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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Invictus Games

Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Though the media tends to dwell on the private life of Prince Harry and his recent marriage to actor Meghan Markle, the Duke of Sussex has more on his mind than tabloids might suggest. Beginning October 20 in Sydney, Australia, and running through October 27, he'll be presenting the Invictus Games, a multi-sport competition he created in 2014 for wounded veterans. Athletes will participate in a variety of sports, including wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, in an attempt to earn medals and, in Harry's words, "demonstrate life beyond disability."

For more on the history (and future) of the Games, check out our round-up below.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY AN AMERICAN COMPETITION.

Prince Harry talks to a Warrior Games representative in the United States
Arthur Edwards-Pool, Getty Images

While on a promotional tour of the United States to raise awareness for his charities, Prince Harry was invited to appear in support of the British team in the Warrior Games, a competition for wounded service veterans that was held in Colorado in 2013. Impressed by the camaraderie and enthusiasm shown by participants, he took the concept and created the Invictus (Latin for "unvanquished" or "unconquered") Games. The inaugural event was held in London in September 2014. "It was such a good idea by the Americans that it had to be stolen," he joked.

2. IT'S FUNDED IN PART BY BANK FINES.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stand on the sidelines
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

While the Invictus Games attract corporate sponsors—including Jaguar—to subsidize the operating costs of the event, funds for the 2014 installment also came from fines levied against British banks that were charged with manipulating currency exchange rates. Approximately £1 million (roughly $1,300,000) were made available from the fines, matching the £1 million Prince Harry donated via his Royal Foundation.

3. THE GAMES FEATURE INDOOR ROWING.

An athlete in the Invictus Games competes in indoor rowing
Steve Bardens, Getty Images for Invictus Games

Invictus invites athletes to compete across a range of adaptive sporting events—sports that have been modified to be all-inclusive for people with an array of physical challenges. In sitting volleyball, athletes have to keep one butt cheek touching the floor while touching the ball. In indoor rowing, athletes use a rowing machine to simulate outdoor rowing.

4. WHEELCHAIR RUGBY GETS INTENSE.

Invictus Games athletes participate in wheelchair rugby
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

If you have an impression that modified sports are somehow easier than their able-bodied counterparts, you're mistaken. In wheelchair rugby, athletes attempt to get a volleyball across a court and between two cones on the opposing team's side. They experience frequent collisions that appear to have more in common with demolition derbies than football, and participants are sometimes blindsided by the hits, which can bend wheels and axles.

5. IT'S NOT JUST FOR HUMANS.

A service dog shakes off water after a swim at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for Invictus

Because many disabled veterans rely on service dogs to assist in tasks of daily living, Games officials were more than willing to open their doors to the animals during the 2016 event in Orlando. At the last minute, organizers permitted the dogs to jump in the pool for an unofficial race. (Though it was held at Disney World, Pluto was not invited to participate in the doggy-paddle event.)

6. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN MADE AN APPEARANCE.

Bruce Springsteen shakes the hand of a war veteran at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Prince Harry's involvement has contributed heavily to appearances by a number of well-known public figures at the Games. Former president Barack Obama and Joe Biden attended the 2017 competition; David Beckham was named the 2018 ambassador. In 2017, Bruce Springsteen closed out the event in Toronto with a solo set. He was later joined on stage by Bryan Adams.

7. THERE WAS A GAP YEAR.

Prince Harry talks to representatives at the Invictus Games
Gregory Shamus, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

After the 2014 Games in London, Orlando hosted the 2016 contest and Toronto held the 2017 installment. There was no 2015 edition—the Games used a gap year in order for Orlando to raise the funds to organize the event. The competition will also skip 2019, moving to the Hague in the Netherlands for the 2020 Games.

8. IT'S GETTING MORE VETERANS INVOLVED IN SPORTS.

A group of athletes huddle during the Invictus Games
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Members of the armed services don't need to compete in the Games to feel their influence. Following the inaugural 2014 event, Help for Heroes, which assisted in recruiting British athletes for competition, reported that there was a 463 percent increase in veterans signing up for archery talent assessments and a 633 percent increase in powerlifting enrollees.

9. THE GAMES WILL BE STUDIED BY SCIENCE.

An Invictus Games athlete holds up a trophy
Paul Thomas, Getty Images for Jaguar Land Rover

Participation in Invictus appears to be a significant boost for the overall morale of contestants. And thanks to a grant from the Forces in Mind Trust, we'll eventually have some objective evidence of it. For the next four years, researchers will follow 300 athletes to assess their overall well-being compared to non-participants. Such evidence of the benefits of adaptive sport will likely contribute to a greater number of participants—and funding—in the future.

