10 Mostly Obscure Indy 500 Facts Sure to Impress Your Friends, at Least on a Slow-Lane Kind of Day

1. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway spans 253 acres and includes a golf course. The track publicity department points out that Churchill Downs, Yankees Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum and Vatican City can all fit inside. It's a good thing they never did that. The pre-1981 infield in Turn 1, famously known as The Snakepit, could make Woodstock look like church. The Pope would not have approved, or at least would've demanded shades on his windows.

2. Ray Harroun won the inaugural 500-mile race in 1911. It took him 6 hours, 42 minutes. His car, the Marmon Wasp, had what is believed to be the first rear-view mirror. He averaged 75 miles an hour. Yes. I know. Drivers today hit 80 on the interstate while using the rear-view mirror to apply makeup. But this was a hundred years ago, remember.

3. The tradition of drinking milk after the race began in 1936 with winner Louis Meyer. He drank buttermilk because his mother advised him it was a good drink for a hot day. In 1993, Emerson Fitipaldi went rogue and drank orange juice to promote citrus groves owned by his family. He then took a sip of milk, but it didn't stop fans in Wisconsin (America's Dairyland) from booing him the following week.

4. Race fans will consume 24,000 pounds of track fries Sunday.

That's basically a couple adult elephants but not nearly as chewy. Peanuts, by the way, had been considered bad luck at Indy since the 1940s, though in 2009 the concession stands began selling them.

5. In 2001 Aerosmith's Steven Tyler angered fans, including some military veterans. He sang "The Star Spangled Banner" and changed the ending from "home of the brave" to "home of the Indianapolis 500." So, yes, he also ticked off people who like rhymes.

6. Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti were involved in a controversial finish in 1981. It wasn't until five months later that Unser was declared the winner. No word on whether he drank curdled milk.

7. A split between CART and the Speedway owner Tony George's Indy Racing League kept some of the big names from racing at Indy in the mid-1990s. The first post-split winner, Buddy Lazier in 1994 1996, was nevertheless a good story. He'd broken his back in a race in Phoenix a few months earlier. The accident took an unusual toll on his family. "While I was laid up," Lazier said, "my little dog -- a Lab -- ran into my mother and blew out her knee." That same year there was a driver entered named Slick Racin Gardner. Seriously.

8. In 2001 Tony Stewart raced at Indy, finishing sixth. Then he flew to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 and finished third. He's the only driver to finish all 1,100 miles in the Indy-Charlotte double. Think of that the next time you start dozing 20 minutes into the drive to your mother-in-law's house.

9. Emerson Fittipaldi made his debut at Indy in 1984 driving a pink car and wearing a pink race suit. Proving that drivers will do absolutely anything for their owners and sponsors.

10. The Andrettis have bad luck. Mario Andretti won in 1969 and never again. Andrettis have lost at Indy in every excruciating way imaginable. In 1992, Mario and Jeff Andretti left the race with broken bones. John Andretti sabotaged himself by running into a pile of tires during a pit stop. And Michael Andretti was way ahead on Lap 189 of the 200-lap race before his fuel pump quit on him.

"So cruel," he said that day. "It can't get much worse than this."

I always thought that if you held a race at Indy where only Andrettis were allowed to drive, the smart money would be on the pace car or the ambulance.
* * * * * *
A.J. Foyt, the legendary race car driver, left the garage area known as Gasoline Alley in 1991 for the start of the Indianapolis 500. A crash the previous year mangled his feet and ankles. He needed a good long soak and massage before he could make the walk.

Told that God had been good to him to allow such a quick recovery, Foyt famously said, "Well, He couldn't have done it without me."

The Indianapolis 500, the annual spring rite where speed collides with bravado, celebrates it's 100th anniversary. Sort of.

The 2011 race on the day before Memorial Day culminates a three-year appreciation of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" encompassing the opening of the track in 1909 and the first 500-mile race two years later.

Engine changes, rule changes, technological leaps and bounds and a split between racing leagues have brought significant change over the years. The one constant is the resiliency and daredevil spirit of drivers who can't touch wheels without the risk of spinning into walls or going airborne.

Test pilot Chuck Yeager, who knew something about fast rides, drove the pace car at Indy in 1986 and visited again in 1990.

"Speed means nothing by itself," Yeager said at the time. "Except if you hit a wall, you want to be going slow."

Oh, right. The wall.

Al Unser Jr. transplanted 80 feet of Turn 3 wall to his 27 acres in Albuquerque. The wall lines the driveway to his office. He also erected a USAC observer stand, five fencing poles, cables, and a green and yellow light.

"When I told my father about getting the wall, he just laughed," Unser Jr. said of his famous racing father. "Then when he saw it for the first time he instantly got a headache. He'd put some marks on that wall."

The scariest place in sports, though -- at least before the X Games debuted -- is in Turn 1, where screaming Indy cars funnel into a full-speed turn. The opening looks so narrow it recalls the biblical proverb about a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

Unser Jr. called going into Turn 1 at full throttle for the first time "the biggest commitment of my life." Driver Eddie Cheever likened the turbulence in Turn 1 to "flying a 747 with the windows open." Mel Kenyon, who raced in eight Indys, likened it to "going 125 mph down a city street and turning into a dark alley."

The great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once called the scene at Indy "the world's fastest traffic jam."

Four-hundred-thousand's a crowd

At the height of Indy's popularity, nobody knew exactly how many people attended the race. But estimates of more than 400,000 sounded about right given the bleacher seating and the famous infield scene in Turn 1 -- known as The Snakepit.

When I first covered the race in 1982, the crowd on race day made tiny Speedway the second largest city in the state.

"The grandeur of the place, the size - it's daunting," 1985 winner Danny Sullivan once said of Indy. "One day at LeMans, someone said to me, 'Look at these people, did you ever see anything like it?' And I said, 'Yeah, one Wednesday in the middle of a practice week at Indy.'"

Indy isn't everything it once was. But for pure spectacle (at least this side of Lady Gaga) it's difficult to beat.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
iStock
iStock

Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
iStock
iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios