For a century, the Indianapolis 500 has delivered high-octane thrills and spills, and tomorrow the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will add another chapter when it celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Since Ray Harroun nursed his Marmon Wasp to victory in 1911, the Indy 500 has been a magnet to motor racing giants and thrill seekers eager to test their skill and bravery on the sprawling 4.02km oval known as the Brickyard.
Over the decades, Formula One greats such as Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi have battled wheel-to-wheel against US auto sport royalty, the Foyts, Unsers and Andrettis, for a chance to chug from the traditional quart of milk in Victory Lane.
Run on the Memorial Day weekend in the US heartland, the 500 is a uniquely American event that offers none of the glitz and glamour of the Monaco Grand Prix, another of the world’s signature motor races that will go the same day.
In Monaco, the winner will be sprayed with expensive champagne. At the Indy, he is bathed in milk.
There are no yachts or palaces filling the vista at the Brickyard, only motor homes and campers packed into parking lots and fields turning them into refugee camps. At Monte Carlo, race fans snack on caviar and crackers, at Indy they dine on burgers and beers.
At the Monaco Grand Prix, cars will dart around the tight streets past casinos and luxury apartments.
At Indianapolis, 33 cars watched by about 300,000 spectators will charge at breathtaking speeds around an oval so big it could hold Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Coliseum and Vatican City.
“Everybody understands what Monaco is, everybody understands what the Indianapolis 500 is, that this is not just a normal race,” said Eddie Cheever Jr, who drove in more Formula One races than any other American and winner of the 1998 Indy 500. “It’s very fast, very dangerous.”
“It just speaks so much about the difference of our culture and the European culture,” he said. “A European has a very hard time understanding why you would want to be at a race track at full throttle for three-and-a-half hours and in America, we don’t understand why you would want to run around a tiny town by the sea.
While the 500 is anchored in a rich past, it is a race focused on the future.
Four women from four different countries, American Danica Patrick, Swiss Simona de Silvestro, Britain Pippa Mann and Brazilian Ana Beatriz will be on the starting grid, while a fifth, Sarah Fisher will watch from the pits as a team owner.
Girl power is nothing new at the Brickyard, Janet Guthrie having long ago shattered the glass ceiling when she became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1977.
However, no woman has ever won the 500, Patrick coming the closest with a third place finish in 2009 and remains the only woman to lead a lap at the Indy.
“Of course it [a woman winning the Indy] will happen one day,” said Mann, who will make her 500 debut tomorrow. “When we see a female driver jump into one of those big teams then we’re going to see the real possibility for it to happen.”
However, the 100th Indy 500 may be remembered as a victory for the little guy with Canadian Alex Tagliani, without a full-time drive this IndyCar season, putting his car on the pole.
“I was not there in the first edition, I will miss the 200 anniversary so to just be in the 100th anniversary in very unique,” said Tagliani, who has just one career win.