10. A COMMEMORATIVE COIN WAS ISSUED IN BRAILLE.

An Invictus Games commemorative coin features text in Braille
Royal Australian Mint

In honor of the Invictus Games' vision-impaired contestants, the Royal Australian Mint issued its first-ever coin with Braille text. Intended to commemorate and publicize the 2018 event in Sydney, the coin features a disabled competitor and "Sydney '18" in Braille. The $1 AUD coin sells for $15 AUD (about $11) and is limited to a run of 30,000. A gold-plated version is limited to 2018 copies and sells for $150 AUD ($108).

8 of Evel Knievel’s Most Memorable Stunts

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Born on this day in 1938, Robert "Evel" Knievel was a stuntman who entertained audiences with his daredevil motorcycle jumps. After his first jump in 1965, Knievel upped the ante, making multiple record-breaking jumps (and breaking countless bones), all while wearing his signature leather jumpsuits. To celebrate what would have been his 80th birthday, we've compiled a list of eight of Knievel’s best motorcycle jumps, from the fountain at Las Vegas’s Caesar's Palace to London's Wembley Stadium.

1. CAESAR'S PALACE

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve in 1967, a crowd of thousands watched as Knievel attempted to ride his motorcycle across the Caesar's Palace fountain in Las Vegas, Nevada. As he made the 141-foot jump, the crowd watched in horror as Knievel botched the landing. His body bounced on the ground like a rag doll, and an ambulance drove him to a local hospital. The stuntman suffered multiple fractures and a concussion, but his jump made him famous when ABC aired video of the botched stunt.

2. MADISON SQUARE GARDEN

In 1971, Knievel entertained an audience at the Auto Thrill Show at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, he successfully jumped over a line of nine cars and a van. And in his characteristically flashy style, he wore a red, white, and blue leather jumpsuit.

3. LOS ANGELES COLISEUM

Knievel completed a perfect motorcycle jump in downtown Los Angeles in 1973. Held at the L.A. Coliseum, the event featured Knievel riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle over 50 smashed cars stacked in a pile. Some 35,000 spectators in the coliseum cheered as he safely made his landing and set a record that would stand for 35 years.

4. TWO LIONS AND A BOX OF RATTLESNAKES

In 1965, the motorcyclist performed his first public stunt. He organized an event in Moses Lake, Washington featuring two mountain lions and a box of rattlesnakes. Driving his Honda motorcycle, Knievel cleared a 90-foot box of serpents and then jumped over a couple of lions. Reflecting later on the beginning of his career, he remembered that although he was unharmed, the jump didn’t go as smoothly as planned. "I jumped 50 rattlesnakes in a 90-foot box and two mountain lions, but smashed into the edge of the box. All the snakes got out and the people had to run down the mountain," he said.

5. COW PALACE

In 1972, Knievel broke a record by jumping over 15 cars in an arena near San Francisco, but after the successful landing, he crashed and skidded through the short tunnel leading to the concessions. The crowd rushed after him, expecting him to be dead, but Knievel stood up (despite a newly broken ankle) and told the crowd: "If someone breaks this indoor record by jumping more than 15 cars, I’ll jump 16 or whatever the number … even if it kills me."

6. SNAKE RIVER CANYON

Idaho’s Snake River Canyon was the site of Knievel’s best-known stunt. Because he couldn’t get governmental approval to ride a motorcycle over the Grand Canyon, he settled for his second choice: Snake River Canyon. In 1974, Knievel tried to jump from one side of the canyon to the other—a 1600-foot wide gap—but he didn’t ride a regular motorcycle. Instead, he used a steam-powered rocket dubbed the Skycycle X-2. After taking off, his parachute deployed too early, and the wind anticlimactically blew him back toward the rocks. In September 2016, stunt performer Eddie Braun successfully jumped over Snake River Canyon in a replica of Knievel's Skycycle.

7. WEMBLEY STADIUM

In May 1975, after his disappointing performance at Snake River Canyon, Knievel went to London’s Wembley Stadium to jump over a line of 13 single-decker buses. An estimated 80,000 people watched him as he attempted this 100-mile-per-hour jump. Unfortunately, he crash-landed on the last bus and bounced until he hit the ground. Despite his injuries, he asked to be helped up, took the microphone, and made an announcement. "I will never, ever, ever jump again," he told the crowd. "I'm through."

8. KINGS ISLAND

Although Knievel told the London audience that he was done after his Wembley jump, he came out of retirement a few months later. In October 1975, he rode his motorcycle over 14 Greyhound buses at Ohio’s Kings Island amusement park. After clearing 133 feet, Knievel landed safely, and the televised event earned huge ratings. Knievel continued performing stunts and doing speaking tours until the early '80s, mostly while traveling with his daredevil son, Robbie Knievel.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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