Fenway Park. Lambeau Field. Wimbledon. St. Andrews. All these sporting venues are the crown jewels in their respective events, a must-attend for millions of sports fans around the world. For auto racing, the biggest crown jewel venue is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although the speedway has been around since 1909, my connection begins much later.
I was born in 1992, almost four months after the closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis 500, where Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear by .043 seconds. My love of racing began shortly thereafter, at Nazareth Speedway, near my birthplace of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and followed me in my move to Phoenix, Arizona.
The first Indianapolis 500 I recall watching was in 1998, at just five years old. The race was won by Eddie Cheever, who had 1992’s winning chief mechanic, Owen Snyder on his team that day. I even still have the VHS recording of the event and enjoyed watching it several times over the next few years.
In the years following the 1998 race, I had my own tradition of printing a starting grid for each running of the 500, wanting to see pictures of each of the 33 beautiful cars that embarked on the 500-mile trek each May. I even had several parties for the races, inviting friends and family over to share my love of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
In 2011, my love for the Indianapolis 500, and the speedway grew even more. While traveling to Indiana for my summer freshman orientation at Purdue University, I stopped for the day at the Speedway, spending the afternoon on a grounds tour, visiting everything from Gasoline Alley to the yard of bricks at the start-finish line.
Eleven months after my visit, I attended my first Indianapolis 500. Despite near-record heat, I could not have been more thrilled to finally be at my favorite race. The race turned out to be one of the most exciting in several years, with Dario Franchitti winning his third and final 500 after Takuma Sato crashed in Turn 1 on the final lap attempting to snatch the lead away from Franchitti.
Three years after Franchitti’s win and just 15 days removed from my graduation from Purdue, I attended my second 500. This one ended with Juan Pablo Montoya adding a second 500 win to his legacy in a thrilling duel with teammate Will Power and 2008 500 Winner Scott Dixon.
This year makes the 100th running of the race, and I will be attending my third 500. What I look forward to the most about this running is not only how the race will pay tribute to its past and simultaneously look toward the future, as it does that like almost no other sporting event in the world.
Few other events have part of its original venue still used in its current iteration, even more than 100 years later. Each lap run will begin and end with a yard of bricks that dates back to the first running of the race won by Ray Haroun in 1911. I have also begun to partake in this theme, watching several race broadcasts as I anxiously await the historic race next month.
The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 will conclude with a celebration that integrates a tradition dating back to 1936. Following the event, Louis Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk to quench his thirst after winning his third 500 on a scorching hot day.
Like several elements of the race, the milk tradition is a perfect example of looking back and going forward at the same time. Several cars are adorned with the logos of energy drink, soda and beer companies. However, at the end of the race, the most talked about beverage at the race remains a bottle of milk that is served in a bottle reminiscent of those from an era long gone, but hardly forgotten.
Of the more than 250,000 fans that will be in attendance for this year’s race, there will be many differing opinions on their favorite 500 memories. Some may enjoy the vintage roadsters of the 50s and 60s, when names like 1953 and 54 champion Bill Vukovich and 1963 winner Parnelli Jones dominated.
Others may be of a younger generation, and enjoy the new-age machines of the 21st Century, driven by superstars like three-time 500 champion Helio Castroneves and 2013 victor Tony Kanaan. Regardless of what your preference is, our memories of the race are what help to continue to breath life into the speedway and give it a legacy to share for many decades to come.
Some of you who have experienced the 500 before may be watching the race from the grounds of the speedway, or viewing the race on television. Next month will be another time for those of you, like me, to add to your list of 500 memories. Maybe, if the 100th 500 is your first time viewing the race in some fashion, this is the time to start making some memories of your own.
Feel free to share some of your favorite Indianapolis 500 memories.