100 Reasons It’s The Greatest Spectacle In Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 31 2016
The drop of the green flag at the start of the Indianapolis is one of the most breath taking moments in sports. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

The drop of the green flag at the start of the Indianapolis 500 is one of the most breath-taking moments in all of sports. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS _ The first book I ever took out of the public library in my hometown was a history of the Indianapolis 500. And one of these days, I might bring it back.

Surely, the statute of limitations has expired.

buganalysisGrowing up in an era when the Indy 500 was available on Race Day only on the radio, and later on a taped-delayed basis with host Jim McKay on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, I never imagined that my adult profession would take me to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway _ this cathedral of speed _ for 34 editions of the big race.

I’ve developed my own set of traditions here in Indy over those many Months of May, the most important of which is making sure I’m credentialed and in this seat when the green flag drops on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Because you never know if the current Indy 500 is your last.

And so before heading to the airport for the return flight to Fort Worth _ where the Firestone 600 night race at Texas Motor Speedway beckons on Saturday, June 11 _ here in no particular order is a personal list of 100 reasons why I love the Indy 500:

1. Rising before the crack of dawn on Race Day, with the forecast for sunny skies and temperatures

Race day dawned for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Race day dawned for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

in the mid-80s.

2. The legacy of Anton “Tony” Hulman, the Terre Haute, Ind., businessman who bought a dilapidated Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945 and brought it back to life after a four-year hiatus following World War II.

3. The Yard of Bricks, a nostalgic bow to the 3.2-million street-paving bricks used to resurface the Speedway in the fall of 1909.

4. The massive grandstands with seating officially listed at “more than 250,000 permanent seats”

The yard of bricks. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

The yard of bricks. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

filled again to capacity.

5. The pre-race invocation…which typically ends with, “Godspeed.”

6. The 21-gun salute to America’s fallen troops.

7.  “Taps” performed pre-race, to remind us why we celebrate Memorial Day Weekend.

8. Back Home Again in Indiana, as sung by Jim Nabors before “retiring” two years ago. Nice job Sunday by Josh Kaufman and the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. 

9. The release of multi-colored balloons, timed to coincide with the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana.   

10. The flyover, as witnessed from a balcony outside the glass-enclosed Fourth Floor Media Center.

11. The words we’ve all been waiting for, as typically delivered by IMS chairman Mari Hulman George…”Lady and gennlemen, start yer engines!”

12. Johnny Aitken, who became the first Indy 500 race-leader (Laps 1-4) in 1911. Aitken finished 27th in his No. 4 National in a field of 40 cars.

13. Ray Harroun and the No. 32 Marmon “Wasp”…winners of the first Indy 500 in 1911.

Al Unser Sr. and the car that won the very first 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Al Unser Sr. and the car that won the very first 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

14. Ralph DePalma, first driver to lead more than 100 laps _ a staggering 196 of 200 in 1912. Unfortunately, DePalma finished 11th after his No. 4 Mercedes dropped a piston after 198 laps.

15. Frenchman Jules Goux’s victory over Spencer Wishart in 1913 by the record margin of 13 minutes, 8.40-seconds.

16. Jimmy Murphy, first winner from pole position in 1922 driving his No. 35 Duesenberg/Miller.

17. The Pagoda, which dates to the 1913 race, bathed in light at night.

The Pagoda has long been a symbol of the greatest race track in the world. (Photo Courtesy IndyCar)

The Pagoda has long been a symbol of the greatest race track in the world. (Photo Courtesy INDYCAR)

18. The current Gasoline Alley, a neighborhood that runs on good, old American elbow grease.

19. The former Gasoline Alley, featuring green-and-white wooden doors, reminiscent of a horse stable.

20. The Speedway’s third generation scoring pylon…that tall, narrow black tower adjacent to the inside of the track south of the entrance to Gasoline Alley. The first pylon was erected in the spring of 1959. This version, made by Panasonic, features full LED panels on all four sides and improved messaging capabilities.

21. The Purdue University Marching Band, a staple on Race Day morning.

22. Sounds of the Scottish bagpipers reverberating off the grandstands as they march down the frontstretch in traditional kilted garb.

23. The call of “Drivers to Your Cars” as delivered Sunday by Florence Henderson.

24. Anticipation as the three-car front row rounds Turn 4 and bolts toward the green flag on the flying start _ easily one of the most electric moments of any racing season.   

25. Watching the flying start from the old, open-air press box in the main grandstand directly opposite pit road…before heading back to the press room at the halfway mark.

26. Any sighting of first four-time Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt Jr. Still feisty at age 81, A.J.

Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt at Indy.

Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt at Indy.

holds records for number of races (35), mileage (12,272.5) and races-led (13).

27. This quote from Eddie Cheever Jr. on driving for “Super Tex” at Indy: “If A.J. Foyt didn’t exist, we would have to invent him.”

