festivities, the pit actions, and the entire field as it came down for the green flag to start the race – PERSONALLY, I THINK THIS IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SIGHT IN ALL OF SPORTS.

After a two-hour delay for rain, the race finally started. The race was quite competitive and fun but the crowds were rolling in and the sky was getting quite dark. Periods of intermittent sprinkles began to drop and the race ran on and off of caution for several laps. The IMS officials kept flashing the weather radar on the big TV screens and I must admit that it looked quite ominous. Finally, they called the race due to the rain only 20 laps from completion. As we started leaving our seats and heading back towards where we parked, the sky turned that odd green color and all of a sudden, the tornado sirens started to blare their warning.

This was an experience my California based cousins had never seen or experienced. Another interesting aspect was that both Charla and JD were California State Police Officers. So, as we funneled our way out, being directed by numerous police officers, Charla and JD wanted to stop and talk, share stories, and commiserate with all these brave folks. However, you can understand the situation, these officers simply wanted to get us all out to a safe place with this impending storm unfolding around us. I had to constantly impress upon them that this was a potentially serious situation and that the siren they were hearing meant a tornado has been sited and was nearby. Although they would have rather stopped to talk with their law enforcement brethren, I finally convinced them that now wasn’t the time. Fortunately, we made it to our car and I got them safely back to their hotel.

However, this first part of my journey was easier said than done. I found my path back to my home in Greenwood blocked in virtually every way. I listened intently to the radio and all reports were that I was not going to get home. There was no way to call home as all the cell towers were flooded with activity or inoperable. After trying several of the main and side roads going south, I decided to head over to I-65 which had been reportedly closed for some time. I was able to get on this road home and the first thing I saw was a car literally upside down, with all 4 tires pointing straight up to the sky. And while it laid there, there was not a scratch or dent on the car, even where it had landed, expect it was upside-down – very strange – it was one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen. Finally, after 4 hours of trying, I made it home. When the dust had cleared, the southside of Indianapolis, only 6 miles from the track, had been hit pretty hard by this F2 tornado and there was significant damage all around. To date, this race day has its place in history as the wettest and scariest race of all time with 3.8 inches of rain recorded and a tornado with 100-160 MPH wind speeds. FYI – Charla and JD made their flight home the next day and say it was an experience they would never forget and oddly made the whole thing very exciting and enjoyable!

All in all, I love this race and everything about it. It will always having a place in my heart and has delivered many upon many great memories. I hope I have shared some interesting tidbits about the greatest spectacle in racing, and I pray for all drivers, crews, officials and fans, that this 105th running is safe, exciting, and fun!!!

Here are some firsts in race speed average and then qualifying, thanks to Wikipedia:

Race Winners at Each MPH milestone:

Race Qualifiers at Each MPH milestone:

†- During time trials, Bill Vukovich II turned his first lap at 185.797 mph (299.011 km/h), to set the one-lap track record, and was the first driver to officially break the 180 mph (290 km/h) barrier. He, however, crashed on his second lap, and did not complete the four-lap qualifying run. Later in the afternoon, Joe Leonard qualified a four-lap average of 185.223 mph (298.088 km/h) to break the four-lap 180 mph (290 km/h) barrier. Later in the day, however, Bobby Unser qualified even faster, over 190 mph (310 km/h), and became the first pole position winner to break 180 mph (290 km/h) and 190 mph (310 km/h) for his four-lap average.

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