The Racing Capital
of the World
May 22, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
There are few sporting events on Earth that have such a moving effect on participants and spectators alike than the Indianapolis 500.
It’s more than “The World’s Greatest Race” – the Indianapolis 500 is a love story.
The Indianapolis 500 is more than a race – it is one of the grandest traditions in all of sport. It transcends its racing series and the sport of auto racing, in general, to an iconic event that is known around the world. It combines the unique mix of tradition and history with modern racing machinery.
Over its 102-year history, the Indianapolis 500 has evolved into the largest single-day sporting event in the world with more than 250,000 fans filling the world’s largest sporting stadium each Race Day. It has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the recent recession and more infighting and controversy than practically any other sport could endure. But somehow the Indianapolis 500 remains with its Mount Olympus stature.
The Indy 500 is more than a race – it’s history. For the driver that wins the race, the victory stands the test of time, and the driver’s face is etched onto the Borg-Warner Trophy along with the other winners of the world’s greatest race for immortality.
When Indianapolis Motor Speedway founders Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler carved a 2.5-mile, four-cornered oval out of an Indiana cornfield on the northwest side of Indianapolis in 1909 and held the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, they had created the Mount Rushmore of all sporting events. It was the ultimate battle of man versus machine where bravery and skill were in equal measures, creating a lure to the spectators to see just what kind of person could look danger in the eye and not flinch as danger looks around every corner.
The lure for the spectator is speed and color, sights and sounds, and the smell of fuel that combined are both addictive and more than the senses can sometimes process all at one time.
“It's something about this place when you drive in through the tunnel where it makes hair stand up on the back of your neck,” said driver Ryan Briscoe. “It's a race that is known by everybody in the world. It's by far the most important race for any driver or any team to win in any form of racing. So I think it's all that, the history and how people are remembered for having done well at this track.”
It is the signature sporting event of a great American holiday weekend – Memorial Day – when those who have served this great country and died in the field of battle are remembered for their service and by making the supreme sacrifice.
The Indianapolis 500 is more than just a race, it’s the Cavalcade of Bands, the Purdue University Band playing “On the Banks of the Wabash” as the cars are rolled out onto the grid, Jim Nabors singing “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” as thousands of multi-colored balloons are launched into the Indiana sky and the thrilling moment when Mari Hulman George gives the command “Ladies and gentlemen – start your engines” to the roaring approval of the crowd.
It’s the only race where the starting lineup is three-abreast with 11 rows of three with a flying start out of the fourth turn as each of the 33 drivers that takes the green flag already knows the one drink they want most after the race is an ice-cold bottle of milk in Victory Lane.
“There are several things that I love about the Indianapolis 500,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. “History. The challenge of going for 500 miles in this place. When you're able to accomplish that, it's just an amazing accomplishment, and drinking the milk. It's all about; do you want to be there? I guarantee everybody's thinking, ‘I want to drink that milk.’ Those are the things that I love about this place.
“When I walk into this place, I get the chills.”
The Indianapolis 500 is a love affair for nearly every driver, crewman, official and spectator that makes sure they are at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Race Day every year.
The Indianapolis 500 is about legends – the men who simply didn’t win the race once but went on to win it two or even three times. And for a select group of three men, they are in the most exclusive club in all of racing as the only drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times – A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
“For myself, we had heard about Indy, listened to it on the radio early on and then finally when they came out with a little bit of the live coverage growing up, but for me it was way out of my league,” Mears said. “There was no way I would ever get to race there. I never dreamed of coming here because it was way out of my league. We were just racing around home for fun as a hobby and recreation, and I never realized -- even thought about coming here until about six months before I actually got into an Indy car.
“I didn't dream about because I didn't think it would ever happen. There was no question. So to be able to accomplish that and hook up with Team Penske and the right organization and have the tools to be able to accomplish what we have here is just incredible.”
Tim Cindric is the president of Team Penske and grew up on the northwest side of Indianapolis. His father worked for famed engine builder Herb Porter at Speedway Engines, so Cindric grew up in the sport, spending much of his younger years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As a homegrown Hoosier, Cindric knows that the Indianapolis 500 is part of his DNA.
“For me it's pretty simple – I grew up watching all the history being made,” Cindric said. “And to be part of and have the opportunity to work with these guys and Roger Penske, it kind of all puts it full circle and perspective for me to understand how difficult it is. I watched my father try and win this race with an engine for 30 years, and he never got that done. And to have the chance to be part of five of those (wins) is a big deal.
“As for Rick Mears, I tell the story all the time about the time when I was kid, he went back and got me a hat. And I never forgot that. So, you know, to work with him and these guys, it's a big deal for me.”
