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Opinion
IndyCar Indy 500

Why the legend of Indy’s holy grail makes it unmissable

OPINION: Fans flock to Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year to see IndyCar's great and good battle for one leg of motorsport's prized Triple Crown. Competing for Indianapolis 500 glory is as important today as it ever was...

Carb Day fans

It would be a bold claim to suggest that one motor racing event trumps all others, but to witness the start of the Indianapolis 500 from its fabled ‘yard of bricks’ is like standing next to a swirling tornado.

It’s not just the sight of 33 cars rushing along at over 220mph, which is almost overwhelming in itself, but the rush of air and visceral noise that arrives with them – many running three or four wide – comes close to taking your breath away.

Move on to the exit of Turn 1, and it’s the change of direction that lowers the jaw. If you blink, you miss it – quite literally. Each car is there, then it’s suddenly not, like some trick of the eye. Watch from a distance, however, like from the banking inside Turn 2, and it’s another illusion – the cars sweep past with such hypnotic regularity that it’s hard to believe they’re going quickly at all.

Turn 3 is a spot where a number of race-deciding passes have occurred across the decades, or collisions in the case of Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr in 1989, while Turn 4 will perhaps always be remembered for JR Hildebrand’s final-corner crash in 2011 that allowed Dan Wheldon to savour a remarkable victory.

And then it’s back to the finish line, where ‘Little Al’ memorably beat Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds in a redemption arc in 1992, to cross the yard of bricks where it all started from. “This race is my life, and it’s everything I thought it would be,” gushed Unser in Victory Lane. In another photo finish, Ryan Hunter-Reay denied Helio Castroneves by 0.06s in 2014, 0.0035s closer than the margin between Sam Hornish Jr and Marco Andretti in 2006.

If you examine the facts behind the 2.5-mile oval track’s corners (surely it’s more rectangular than oval… the original plan was for a humungous three-miler!) you’ll see they are geometrically identical, but ask any driver and they’ll swear blind that each turn is entirely individual. On paper, it’s two 1000-metre straights with four 400-metre, nine-degree banked turns, while Turns 1 and 2, plus 3 and 4, are connected by two short chutes of 200 metres each.

But this track isn’t driven on paper. It’s all about the hallowed asphalt atop 3.2 million bricks – first laid in the autumn of 1909 – that gave this great track its nickname: The Brickyard.

Its origins are tough. Before the bricks were laid on a loose and slick surface, driver Wilfried Bourque and his mechanic Harry Halcomb died on the first day of automobile racing here in August 1909. No one died on day two, but four more (a driver, his mechanic and two spectators) were slain on the third and final day of a grisly debut weekend.

Indy history is full of memorable moments, such as Hunter-Reay narrowly pipping Castroneves at the flag in 2014

Indy history is full of memorable moments, such as Hunter-Reay narrowly pipping Castroneves at the flag in 2014

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

After initially running 66 races across three American public holiday weekends, track owners focused in on Memorial Day in 1911 for the inaugural Indianapolis 500. An estimated crowd of 80,000 watched Ray Harroun forgo the luxury of a riding mechanic, going solo and trusting in his newfangled invention of a rear-view mirror. His #32 Marmon Wasp won at an average speed of 74.6mph. The legend was born and has been growing ever since.

Apart from skipping two years for the First World War and four during WW2, the Indy 500 has been a mainstay – and not even the global Covid pandemic could stop it in 2020, although it did sacrifice the Memorial Day date to run in August in front of empty grandstands.

The massive Borg-Warner Trophy was first awarded in 1936, and each year’s winner gets a sculpture of their likeness added. Statistically, it has been dominated by American winners – 74 of them – with Great Britain and Brazil next up with eight each. A quartet of greats have won it four times: AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves.

The crowd of somewhere near 300,000 can’t all be wrong, and they continue to fill those rows of huge bleachers to make it the biggest single-day sporting event on the planet

Roger Penske is the most-winning team owner, with an amazing 18 victories to his name, with Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi playing catch-up on five each. Multi-billionaire Penske now owns the track too, and it’s in better shape than ever. Foyt says: “You couldn’t have had a better man to buy it than Roger, because he knows racing. He knows what it takes.”

This weekend’s race is the 107th running, and 33 cars will take a 200-lap trip for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And while that phrase is an IMS trademark, it’s also quite probably a truism. The crowd of somewhere near 300,000 can’t all be wrong, and they continue to fill those rows of huge bleachers to make it the biggest single-day sporting event on the planet, in terms of attendance at least.

One thing is for sure, there is simply nothing else like it.

Read Also:
The Brickyard on raceday boasts an atmosphere few other motorsport events can match

The Brickyard on raceday boasts an atmosphere few other motorsport events can match

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

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