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.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories—and more about his inspiring life can be seen in the new documentary What’s My Name Muhammad Ali, premiering May 14 on HBO. Here are five more fast facts about Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

What's the Difference Between Pool and Billiards?

iStock.com/Steevy84
iStock.com/Steevy84

Walk into a bar or private rec room and you're likely to encounter a pool table, with patrons and guests leaning over a green felt surface and striking a white cue ball with a cue stick in an effort to sink the rest of the balls into six pockets. If you're invited to join, most people will ask about a game of pool, not a game of billiards. Yet both terms seemingly refer to the same activity. What's the difference?

According to the Billiard Congress of America, billiards was developed out of a lawn game similar to croquet in the 15th century. When play moved indoors, green tables were used to simulate grass. Originally, the balls in billiards were driven by a mace with a large tip instead of a stick and through something similar to a croquet wick. The game evolved and expanded over time to include pocketed tables and shot-calling for points, enjoying wide popularity in America in the 1920s. The term billiards comes from the French words billart ("wooden stick") and bille ("ball").

As the popularity of billiards grew, billiards tables became common sights in gambling parlors where horse racing wagers or other bets were being placed. Because a collection of wagers is known as a pool, pocket billiards began to be associated with the term. Some professional pool players still use the term billiards to describe what's more commonly known as pool. Typically, billiards can refer to any kind of tabletop game played with a cue stick and cue ball, while pool largely means a game with pockets.

In the UK, however, billiards can refer to English Billiards, a variation in which only three balls are used, with the player striking his cue ball and a red striker ball to move his opponent's cue ball. There are no pockets used in the game.

You may wonder where this leaves snooker, an even more obscure game. Since it's played with a cue and a cue ball, it's technically billiards, but snooker has a specific rule set involving 22 balls that need to be sunk with consideration given to each color's point value. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a snooker table is also larger than a conventional pool surface (from 7 to 9 feet) and its pockets are an inch smaller in diameter.

The bottom line? If you're in a social setting and get challenged to a game of billiards, it's probably going to be pool. If you're in the UK, it could mean the pocket-less version. And if you get challenged to a game of snooker, be prepared for a very lengthy explanation of the rules.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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