People & Places

The Indy 500 at 100

Indianapolis celebrates its famous race

The pit crews at the Indianapolis 500 are an essential part of the success of the drivers. (photo by Visit Indy)
The pit crews at the Indianapolis 500 are an essential part of the success of the drivers. (photo by Visit Indy)
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On May 29, thirty-three drivers will take part in the 100th anniversary of the country’s most famous auto race. With more than 300,000 spectators, the Indy 500 is the world’s largest single-day sporting event.

Even if you can’t make it to Indianapolis for the race, 2016 is a good year to visit this Midwestern city, which is celebrating the centennial anniversary of its namesake event with a variety of special events, activities, and attractions.

“Indianapolis loves racing all year long, not just over Memorial Day weekend,” says Morgan Snyder, director of leisure communications for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. “The Indianapolis 500 is great fun to watch in person, but in some ways coming at another time of year gives visitors a more in-depth introduction to our racing culture and heritage.”

The city has funded a number of initiatives in preparation for the anniversary, including a $100 million renovation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It has also renovated 100 houses that have been given to formerly homeless people and has commissioned artists to create “Welcome Race Fans” signs around the city.

The worldwide attention surrounding the race gives Indianapolis the chance to show off its revitalized downtown, a thriving district full of restaurants, shops, and entertainment. The area has been honored with accolades that include being named one of the Top 10 Downtowns in the U.S.

Before heading downtown, however, the first stop for visiting race fans should be the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has hosted the Indianapolis 500 since its inaugural run. The speedway’s Hall of Fame Museum is located inside the 2.5-mile oval on which the cars compete. Inside the museum are vintage cars, historical memorabilia, and photos that trace the history of the iconic sporting event.

Other than during World Wars I and II, the Indy 500 has been held each year since 1911. “At the time of the first race, Indianapolis was vying with Detroit as an auto manufacturing center,” says Donald Davidson, speedway historian. “The track was built as a testing facility for new vehicles, but it was also used for races. Up until that time most competitions took place on roads, but the speedway allowed them to go much faster.”

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The 60 cars in the museum illustrate the many changes in the automotive industry through the decades. The vehicle that won the original Indianapolis 500, for example, is credited with having the first rearview mirror. This is just one of a multitude of safety innovations first introduced in racing vehicles that later became standard in all cars.

Engines have evolved as well. In 1911, cars traveled at an average speed of 74 mph; today’s winners average more than 225 mph. Drivers do 200 laps around the track, each lasting just 38 seconds.

“The drivers need to be exceptionally skilled, of course, but their pit crews are nearly as important,” says Tom Surber, public relations manager at the speedway. “A good crew can refuel and change all four tires in about eight seconds.”

The museum also offers guided tours of the speedway, which include a visit to the garage area and to the central tower where race officials, celebrities, and broadcasters gather on race day. A popular stop is the yard-wide row of bricks at the finish line. The entire track was once made of bricks, but in 1961 they were replaced with asphalt to make the race safer. The bricks are the only remaining pieces of the original track.

These bricks are part of a crowd-pleasing race tradition: each year the winning driver kneels to kiss them. Another tradition is the chugging of a glass of milk by the winner. The custom began in the 1930s and has been followed ever since.

“In honor of the 100th anniversary, 100,000 fans attending the Indianapolis 500 will be given a 16-ounce commemorative milk jug,” says Morgan Snyder. “We hope to create the world’s largest milquetoast.”

After visiting the museum and track, head to the nearby town of Speedway, where you can tour the Dallara IndyCar Factory, an Italian-owned company that manufactures high-performance cars. While the engines for the Indianapolis 500 cars are made by a variety of companies, every chassis is made in this factory.

The size of the cars might come as a surprise. Because every extra ounce can make a difference in the race, the vehicles are stripped down to their bare essentials. Sitting in a demonstration vehicle gives a sense for just how small and lightweight these high-tech racing machines are.

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And at the end of the Dallara tour, visitors can maneuver a car around a racetrack via a computer simulation. At 200 mph hour, it’s frighteningly easy to spin out of control.

A company called Indy Racing Experience offers even bigger thrills. For $60, people can ride as a passenger around the speedway at 60 mph in a racecar stretched to accommodate a second seat. For $499, adults can get strapped into a car driven by a real Indy racer and go three laps around the speedway at 185 mph. And for a true bucket-list experience, $1000 will buy you the chance to take a spin around the track on your own.

Families visiting the city can get a kid-sized perspective on the famous race at the

Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the largest children’s museum in the world. An exhibit built around Hot Wheels cars gives kids the chance to build and test their own vehicles and learn about the physics of racing.

After a visit to Indianapolis, you’ll never watch the Indianapolis 500 in the same way again.

“For race fans around the world, the Indianapolis 500 is about humans pushing the envelope,” says Tom Surber. “That was true 100 years ago, and it’s true today. Even if you’re not the one behind the wheel, there’s something exhilarating about watching the drivers race around this famous track.”

If you go

The Omni Severin (317-634-6664) is a landmark hotel in downtown Indianapolis. Next door, St. Elmo Steak House has been serving steak since 1902 and is one of the city’s best-loved restaurants. You can also sample the hip, new dining scene in the city by having brunch at Milktooth (317-986-5131). Owner Jonathan Brooks was named one of the nation’s best new chefs last year by Food and Wine Magazine.

For more information on Indianapolis, visit www.visitindy.com or call (800) 323-4639.

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