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, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”


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