28. Pole Day, now a Sunday event under INDYCAR’s revised format, but still true to the traditional  our-lap/10-mile qualifying run.

29. Memories of public address announcer Tom Carnegie informing the crowd during past Pole Day qualifications…”And it’s a newwww traaaack RECORD!

30. Historian Donald Davidson, who has forgotten more about the Indy 500 than most of us ever will know.

31. Pat Vidan, who holds the longest tenure as Indy 500 chief starter _ 18 years from 1962-79.

32. Troy Ruttman, the race’s youngest winner at 22 years, 80-days-old on May 30, 1952. Ruttman also remains the race’s first teen-aged starter (19) in 1949.

33. Al Unser, the race’s oldest and second four-time winner, at 47 years, 360-days-old, on May 24, 1987.

34. Bump Day…which didn’t happen this year as only 33 car/driver entries were filed for the 100th running. How did you allow that happen, INDYCAR?

35. Howdy Wilcox, the race’s first pole-winner in 1915 at 98.900 mph. Starting positions in the previous races were determined either by order of entry (1911-12) or draw (1913-14). Wilcox became the first driver to exceed 100 mph (100.01) during qualifying in 1919. The four-lap qualifying procedure was used in 1920-32, 1939-41 and 1946 to the present.

36. Six Indy 500 poles, a record belonging to Rick Ravon Mears (1979, 1982, 1986, 1988-89 and

Racing legends A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears.

Racing legends A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)


37. Arie Luyendyk, not only a two-time Indy 500 champion but also the author of the track’s one-lap (237.498 mph) and four-lap (236.986 mph) records _ both set on May 12, 1996 in his 1995 Reynard/Cosworth.  

38. Miller Lite Carb Day, the final practice on the Friday before the race…and an anachronism as carburetors have gone the way of those wooden garage doors in Gasoline Alley.

39. The annual TAG Heuer Pit Stop Challenge, which has had many title sponsors but typically is won by a Team Penske crew.

40. Dennis “Duke” Nalon, synonymous with the popular Novi-powered Kurtis Roadsters from 1951-53.

41. The Winner’s Wreath, introduced in 1960 to mark Jim Rathmann’s victory. The wreaths

2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi and the wreath.

2016 500 winner Alexander Rossi and the wreath. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

originally were created by longtime Indianapolis florist William J. “Bill” Cronin.

42. Jim Clark’s race-winning No. 82 Lotus powered by Ford from 1965…serviced at the behest of Ford Motor Company on pit road by NASCAR’s Wood Brothers. My all-time favorite Indy car.

43. Dan Gurney, who ushered in the rear-engine revolution along with Jim Clark in 1963 in a Lotus powered by Ford, and who later fielded his All American Racers Eagle entries.

44. Parnelli Jones, winner of the race in 1963, nearly taking the STP Oil Treatment car powered by a Pratt & Whitney gas turbine helicopter engine to Victory Circle in 1967.

Indy has played host to some very memorable cars. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Indy has played host to some very memorable cars. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

45. Colorful team-owner Andy Granatelli and the Victory Circle smooch he planted on Mario Andretti in 1969.

46. NASCAR superstar Cale Yarborough, who made four Indy 500 starts between 1966 and 1972, with a best finish of 10th in the latter driving the No. 21 Bill Daniels GOP Atlanta/Foyt.

47. The Official 100th Running Indy 500 Program, a 320-page masterpiece filled with extra goodies. For purists, the box scores and photos of the winning cars and drivers on the back pages chronicle the evolution of domestic open-wheel racing.

48. Memories of Sid Collins and his crew taking me around the Speedway during a number of Indy 500s broadcast by the IMS Radio Network.

49. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum…always worth staying over in town an extra day for a three-hour tour.

50. Mark Donohue’s winning No. 66 Sunoco McLaren from 1972, the first of Roger Penske’s record 16 Indy 500 victories.

51. Texans Jim and James McElreath, first father-son combination to be entered in the race in 1977.

52. Tom Sneva, nicknamed the “Gas Man,” for breaking the 200 mph barrier (200.535 mph) in 1977.

53. The 1981 Indy 500, won by Bobby Unser and then Mario Andretti and finally Unser after the latter’s famous “blend-in” line rules violation while exiting the pits.

This photo of an exhausted Bill Vukovich _ sitting on a bench in his garage after winning the race in 1953 _ hangs prominently in the IMS Hall of Fame & Museum.

This photo of an exhausted Bill Vukovich _ sitting on a bench in
his garage after winning the race in 1953 _ hangs prominently in the
IMS Hall of Fame & Museum. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

54, Memories of Gordon Smiley, of Grapevine, Texas, who died in a crash while attempting to qualify for his third Indy 500 on May 15, 1982. And all the drivers who perished chasing their need for speed.

