Days of Thunder: The Indianapolis 500 remains a crowd favourite

Some 400,000 people will attend the Indianapolis 500 – a 500-mile motor race that takes place every year and sees cars race each other at extraordinary speeds around what is essentially a huge saucer.
Days of Thunder: The Indianapolis 500 remains a crowd favourite

Scott Dixon of New Zealand waves to the crowd before the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

This weekend is a true festival of sport. The Champions League Final, the European Rugby Cup Final, four Gaelic football provincial finals. And much much else.

But the biggest sporting event of the weekend – in terms of attendance – is taking place in Speedway, Indiana. Some 400,000 people will attend the Indianapolis 500 – a 500-mile motor race that takes place every year and sees cars race each other at extraordinary speeds around what is essentially a huge saucer.

Qualifying for the race went on all last week and was all over American television news and carried live on sports channels.

To secure one of the 33 places in the race, a driver can simply turn up and attempt to win a place through the qualifying competition.

And among those who will be on the starting grid will be Conor Daly, the son of the former Irish Grand Prix driver Derek Daly, who excelled in qualifying.

Watching those qualifying sessions was an incredible spectacle. As the organisers proclaimed: “Four intense laps, 16 perfect corners, 230+ mph speeds. Buckle up, because Indianapolis 500 qualifying will have your heart racing! The most daring racers in the world go all-out, holding on for 10 nerve-racking miles with the hopes of earning a spot in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’ Can you hold it together, too?” 

Romain Grosjean, the former Formula 1 driver, just about held it together, saying after qualifying: "That was scary!" and mentioned the “tight butt' effect of the experience.

And it is an amazing experience in general – both on and off the track. It captures the imagination for all manner of reason, not least the sheer danger involved.

“Death rides as a passenger in every car that whizzes past the green flag at the start of each race. Frequently, he reaches over and takes the wheel. Then there is just one more tragedy added to a long, long list.” 

This was how the brilliant American sportswriter Arthur J. Daley described the Indy 500. Daley was writing about the thrill of speed and the prospect of death back in the 1930s.

He had no doubt that the crowds of more than 150,000 who were turning up to see the race in its early days were attracted by more than mere interest in competition: “They jam their way into the stands and crowd the infield waiting and almost hoping for a crash.” 

When Daley wrote those words it was during years when news was actually made by the fact of nobody dying in the Indy 500.

For example, in 1931 two people died during practice – and during the race itself three cars actually went out over the wall that surrounded the track.

In 1932 and 1933, a total of seven more people died. And so it was that when nobody died in 1934, Time magazine was moved to report a race without fatality.

But, as Daley noted in his 1936 essay, death was soon back at the wheel: “There is probably not been one driver who has not been in a smash-up. Few retire to live to old age. Yet the fascination of the game is so much that they cannot give it up.” 

And it is a fascination that was there from the very first Indy 500 race in 1911. In that year, 80,000 people turned up to see a race on the new purpose-built track that extended for two and a half miles, with a surface built from more than 3 million bricks.

Some 30 miles into the race, Arthur Greiner’s car – an Amplex – was flying down the back straight when one of its front wheels blew off. The car twisted and hopped on the track. Greiner was thrown from his seat, knocked unconscious, but escaped with a broken arm.

Not so fortunate was a mechanic called S.P. Dickson, who was riding in the car with Greiner. He was thrown against a fence, ‘terribly mangled’ and killed instantly.

What happened next was astonishing. The ‘New York Times’ reported: “The supporters swarmed across the infield when Dickson was killed and pressed close about this body and that of the unconscious Greiner. Soldiers had to club their guns to clear a space the surgeons when the ambulance arrived. The throng went wild with excitement after the first accident, and rushed back and forth over the field when other accidents were reported.

“In the stands, the men and women were on their feet for hours, cheering their favorites and exclaiming with apprehension when cars scraped each other or ran off the inner edge of the track.”

In the decades that followed, the raw excitement of racing around oval tracks was what excited people in America who thrilled to speed. They pushed the Grand Prix style racing favoured in Europe or the early distance car races – like the transcontinental race from New York to Seattle – off into the margins.

The emergence of oval tracks at places like Daytona, in Florida, confirmed the appeal of such car racing and in the immediate years after the Second World War this supremacy was confirmed And, of course, it grew to mean much more to people than just the thrill of speed and dangers of imminent death.

Now, racing at the Indianapolis 500, for example, has come to evoke a very particular type of American identity. 

The pre-race rituals involve the singing of “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”. For many of the 400,000 people who attend, it is an essential pilgrimage for them and their families.

For the drivers, success in the race means fame and wealth – even immortality of a type. But many of them first came to the Indy 500 as children who were brought on a day-out as part of a family custom.

The great majority of drivers have been men, but not exclusively so. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to qualify to complete. She did so in 1977 and in 1978 finished 9th.

The most celebrated woman to race in the Indy 500 is Danica Patrick who is the first woman to lead a lap in the race and in 2009 finished 3rd.

This week, practicing has been ongoing at the racetrack before thousands of spectators who have been taking advantage of cheap tickets. It’s free in for Under 16s and costs $15 for adults.

Raceday, itself, is much more expensive. Ticket prices range from $45 to $200 for general admission.

There are more expensive options, too. But this is, more than anything else, a vast popular spectacle where the fun is to be found in the swell of the crowd. It says much that RT and Travel Trailer camping slots have been sold out, as have all tent camping amenities.

The most popular of the camping passes is for 4 days and the party is routinely described as an epic one.

This year has already seen huge crowds gather. No fans were allowed to attend in 2020 because of COVID-19 and the crowd was restricted to 135,000 in 2021.

But on Sunday morning next, the gates will open at 6am (local time) and the start of the race is set for 12.45pm.

And for the winner, there is one further prize, beyond fame, fortune and the sterling silver Borg-Wagner trophy: a bottle of milk. This is a tradition that apparently began when Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Meyer drank buttermilk to refresh himself after winning the 1936 race. The winner on Sunday will drink from the bottle and then, most likely, pour it over himself.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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