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

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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.
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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.

May 27, 2011 - 6:57pm
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