7 Things You Should Know About The Indy 500

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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?
Florence.jpgThe 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.

indy-trophy.jpgWhat'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?
milk.jpgThis 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.

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May 23, 2008 - 5:57am
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