7 Things You Should Know About The Indy 500

Getty Images
Getty Images

Most Americans only pay attention to open-wheel racing one Sunday out of the year. Although the sport doesn't have a Nascar-like spot in the country's heart, the Indianapolis 500 manages to generate fan interest—only fitting for an event that's nicknamed "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Whether this year's 92nd running of the Indy 500 is your first time watching the race or a beloved annual tradition, the great spectacle may have a few confusing moments. We've tried to answer some of the inevitable questions for you.

Why is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway called "the Brickyard"?
Because the original racing surface of the track didn't work. When the Speedway opened in 1909, its track was made of crushed stone and tar. This mixture was even less functional than it sounds; when racing started several drivers suffered fatal crashes due to the unstable track. The Speedway's owners wanted to address this problem quickly, so they replaced the track with 3.2 million paving bricks. Thus, the track was nicknamed "the Brickyard."

By 1936, though, the bricks were starting to wear down, and certain patches were paved over. Repairs gradually covered more bricks until 1961, when pavers covered the rest of the track, leaving only a three-foot strip of brick at the start/finish line. This narrow swath of bricks is till visible on the track, although the bricks themselves are occasionally switched out due to wear. In 1996, Nascar driver Dale Jarrett and his crew gave birth to a new tradition when they kissed the bricks after winning the Brickyard 400, the track's premiere stock-car race. Indy 500 winners have since taken to smooching the masonry, starting with Gil de Ferran after his 2003 win.

What the heck is a Carb Day?

Indy 500 preparations are known as "the Month of May" in racing circles because of the painstaking work that goes into perfecting each car before the green flag drops. Due to the long lead-in time, many of the pre-race days have nicknames and have become events of their own.

Since the field is limited to 33 cars, drivers must qualify for a spot in the race. The pole day qualifying determines not just who will drive in the race, but in what position they'll start. The final practice day before qualifying is known as "Fast Friday," because teams really open up their cars and take the speediest practice laps they can.

"Fast Friday" is followed by the Pole Day time trials in which drivers vie for starting their sports and starting positions in the race. When the dust settled after Pole Day this year, Scott Dixon had claimed the top starting spot in the race; he pocketed a cool $100,000 just for winning the pole.

After two more days of qualifying comes "bump day," or the last day of qualifying. Once 33 drivers have posted qualifying times to fill out the field, any driver who then wants to earn a spot in the race has to post a qualifying time faster than the slowest qualifier currently in the field. The slowest driver is then "bumped" out of the field.

The Friday before the race is known as Carb Day. Carburetion Day, as it was originally known, historically gave teams a chance to calibrate their carburetors for race-day conditions. However, due to the rise of fuel injection no car with a carburetor has been in the field since 1963, and today Carb Day is largely a final chance for drivers to practice in their race-day cars. Pit crews also compete in a pit stop challenge competition on Carb Day.

What songs are sung before the race?
The Purdue University All-American Marching Band plays a number of signature songs before each year's race, including "Stars and Stripes Forever" and Indiana's state song, "On the Banks of the Wabash." The signature song, though, is "Back Home Again in Indiana," a beloved tribute to the Hoosier state. The song itself might not be familiar to you, but the crooner who belts it out probably is. Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., has performed the song most years since 1972. Illness kept him out of last year's race, but he's set to make a triumphant return this year. Since the 1940s, organizers have also released thousands of balloons from an infield tent during the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana," adding an extra visual flair to the tradition.

If that's not enough Nick-at-Nite-era sitcom star power for you, then you'll be pleased to learn that Florence Henderson, native Hoosier and matriarch of The Brady Bunch, will once again sing "God Bless America," a song she's performed every year since the early 1990s. [Image courtesy of The Peterson Family.]

Why are the cars moving at the race's start?
Although rolling starts are common in racing now, Indy 500 organizers claim the use of a pace car originated with the race's first running in 1911. Speedway founder Carl Fisher was supposedly worried that having the large field of racers start from a dead stop would be dangerous, so he suggested that the drivers take a lap at a low speed behind a pace car. At the end of this practice lap, the pace car would leave the track, and the race would begin. The tradition has gradually changed; the pace car now leads the standard 33-car field on two unofficial "parade laps," then on the race's first lap, which is known as the "pace lap."

Although it originated as a safety precaution, the pace car has found its way into Indy's pageantry. The pace car is usually a particularly snazzy American ride (the most frequently used car is the Corvette), and the winner is ceremonially given the keys to a replica following his win. Celebrities have taken the driving duties for the pace car; in recent years Morgan Freeman, Lance Armstrong, and Colin Powell have been behind the wheel. This year two-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi will set the pace in a 2008 Corvette.

What's the deal with the gigantic trophy?
"Gigantic" might actually be an understated description of the Borg-Warner Trophy, which has been awarded to the race's winner since 1936. The sterling silver trophy, which is named after American auto part supply company BorgWarner, stands over five feet tall and weighs over 150 pounds. (In other words, it's taller and heavier than Danica Patrick.) The trophy contains a bas-relief sculpture of every winning driver in Indy 500 history, as well as a gold sculpture of Tony Hulman, the late owner of the racetrack. It's topped with a sculpture of a naked track marshal waving a checkered flag, a sight that's all too familiar to anyone who's ever tried to make a race marshal put on some pants.

Was the trophy always so huge?
No. But in 1986, race organizers ran out of room to put future winners' faces. A large extension was added at the base; it provides ample room to sculpt the winners of every race until 2034. Due to the trophy's value and enormous heft, the winner doesn't actually get to keep it for the year. Instead, since 1988 drivers have been given an 18-inch replica as a memento of their victories.

Why does the winner chug milk in victory lane?
This tradition exists because three-time winner Louis Meyer was an obedient son. Meyer's mom had told him to drink buttermilk on warm days to cool down. Meyer made a habit of it, and a photographer snapped a picture when he took a long slug of milk in victory lane after winning the 1936 race. An enterprising dairy industry executive saw the picture in the paper and decided to make a bottle of milk part of the standard victory celebration. The tradition got off to a slow start, but it's been an Indy 500 mainstay since 1955. The American Dairy Association now pays a sponsorship to the winner for giving milk such a prime endorsement.

There has been at least one notable exception, though. When Emerson Fittipaldi took the checkered flag in 1993, he eschewed milk in favor of a bottle of orange juice. Was he just confusing his breakfast drinks? Possibly, but some suspected he was trying to boost orange juice consumption since he owned orange groves in his native Brazil. He eventually drank some milk after the orange juice, but later apologized for breaking tradition and donated the dairy sponsorship money to a women's charity.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

10 Winning Facts about Wheaties

General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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