Everybody loves a good tradition. Those interested in delving deeper into the histories surrounding long-standing events always find a collection of idiosyncrasies, activities, routines, procedures and events – once viewed as somewhat abstract or out of the ordinary – which have over time developed into traditions which have been built into the folklore and the backbone of these great events. Some so much so that they are now accepted as the norm, and frowned upon if not maintained or respected as they pass through the generations. The Indianapolis 500 is no exception. Sit back and enjoy a light-hearted look at some of these traditions and accepted norms in the greatest show in motorsport, as examined by our regular IndyCar correspondent, Matt Lennon…
The Indy 500 has always, since its inception, been scheduled to coincide with Memorial Day. Until 1970, the race was always held on this exact day (May 30), no matter which day of the week the holiday occurred on, except for Sunday, in which case the race occurred on May 31. From 1971, the race has been scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, and has only once occurred outside this weekend when rain forced the race to be postponed. Regardless, the “Month Of May” as it is affectionately known, is always filled with events and activities honouring the US Military.
The final practice session, held on the Friday before race day, is referred to as “Carburetion Day” or “Carb Day.” This is despite the fact that no qualified car since 1963 has used a carburetor in their car. The Indy Lights race, a concert (in 2010 performed by ZZ Top), and a pit-stop competition are also held on Carb Day.
Also on the Friday before the race, the “Last Row Party” is held for charity. The purpose of this event is to serve as a roast for the final three qualifiers starting on the eleventh and final row. Usually these drivers are obscure privateer entries, although eight former or eventual race winners have participated in this honour at some point in their careers. Last year’s event featured Ryan Hunter-Reay, Nelson Philippe (pictured right, with Alex Tagliani)and Milka Duno.
Let’s now look at some of the weird, spooky and downright unbelievable sides to this race.
The infield of Turn 1 was long known as “The Snake Pit,” usually for its heavy alcohol consumption, associated rowdiness, streaking, flashing, and overall Woodstock / Mardi-Gras atmosphere, popular with bikers and the college-aged party seekers. During rainy periods, this infield section was known to become quite muddy, and mud-wrestling became a common sight among attendees. Subsequent changes in circuit design, grandstand erection, and increased law enforcement has seen the revelry somewhat diminished since the 1980s, and since then, the location of the “Snake Pit” moved to the Turn 4 infield and is now located at the Turn 3 infield. This, its current home, has been officially declared as the new Snake Pit by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway circuit management.
Peanuts, of all things, were considered bad luck for decades through an unconfirmed superstition that in a 1940s race, a crashed car was found with peanut shells inside the cockpit. Since the 2009 race, peanuts are now available at trackside snack stands.
In 93 runnings of the Indy 500, and across some 700 drivers to have competed, none have had the surname Smith, the most common surname among most Western countries. Several Smiths have attempted to qualify, with the most recent being Mark Smith in 1993 and 1994, however none has successfully taken a place on the starting grid.
Post-race celebrations are among the biggest seen in any sporting event. The most well-known tradition began in 1936, when Louis Meyer asked for a glass of buttermilk to celebrate his victory, something his mother encouraged him to drink on hot days. Since then, milk companies have seized this as a perfect marketing opportunity and the race purse is now sponsored by the American Dairy Association who provide a selection of milk for the winning driver. In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi, who owned citrus farms in Brazil, drank orange juice instead of milk following his victory. Despite later drinking a sip of milk, he was roundly booed at the following race in Milwaukee, in the heart of “America’s Dairyland”.
Finally, the Indy 500 has its traditional songs that are rendered before each running. America The Beautiful is always performed with hands-over-hearts to pay tribute to all military personnel. Since 1972 (although with a few replacements on a few occasions due to health concerns or schedule conflicts), legendary crooner Jim Nabors always belts out the classic Back Home Again in Indiana.
Finally, but by no means the least important, the Star Spangled Banner is sung at full volume by all in attendance…well, at least those who know the words…