55. Gordon Johncock’s victory over Rick Mears in 1982 by 0.16-seconds _ the closest finish in Indy 500 history to that point. It capped a race that started with a controversial crash triggered by Team Penske’s Kevin Cogan, who started between pole-sitter and teammate Mears and A.J. Foyt Jr. The crash eliminated Mario Andretti and sent Foyt to the pits, where he angrily joined in the repairs…and blamed “that damned Coogan” during an interview on ABC-TV.

56. A souvenir plastic bag from May 30, 1982 which touts the race as “The Greatest Spectacle in Sports.” So, when did the race officially become “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”

57. “The Biggest Spectacle in Greatness” _ a tongue-in-cheek takeoff on the above, courtesy of Skip Myslenski of the Chicago Tribune, sarcastically uttered during the early days of the Indy Racing League vs. Championship Auto Racing Teams schism.

58. Danny Sullivan’s amazing “Spin-and-Win” victory in 1985 in the No. 5 Miller American March/Cosworth for team-owner Roger Penske.

59. Roger Penske, aka “The Captain,” and the measuring stick for all teams competing at the Speedway. Incidentally, Penske’s meticulous Gasoline Alley garages are cleaner than most people’s living rooms.

60. Bobby Rahal’s rain-delayed and emotional victory in 1986, only 11 days before team-owner

The late Tom Carnegie interviews Bobby Rahal, winner of the 1986 Indy 500. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

The late Tom Carnegie interviews Bobby Rahal, winner of the 1986 Indy 500. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

and patron Jim Trueman lost his battle with cancer.

61. The epic late-race battle between Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. in 1989,which ended with tire contact between the two in Turn 3. Unser spun and crashed-out; Fittipaldi went on to his first win in the No. 20 Marlboro Penske/Chevrolet Indy. The enduring moment, however, is of a helmetless Little Al standing on the rumble strips and saluting Emmo with a pair of thumbs-up.

62. Sports car ace Willy T. Ribbs qualifying for the 1991 race to become the first African-American driver to start the Indy 500.

63. Cory Witherill, the race’s first full-blooded Native American starter in 2001.

64. Janet Guthrie breaking Indy’s gender barrier by qualifying 26th in 1977 in the No. 27 Bryant Heating & Cooling Lightning/Offy. She finished 29th.

65. Lyn St. James, first woman to win Rookie of the Year honors in 1992. LSJ, incidentally, also was the oldest rookie of the year at 45 years, 72-days-old.

66. Al Unser Jr. scoring his second victory in three years at the wheel of one of “Penske’s Panzers,” a stock-block/pushrod-based 209 CID Mercedes-Benz V-8 engine built in secret by Ilmor Engineering for Marlboro Team Penske. The engine, which took advantage of a loophole in the U.S. Auto Club rulebook, was outlawed after the race.

67. Sarah Fisher, fastest of the 10 women to have qualified for the Indy 500 at 229.675 mph (one-lap) and 229.439 mph (four-laps), both records set in 2002.

Sarah Fisher was a happy driver after locking up a spot in the 2009 Indianapolis 500.

Sarah Fisher was a happy driver after locking up a spot in the 2009 Indianapolis 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

68. Rookie Danica Patrick starting and finishing fourth in 2005 for Rahal Letterman Racing, launching “Danicamania” at the expense of race-winner Dan Wheldon.

69. The annual Festival Parade downtown, a holiday slice of disappearing Americana.

70. The whistle-blowing Yellow Shirts who serve as the track’s own Safety Patrol.  

71. Michael Andretti (Lap 187) and Rick Mears (Lap 188) trading passes on the outside through Turn 1 during the closing stages of the 1991 race, with the latter’s bold move making “The Rocketman” a four-time winner.

72. Al Unser Jr. _ driving a No. 3 Galmer/Chevrolet Indy A that had been a sled all month _ taking the lead from Michael Andretti on Lap 190 of the 1992 race en route to victory over Scott Goodyear by 0.043-seconds. That’s still the closest finish in Indy 500 history.

73. Six members of the Unser family to have driven in the Indy 500 _ Jerry, Bobby, Al, Al Jr.,

Bobby Unser. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Bobby Unser takes a lap in a familiar car. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Johnny and Robby. That’s one more than the rival Andretti clan.

74. Al Unser and “Little Al,” the only father-son combination to have won the Indy 500.

75. This quote from Al Unser Jr. as an Indy 500 rookie: “My father taught me everything I know about racing. He just hasn’t taught me everything he knows.”

76. Al and Bobby Unser, the only brother combination to have won the Indy 500.

77. The BorgWarner Trophy and its bas relief images of each winning driver, most of which bear little resemblance to each winning driver. Just ask ‘em.

