The Indianapolis 500: An American Tradition

There are many great American traditions. The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Black Friday shopping, dropping the crystal ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and of course, the Super Bowl. But there’s one tradition that we’ve had for over 100 years. It’s an event we’ve had longer than the Super Bowl, even. This tradition is the running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race on Memorial Day Weekend.

The Indianapolis 500 was first contested in 1911. The inaugural running was won by Ray Harroun driving a Marmon Wasp. This began one of the most storied American traditions. The Indianapolis 500 has run 105 editions, only stopping from 1917-18 due to World War 1 and 1942-45 for World War 2. It should be noted real quick that in 1916, the race was actually 300 miles, but is considered part of the canon. A global pandemic couldn’t stop the Indy 500, though it was held in August in 2020 due to those circumstances. The Month of May features all the buildup and hype leading up to the running of the Indianapolis 500. Teams practice days on end to get their cars fine tuned for race day. In modern times, these open wheel speedsters can get up to 230 miles per hour. A relatively new tradition in the Month of May is having a race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course layout two Saturdays before the Indianapolis 500. The running of this race began in 2014, only being halted in 2020 for the COVID-19 pandemic. This is how the festivities start. Soon, it’s time for Pole Day, Bump Day, and Carb Day, which help set the field.

One of the most recognizable Indy 500 traditions is the winner receiving and drinking from a bottle of milk in victory lane. The tradition began in 1933 when Louis Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk after winning his second 500. In 1936, Meyer became the first 3-time winner of the event, and received a bottle instead of a glass. Unaware that Meyer was drinking buttermilk, a local dairy farm saw a marketing opportunity and began offering a bottle of milk to the race winner. In 1993, race winner Emerson Fittipaldi infamously drank a glass of orange juice instead of milk because he owned and operated an orange grove. The publicity stunt backfired, and Fittipaldi was booed at the next race in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with Wisconsin being in the heart of dairy country. A very recognizable tradition is the 3-wide start. The Indy 500 consists of 33 cars, who line up in 11 rows of 3 for the start. Another notable tradition is the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” in addition to the national anthem. Jim Nabors performed the song almost every year from 1972-2014. Beginning in 1972, the tradition of The Last Row Party began. The Last Row Party is a mix of a roast and a cocktail party for the final three qualifiers of the Indianapolis 500. These 3 drivers make up the 11th row (positions 31, 32, and 33). Like the NFL draft tradition of Mr. Irrelevant, these drivers are relatively obscure. The Last Row Party is a charity event; it’s a scholarship benefit event organized by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation. 9 Indianapolis 500 winners have been part of The Last Row Party: Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, Eddie Cheever, Buddy Lazier, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, and Alexander Rossi. One tradition that’s a relatively new one is kissing the bricks. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway used to be paved with bricks, but as time went on, only the start/finish line is brick. From 1994-2020, the Indianapolis oval track hosted a 400-mile NASCAR race, and in 1996, NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett began the tradition of kissing the bricks after a win. While it began with NASCAR, it was later adopted by IndyCar. The traditional concession is a pork tenderloin sandwich, which is a notable midwestern creation. The Indy 500 also has a superstition surrounding the number 13. There is no pit stall 13, instead it’s pit stall “12A”. The superstition around the number 13 was so massive, that from 1926-2002, the number was banned. The last driver to use the number 13 was Danica Patrick in her farewell race in 2018, where she crashed out of the event.

Many notable moments have occurred in the history of the Indianapolis 500. Being an event as storied as the Indianapolis 500, it’s hard to just narrow it down to a few. 1924 and 1941 saw co-winners of the event. In 1924, L.L. Corum started the race and ran the first 111 laps, but was relieved by Joe Boyer, who ran from lap 112 to the finish at lap 200. 1941 saw Floyd Davis start the race, but he was relieved by Mauri Rose after Davis’s car owner Lou Moore was unsatisfied with Moore’s performance. Mauri Rose charged up to the front and won, but because Floyd Davis started the race, the two were credited as co-winners. In 1969, Mario Andretti won his sole Indy 500. The man whose name has been affiliated with speed in America for decades now has only one Indianapolis 500 to his credit. This gave birth to the “Andretti Curse” where members of the Andretti racing family were “cursed” to never win after that. The closest a member of the Andretti family came to winning after Mario was Marco Andretti in 2006, when he was beat by Sam Hornish Jr. on a last lap pass. Despite never winning as a driver, Mario’s son Michael Andretti has won 5 Indianapolis 500s as a car owner. 1992 saw the closest finish in Indy 500 history, with Al Unser Jr. beating Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds. 1992 was also notable for polesitter Roberto Guerrero crashing on the pace laps. 1995 saw race leader Scott Goodyear be handed a late race black flag, and Jacques Villeneuve went on to win after clawing himself back from being 2 laps down. 1996 was held under the backdrop of a split in IndyCar racing. Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George founded the Indy Racing League, and the main IndyCar series in the United States, CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) held their own rival race the US 500 in Michigan. Indy had a bunch of rookies and no names, while CART had all the big names. But the Indy 500 saw Buddy Lazier win, and the US 500 had a pileup coming up to the start. 1999 saw Robby Gordon, a guy I can make an entire article on due to his antics, leading with 2 to go, but he ran out of gas and Kenny Brack won. 2005 saw rookie Danica Patrick leading with 7 to go, trying to become the first female winner of the race. However, Dan Wheldon got by her and won. 2011 saw rookie J.R. Hildebrand leading on the last lap, only for him to crash coming out of turn 4 and Dan Wheldon went on to win his second 500. 2012 saw Dario Franchitti win his 3rd 500 after Takuma Sato crashed diving after him into turn one. Sato would win in 2017, becoming the first Asian driver to win the Indianapolis 500. Sato won again in 2020 in a bizarre COVID Indy 500 with no fans in attendance and the race in August rather than Memorial Day weekend. Spencer Pigot had a late race crash and the race finished under caution. 2021 saw Helio Castroneves join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears as a 4-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Castroneves got his fourth 20 years after his first.

The Indianapolis 500 is a long and storied American tradition. Legends rise and previous unknowns are thrust into the spotlight. When Alexander Rossi won the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016, he was thrust from obscurity into the record books because he won at Indy. Who will win this year’s Indianapolis 500? Some of my picks going include defending IndyCar champ Alex Palou, defending race winner Helio Castroneves, 2-time winner Takuma Sato, and 6-time IndyCar champ and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon. However, it could be someone completely unexpected. 500 miles, the equivalent of 200 laps around the famed 2.5 mile speedway, is a long distance and anything can happen and anyone can rise to the occasion. So this Memorial Day weekend, tune in to NBC and witness a great American tradition.

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