Location: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indianapolis, IN)
Distance: 500 miles/200 laps
2007 winner: Dario Franchitti
*Notes about history, legacy and the downtrodden*
The Indianapolis 500 was once the premiere event in the motor racing world. Some might argue the event once rivaled the biggest events in the stick-and-ball world. In its heyday, comparisons to the Super Bowl and World Series would not seem as outlandish as they do today. Ron Burgundy would have called The 500 "a big deal." Once upon a time Indy was not something to be trifled with; an event that held the significance and poignancy of the wedding or funeral.
Heroes were born at Indianapolis. A.J. Foyt ran the The Greatest Spectacle In Racing® a record 35 times, winning four times and leading nearly 600 laps. To put this in perspective, A.J.'s first 500 was in 1958. His last was in 1992. If you took his qualifying speed for the 1992 race (222.790) and applied it to this year's event, Super Tex would roll off from the outside of row four. (This would be ahead of drivers like Graham Rahal and Buddy Rice and is a full three mph faster than his grandson was able to muster.)
Foyt is just one of a number of drivers who used The 500 to elevate their careers into the mid-stratosphere level. Rick Mears-like Foyt- found victory lane four times and nearly lead the same number of laps as his Texan-counterpart. If you were to add the total number of laps both men paced the field at Indy you would get 984 (Foyt's 555+Mears' 429). This is a distance roughly equal to that of Phoenix to New York City (or about 2,457 miles). Those two lead the Indy 500 for a longer distance than most people drive in three months.
While Foyt and Mears are two of the most recognizable names associated with The Speedway, many more men where drawn to its mystique with less than historic results. George Snider amassed 22 Indy-starts, beginning in 1965. He completed 1875 race-laps, yet could only manage to lead three laps throughout the entirety of his 500 career. This gives Snider the dubious honor of most 500-starts without a victory.
Of course, many drivers would be honored (and rightly so) to have a 500-career like that of Snider. For 17 months of May, Dick Simon went to the intersection of 16th and Georgetown as a racing driver. Of those starts he only managed to finish the race seven times, never placing higher than sixth. Between 1972-1980, Simon never posted a single finish.
These are just two drivers of countless numbers who continued seeking immortality in a race that by all accounts defeated them. This does not even account for those unlucky enough to have perished while seeking Indy fame.
But, something has changed since the heyday of The 500. This is seen in fan attendance, media coverage, entries, sponsors, almost every facet of the event his felt a change. Certainly, the much debated "split" in open-wheel racing led to much confusion and tarnished the goings-on, but it's not fair to place the blame squarely on this schism. The passion had left before the 1995 revolution.
I'm sure a track historian could provide more insight on the cresting wave phenomenon that hit Indy, but the point is, something palpable has shifted, leaving the event a shell of what was once a crown jewel of Americana. Maybe it's because football is so fucking popular and people are researching their fantasy teams. Maybe its because baseball is in a renaissance or that television is better now than in the past making people harder to entertain. Maybe people can't wrap their heads around watching cars circulate for an afternoon during a long weekend. Maybe it's all of the above.
Sure, The 500 is likely to see a bit of a rebound. This season's storylines seem more interesting than in the recent past (the proliferation of young American driver's like, Rahal, Andretti and Patrick. Castroneves infiltrating the pop-world by winning that ABC program about dancing). Perhaps this could led to a bump of sorts in terms of relevance, but the event will remain second-tier for the foreseeable future. That is a fuckin' shame, because Indy used to be something special.
*What to know:
Anyone who has never been to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be shocked by two things. The first is its size. The place is bloody enormous. A somewhat recent count (yes, some poor-soul counted) of the permanent seats totaled 257,325. Check out this nifty illustration that shows what other big shit could fit into the track's infield. The other thing that would shock non-Indy regulars is the speed and noise generated by a pack of 33 angry racing cars humming at full song. It is a loud, crude and ruthless noise that will appall anyone not previously indoctrinated.
In the infield, one will find some epic parties (though not executed with the fervor or spirit as in the past), but the feeling at Indy is quite different than that of other sporting orgies like that at Churchill Downs or even other motor races. You see, people flood events like the Kentucky Derby for beer and tits, yet never see a horse or even seem to know a race is taking place. This is impossible at The 500. Within seconds of hearing the engines fire, any booze-buzz or boob-viewing induced high will be immediately rescinded. It's like sleeping with most beautiful woman in existence, then having her sprout a dick and punch you in the larynx. Total buzz kill. The noise and smell will sober the drunkest of drunks, and that fellow has no choice but to pay attention to the race that follows and become enthralled by the death defying racing men. Enjoy, pal. You are seeing something special.
Who to watch:
Most of the popular racing pundits (yes, there is such a thing) will tell you The 500 can only be logically won by about four drivers. This would include the two Team Penske drivers (#3 Helio Castroneves, #6 Ryan Briscoe ) and their two counterparts at Target Chip Ganassi Racing (#9 Scott Dixon, #10 Dan Wheldon ). Both sets of drivers are starting at or near the front of the field, are parts of the most successful teams in the series and have the most well-developed equipment (insert joke...here). I'll add a fifth contender in Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan.(He has the experience and good equipment needed to get the illusive Indy-win. Expect him to get off-sequence in pit stops, particularly if rain is possible.) Don't look for other teams/drivers to make a big Indy-splash this year. Sorry Danica and young-Rahal, but you'll have your chance soon enough.
Ed Carpenter : The stepson of Indy-Czar Tony George has shown speed this season unlike any in the past. His team (Vision Racing) is on the upswing, despite the firing of team manager Larry Curry (now with Roth Racing). Carpenter has three top-10 finishes this season and will start Sunday's 500 from inside row four. He knows his way around The Speedway and if he can stay on the lead lap should be in-line for a good result.
Misc. race notes:
Enjoy the race. Even if you don't give a shit about motor racing, its a sporting classic.