This year’s Indy 500 will also be a big deal for AJ Allmendinger, who was an open-wheel racing star from 2004-06 – but in the series that didn’t compete in the Indianapolis 500. Allmendinger was in the rival Champ Car series, and the teams he raced for didn’t run in the Indianapolis 500. He moved to NASCAR in 2007, but this year team owner Roger Penske offered him a chance to fulfill a dream and compete in his first Indianapolis 500.
“For me, I mean it's the prestige of the race,” Allmendinger said. “It's one of those races, and it may be the biggest race in the world when it comes to if you're not even a race fan, you don't really know anything about racing, but you say you won the Indianapolis 500, they know that's pretty special. For me, that's something that the first time I signed with Penske last year and you walk into the main office and the Borg-Warner Trophy is there with the helmets of everybody that's won the race. For me, it's like as soon as I walk in, being a NASCAR driver, at that point that's special right there. You see what that means.
“For me, it would be special to have my face on that trophy, have that trophy in your trophy case. And once you become an Indy 500 winner, that will never be taken away. You're part of a special club. That to me is what makes this race so amazing is the fact that, it doesn't matter who you say it to, if you say you're an Indianapolis 500 champion, that's pretty special.”
Will Power grew up in Australia and had heard about the Indianapolis 500 but didn’t know just how big it was until he made it as a rookie in 2008.
“I didn't realize how big the event was until I'd actually been through the process of the month,” Power said. “I couldn't believe the media coverage, and Race Day is the biggest eye-opener when you walk out into pit lane and just the amount of people. It's phenomenal.
“Apart from all that, it's a challenge of getting it right because it's such a hard place to get right in the car. And when things aren't working, you don't even want to be out there. It's just so hard. But when they do work, you have a good car and you're passing people, you know, it's the best feeling in the world. So it's a very unique place, nothing like it in the world.”
Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing is the defending Indianapolis 500 winner and has won this fabled race three times in his career. He is a student of racing history from fellow Scotsman Jim Clark to American racing legends Foyt and Parnelli Jones.
Franchitti drove in his first Indy 500 in 2002 and in the race discovered why so many drivers love the Indy 500 like no other.
“I think it's one of the few things I've done in my life the more you do it, the more it means to you,” Franchitti said. “That's a very odd feeling. Each time you come back here you just -- it gets deeper, deeper. It's such a great event. You think what a challenge it is to race here, to try to win. People take most of their life to try to compete in this race. It means so much to all involved. It's a special place. It's a great, great feeling to win it. It hurts like hell when you don't.”
If Franchitti wins the Indy 500 he would join Foyt, Unser and Mears as a four-time Indy 500 winner.
“I am very happy to have won one,” Franchitti said. “Look at some of the great drivers that didn't get the opportunity even to win one, so I was happy. Three is beyond anything expected. But I really want the fourth.”
Scott Dixon is Franchitti’s teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing and won the Indy 500 in 2008. He has come close to winning it since, only to finish second two times.
“I love this place; everybody loves this place,” Dixon said. “Yes, we've come up short a couple times. I think probably 2011 was a clear race that we maybe stood on our own feet and should have had a great shot at it. Luckily it went to another great driver. As long as you keep fighting and keep knocking on the door -- last year was the perfect scenario, obviously, have a one-two finish. Especially on Target's 50th anniversary. But that's what we strive for, to be in that position, every time we come here. Nothing's changed on that. Nobody remembers the second-place finishers, so we need to try to bump up a couple more.”
“It's the key point to the history that sums it all up. To be in a sport doing something very similar or the same for over a hundred years. Tradition is very important. I think those definitely stand out. I think for me, personally, to be on a short list of 67 different that have won at this place, that's special to me. Dario is on a much shorter list of winning it three times. It's everything that's involved. You know, I think a lot of us have been lucky to go to World Cup, Super Bowl, Wimbledon, the Olympics, and nothing compares to Indianapolis. As an event and Race Day with so many people here, the sheer size of this facility, it's really special.”
The Indianapolis 500 attracts some of the world’s greatest drivers, but there are also times when the “Little Guy” can knock off the giants of the sport. That is what happened on Pole Day when Ed Carpenter, the local boy whose mother is married to former Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, won the pole.
Carpenter’s pole was a win for the drivers who have made it to Indy through the traditional open-wheel, grass-roots ranks of USAC.
Carpenter’s dream was always to win the Indianapolis 500. He gets his best shot at that next Sunday. But winning the Indy 500 pole has been a dream come true to the driver originally from Marshall, Ill.
“A little bit, but I love the race a whole lot more than qualifying, and I really want to send a message and make sure I lead by example to the team and make sure we don't forget why we're really here,” Carpenter said. “This is fun and it's huge for our team. I don't want to think that it's not. But the pole won't mean much if we don't go out and perform on Race Day.
“I love it here. I love racing here. I love going fast here. It's cool to see the speeds climbing again. But this track and race means a lot to the other 32 guys that are going to start the race, too. I don't think it's just special to me.”