The Indy 500’s most interesting traditions

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This weekend’s Indianapolis 500 will be the 105th running of the event know as ’the greatest spectacle in racing’. As one of the world’s oldest motorsport events, with a history dating back 110 years, the 500 is rich with history, traditions and folklore.

Here are some of the most interesting traditions and bits of trivia related to the race.

Why Indianapolis Motor Speedway is called the Brickyard

Inspired by the Brooklands oval in Britain, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 as an automotive test track. The original plan was for a 3 to 5-mile (4.8 to 8 kilometre) long circular track to allow for high-speed testing, but the plans had to be adjusted based on the 328 acre farm in Indiana that creator Carl G Fisher was able to purchase.

To leave room for grandstands on the site, Fisher adopted a rectangular 2.5-mile (4 kilometre) shape, with low-banked corners to maximise the length of the 1km-long straights. The track circuit originally comprised graded soil covered with packed limestone and stone chips, but flying stones led to a number of accidents during the first motor race at the venue in August 1909.

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Outcry from competitors and race organisers prompted IMS officials to pave the speedway, at a time when very few roads were. They sourced 3.2 million bricks from five local manufacturers to create a much smoother surface. The venue was quickly nicknamed the Brickyard, a moniker it has kept despite being entirely paved with asphalt – save for a foot at the finish line – since 1938.

Why the Indianapolis 500 lasts 500 miles

The inaugural car race at the speedway in 1909 was a 250-mile (402 kilometre) event, and the following year a total of 66 events were held, each featuring a number of races of around 100-200 miles (160 to 320 kilometres) in length. But with those events struggling to draw in fans, Fisher elected to focus on a single major event for 1911.

Initially there had been talk of a 24-hour race, but with few race or road cars featuring lighting at the time, the decision was made to keep the event within a single day. Fisher decided an hour of daylight was needed at the start and end of the day to allow spectators to drive to and from the venue (there were few street lights at the time), leaving around seven-hours in which to stage the race. With race cars averaging 110km/h at the time the idea was born to stage a 490-mile (790-kilometre) race. An enterprising marketing type suggested rounding it up a bit.

While it has been shortened due to rain or accidents on occasion, the only time the race hasn’t been scheduled to run 500 miles was in 1916, when a 300-mile event was held due to wartime conservation efforts.

Notably, the event hasn’t always been called the Indianapolis 500. It was originally called the 500-mile International Sweepstakes, only officially adopting the Indianapolis 500 title in 1981.

Why the winner drinks milk

Each year, the winner of the Indy 500 is presented with a bottle of milk in Victory Lane – but the tradition actually began due to a bit of a mix-up.

When Louis Meyer won the 1936 event, he drank a bottle of buttermilk to cool down. That image was used in the following day’s papers, and the US Milk Foundation was keen to seize on the popularity. It actually took some time for the tradition to take hold, but since 1956 the winner has been presented with a bottle by the Indiana Dairy Association. Drivers even get to choose whether they prefer full-fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed.

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The biggest milk-based controversy occurred when Emerson Fittipaldi won the race for a second time in 1993. The Brazilian owned shares in an orange farm, and chose to drink a bottle of orange juice instead. He was widely booed by the Indianapolis crowd.

Meyer’s 1936 win included a couple of other notable firsts: he was the first driver to be awarded the Borg Warner Trophy, and he was also the first to win the race averaging more than 100mph (160km/h) for the duration.

Why the race has 33 starters

Since 1934 the Indy 500 has been capped at 33 cars, although on a handful of occasions more were allowed to start due to various ‘extenuating circumstances’. But that hasn’t always been the case: the inaugural 1911 event featured 40 starters, for example.

So why 33 cars? That dates from 1911, when the American Automobile Association created a formula to limit the number of starters for races based on the size of a race circuit. It determined that each car needed 400 feet of space when spread evenly around a course, which for the 2.5-mile speedway allowed for 33 cars.

But track boss Fisher actually capped the number of entries at 30 from 1912 until adopting the 33-car recommendation in 1915 – although in several years after that the field was not filled. During the US Depression the field size was increased to 40 cars in 1930, and then to 42 cars in 1933. The following year the 33-car limit was permanently adopted.

Other trivia

Since 1974 the Indianapolis 500 has been scheduled to run on the Sunday of the US Memorial Day weekend. Prior to that point, the event was always held on Memorial Day (30 May itself), unless it fell on a Sunday in which case it ran the following day. That meant the inaugural 500 in 1911 took place on a Tuesday.

In 1971, Memorial Day was adjusted to take place on the final Monday in May. After holding the race on the Saturday of the weekend in 1971 and ’72, organisers scheduled it for the Monday in 1973, but that prompted complaints from fans, particularly those travelling from outside Indianapolis. Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t technically in Indianapolis. It’s actually located in the Indiana town of Speedway, which was formed in 1912 and took its name from the race track that dominates it.

The first event at the Brickyard in 1909 wasn’t actually a car race: it held the start of a balloon race. The winning entry floated more than 300 miles, eventually landing in Alabama. The first motor race was held for bikes in August 1909, with the inaugural car race a week later.

James Attwood

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