78. The Official Pace Car…and its many replicas, starting with the Stoddard-Dayton driven by Carl G.

A.J. Foyt drove the "Poppy Red" No. 14 Gilmore Racing Team Coyote/Foyt to his record fourth victory in 1977.(RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

A.J. Foyt drove the “Poppy Red” No. 14 Gilmore Racing Team
Coyote/Foyt to his record fourth victory in 1977.(RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

Fisher in 1911 to the 2017 Chevy Camaro SS driven Sunday by Roger Penske…and including the black-on-silver 1978 Corvette garage queen I owned for 30 years.

79. Strapped into a 1986 Corvette Pace Car next to Gen. Chuck Yeager for two very fast laps around IMS. Should have asked for his autograph!

80. Standing on the starting grid pre-race…this close to every car, along with a couple thousand of my new best gearhead friends.

81. Bench-racing with colleagues Mike Harris and Jonathan Ingram of RacinToday.com, as well as other media friends I get to see only once for a few days in May.

82. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Motorcycle Drill Team and their Harley-Davidson Road King bikes chugging down the IMS frontstretch during pre-race ceremonies.

83. The 1969 movie Winning, starring Paul Newman as Frank Capua, a driver aspiring to win the

Paul Newman in the movie "Winning", which was filmed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Paul Newman in the movie “Winning”, which was filmed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Indy 500. Actual drivers from the era appearing in the film include Bobby Unser, Dan Gurney, Johnny Rutherford and Roger McCluskey, as well as Tony Hulman.

84. The opportunity to meet and interview Texan Jim Hall, designer of the ground-effects No. 4 “Yellow Submarine” Chaparral/Cosworth that Fort Worth’s Johnny Rutherford drove to his third Indy 500 victory in 1980. That was my first Indy 500.

85. Unexpectedly running into former Indy Racing League driver Billy Boat in the back of the Fourth Floor Media Center during Sunday’s race.  We revisited the controversial finish of the inaugural True Value 500k at Texas Motor Speedway from June 1997, a race Boat originally won but lost on protest to Arie Luyendyk.

86. Watching Helio Castroneves climbing the frontstretch three times after each of his Indy 500 victories (2000-01 and 2009). And if memory serves, team-owner Roger Penske joined “Spiderman”

2009 Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves climbs the fence and waves to his fans. (IMS Photo by Bret Kelley)

2009 Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves climbs the fence and waves to fans. (IMS Photo by Bret Kelley)

up the fence in ’09.

87. Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. out-dragging rookie Marco Andretti down the frontstretch for a victory margin of 0.0635-seconds in 2006…adding another layer of credence to the “Andretti Curse.”

88. Dan Wheldon’s improbable second Indy 500 victory in 2011, when rookie J.R. Hildebrand crashed exiting Turn 4 of the final lap. Wheldon died in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway five months later.

89. The revolutionary SAFER Barrier _ the energy-absorbing system for retaining walls _ which made its debut in May 2002 and has massively reduced the injury rate at IMS.

90. The new Victory Podium, that shiny circle built when IMS management was bending over backwards to accommodate the arrival of the FIA’s Formula One World Championship in 2000.

Not all of the milk is swigged in Victory Circle.(File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Not all of the milk is swigged in Victory Circle. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

91. The Swig of Milk, introduced in Victory Circle in 1937 and an Indy 500 staple since 1956.

92. The Fourth Floor Media Center…best in the industry. Alas, rumor has it the media will be relocated to the second floor before the 101st Indy 500, so the room can be transformed into paying suites. Gee, hope the Hulman and George families can keep the Speedway’s doors open and the lights on.

93. Bill York, who spent 40 years running the track’s various media centers with a loud microphone as benevolent dictator. York, who recently turned 83, said Sunday was his final Indy 500.

94. Chuckie, the “paper guy” who roams the Media Center shouting “PAPER!” while peddling copies of The Indianapolis Star.

95. My personal stash of Indy 500 SWAG collected over the years, including newspapers, caps, t-shirts, golf shirts, media badges, press kits, photos, programs, posters, decals, diecast cars, a white Quaker State Porsche jacket…and the memories that stuff rekindles.

96. Sunday’s post-race news conference with Californian Alexander Rossi, an Indy 500 rookie with Formula One aspirations whose life never will be the same after winning the world’s greatest auto race.

97. Hunting down a copy or two of The Indianapolis Star for its extensive Race Day coverage of any Indy 500…a great way to unwind after a long day at the Speedway.

98. The photo shoot with the winning driver at the Yard of Bricks on the morning after the Indy 500…as workers clear the grandstands of a sea of debris. Which only proves that America knows how to party.

99. Sitting at the podium Monday in the Chris Economaki Press Conference Room where Alexander Rossi held court 24-hours earlier, to deliver my day-after observations before a roomful of empty chairs. Next question…

100. With the unveiling of the logo for the 101st Indy 500…the anticipation of another early wake-up call on May 28, 2017.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 31 2016
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