Have you ever been to the Indy 500? That's OK; watching it on TV is good, even if not quite the same as being in the middle of the action. The 99th running of the legendary race happens on Sunday, May 24, on ABC. The green flag goes down at 12:00 noon Eastern time, and NASCAR stock-car racing star Jeff Gordon heads out to kick off the action in the pace car, a Chevrolet Corvette Z06. While you wait, here are ten things you may not have known, but ought to.
1. This year is the first Indy 500 in thirty-seven years without Jim Nabors (of Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle fame) singing "Back Home Again in Indiana" just before the race. (You can watch his final rendition from 2014 on YouTube.) It took ten people to replace him: the a cappella group Straight No Chaser, alumni of Indiana University, will do the honors this year.
2. Nine women have competed in the Indianapolis 500. A full list of their accomplishments is on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway website. This year, Pippa Mann will compete in her fourth Indy. She's racing on behalf, not only of women, but of the Susan G. Komen anti-breast-cancer organization. Go to her Indiegogo page and pledge a donation in exchange for Pippa-related souvenirs. Also in the starting lineup: Simona de Silvestro in the #29 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, in her fifth Indianapolis 500 start.
3. There are 29 bars dedicated specifically to margaritas and bloody Marys at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Let it not be said that Indy fans drink only that, however. They also consume 145,000 gallons of beer and 24,000 gallons of Coca-Cola products, and they put 475 gallons of ketchup on the 8,000 pounds of pork fritters and ten tons of Track Fries, among other products served during the event.
4. The first Indy 500 champion drove something known as a Marmon Wasp. The bright-yellow, wasp-tailed racer won at an average speed of 74.6 mph. The driver was Ray Harroun, and the year was 1911. The luminous yellow car made it onto a commemorative U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2011 for the centennial. (This year is only the 99th running because the action stopped during both World War I and World War II.)
5. It’s harder than you think to understand how much Indy drivers get paid. The Indianapolis Star noted this week that it’s nothing like other major-league sports. With no driver’s union, no collective bargaining agreements, and no minimum salaries—or salary caps—every driver pretty much gets a different deal from every other driver. Some of the top drivers have guaranteed salaries, while others get percentages. Three-time Indy 500 winner (and Dancing with the Stars champion) Helio Castroneves was revealed, because of a court case, to have been paid $6 million from 2000-02 by the Penske racing group, but that, apparently, is far more than most earn. The paper suggests $1.5 million a year is the top end, while many others make low to middle six figures.
6. An INDYCAR Series car could run upside down. It generates 5,000 pounds of downforce when going 220 mph. Since the cars weigh only 1,575 pounds, this amount of downforce would, in fact, allow the car to run upside down if that speed is maintained, according to the INDYCAR people. Let's see that!
7. There are no more Carbs, but there's still a Carburetion Day; the racing cars have been fuel injected, not carbureted, since the Sixties. Held the Friday before the race, which is May 22 this year, Carb Day is the last day of on-track practice. There are festivities, too: Jane’s Addiction is among the bands performing that night.
8. What do they do with all that unused real estate on the back stretch? Solar power, that’s what. Last July, the largest solar farm at any sporting facility in the world opened for business. It makes solar energy for Indianapolis Power and Light, stretching over 68 acres and generating enough power for up to 2,700 homes.
9. The Indy 500 might be the most tradition-laden event in racing. Among those traditions is the annual parade on the Saturday before the big day. (You can watch it on the NBC Sports network.) This year’s grand marshal is 2008 Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Nastia Liukin, for some reason. Among other unexpected Grand Marshals in the parade’s fifty-eight-year history: Shirley MacLaine (1958); Jimmy Stewart (1965); the ambassadors of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador (1968); Anderson Cooper (2011); and Mickey Mouse (1974, 1985, and, with Minnie, 1992).
10. The speedway is the world’s largest spectator sports venue, with 250,000 permanent seats. The Roman Colosseum, Yankee Stadium, the White House, Vatican City, the Taj Mahal, the Rose Bowl, and Churchill Downs fit inside the oval with room to spare. Room for you, perhaps.