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.

Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?

Lonnie Major, ALLSPORT
Lonnie Major, ALLSPORT

Before anyone brings home the hardware, let's answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman's Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn't really Heisman's Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer—he consistently received rotten reviews—and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere—in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago's Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

Possibly, but Heisman didn't have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists—Vinny Testaverde won that year—and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time."

What's a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

Steve Spurrier playing quarterback in 1966, the year he won the Heisman Trophy.
Steve Spurrier playing quarterback for the University of Florida in 1966, the year he won the Heisman Trophy.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol' Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida's student government thought Spurrier's generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he'd get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World's Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman's Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn't show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren't totally clear—some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion—the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

Attention Football Fans: The Buffalo Bills Are Paying People $12 an Hour to Clear the Stadium of Snow

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are asking fans to prove just how dedicated they are following a snowstorm in western New York this week. As Buffalo News reports, New Era Field is hiring snow shovelers to clear out the stands and the field in time for Sunday's game—and it's offering free tickets as an incentive.

This Friday, workers will be paid $12 an hour to remove snow from the stadium—a $1 pay increase from last season. Shovelers who complete at least a four-hour shift will receive a free ticket to the game against the New York Jets on Sunday, December 9. They're encouraged to bring their own shovel, but tools will be provided to whomever shows up without one.

According to Weather.com, Buffalo has the worst weather of any NFL city, with intense cold, wind, and snowfall throughout the season. In November 2014, a storm buried Buffalo under nearly 7 feet of snow, with 220,000 tons of it ending up in New Era Field. Locals were also called upon to lend a hand and a shovel that time around, but as no one could leave their homes, the game had to be relocated. The Bills ended up beating the Jets 38-3 in the Detroit Lions’s indoor arena.

With a few home games still scheduled for this season, it's possible that local snow shovel owners may be asked to help out again if they miss this opportunity.

[h/t Buffalo News]

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