Indianapolis 500

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Indianapolis 500

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend in May
Where Celebrated: Indianapolis, Indiana
Symbols and Customs: Indianapolis Speedway, Victory Milk
Related Holidays: Daytona 500


The first automobile race in America was held on November 2, 1895, at a time when there were fewer than 100 working cars in the nation. The course ran through the streets of Chicago, but only seven cars showed up, and only two of them were fully prepared to race. The winner was a Benz automobile whose average speed was only ten miles per hour-including the time spent on electrical problems, pit stops, and getting lost.

By the early 1900s, automobile racing was dominated by wealthy sportsmen, who came together at Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach in Florida (see DAYTONA ) to race on the hard-packed sand. The nation's first track race took place at the 1896 Rhode Island State Fair in Narragansett Park, where spectators laughed at the sight of cars chugging around a track meant for horses. But eventually the popularity of track racing in America outstripped that of road racing.

The INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY was the first track in the nation built especially for automobile racing. The Indianapolis businessmen who put up the money for it hoped that it would be used as a test track to improve American cars in general and Indiana-built cars in particular. The first 500-mile auto race was held there in 1911, and it became an overnight tradition. Although the race was an all-day affair-it took six hours and forty-two minutes for the winner to cover 500 miles- it drew 90,000 spectators. Happily, the winner was driving a Marmon, made by an Indianapolis manufacturer just across town.

Attendance at the "Indy 500," as it became known, slumped during the two world wars, but racing fans returned in 1946 and the sport continued to grow in popularity. Today, as many as 450,000 people come to the Speedway to watch the 500-mile race, and over thirty million watch it on television. Although stock car racing has become more popular-"stock cars" being Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors cars that have been adapted for racing-the Indy 500 remains the single most important auto racing event in America.

The cars that race at Indianapolis are usually powered by turbo-charged engines and run on a blend of fuels, such as methanol and nitromethane. They can finish the race in less than three hours. Officially, the Indy 500 is a testing-ground for devices that will eventually be used in passenger cars. The annual race has been credited with such improvements as the rear view mirror, balloon tires, and ethyl gasoline.

A name closely associated with the Indy 500 is A.J. Foyt, who was only twenty-six when he won his first race in 1961. He went on to become the first driver to win the Indy 500 four times. Even after a serious crash in Wisconsin in September of 1990 that shattered his legs, he was able to squeeze into an Indy car eight months later and start the race for the thirty-fourth year in a row.

On May 29, 2005, Danica Patrick changed the race forever when she became not only the fourth woman in history to start at the Indy 500, but the first woman ever to lead it. She maintained the front position for nineteen laps and finished in fourth place, breaking the 1978 record held by Janet Guthrie. Danica Patrick continues to place in top-five finishes in a field dominated by men, attracting increased spectator and TV viewer interest and extensive media coverage. In 2005, for example, on the day of her record-breaking race, Indy 500 TV ratings jumped by forty percent, the highest ratings for the Indy since 1997.


Indianapolis Speedway

The 559-acre Indianapolis Speedway is a two-and-a-half mile rectangle with four rounded corners, gently banked at a little more than nine degrees at the bottom and sixteen degrees at the top. It was originally paved with bricks to reduce dust, but then "board tracks," with wooden surfaces, sprang up everywhere after World War I and became more popular. It fell into disrepair, and at one point developers were planning to subdivide it. But Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace and former Indy driver who owned the track, turned down the developers' offer and sold the property to Anton Hulman, an Indiana businessman, for the same price he'd paid for it in 1927. Hulman rebuilt the track and restored its position as the symbolic home of championship auto racing.

Victory Milk

In 1936, three-time Indy winner Louis Meyer drank buttermilk after the race to refresh himself, as his mother had told him it would. The milk industry seized a golden opportunity after they saw a newspaper photograph of Meyer enjoying his milk in Victory Lane. An executive made sure milk was offered to the next year's winner, and a tradition began. There were several years in which milk was not offered to the victor, but the custom was revived in 1956 and has been in practice ever since.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Indianapolis 500

May, Sunday of Memorial Day weekend
The "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," popularly known as the Indy 500, is actually the culmination of a month-long event. It begins the first week in May with the Mayor's Breakfast and parade around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the two-and-a-half-mile oval track on which the race takes place. Then there are qualifying races to determine who will participate in the final Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, which is held on the Sunday before Memorial Day.
On the day before the big race, there is a 500 Festival Memorial Parade that draws more than 300,000 spectators to the streets of downtown Indianapolis and features floats, musical groups, and celebrities. The race itself, which has been held in Indianapolis since 1911, regularly attracts about 400,000 spectators to the 559-acre speedway, in addition to 4,000 media people and a nationwide television audience. The Indy 500 is said to be the largest one-day sporting event in the world.
The official track qualifying record belongs to Arie Luyendyk, whose one-lap speed in 1996 was 237.498 mph. He also holds the record for the fastest time to complete the 500-mile race, set in 1990 when he clocked in at 2:40:58.
The Indy racing car is fueled with a blend of fuels (such as methanol and nitromethane) and usually powered by a turbo-charged engine. Officially, the Indy 500 is a testing-ground for devices that will eventually be used in passenger cars. The annual race has been credited with such automotive improvements as the rearview mirror, balloon tires, and ethyl gasoline.
Indy Racing League
4565 W. 16th St.
Indianapolis, IN 46222
317-484-6526; fax: 317-484-6525
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 389
GdUSFest-1984, p. 52
HolSymbols-2009, p. 406
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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