It’s bigger than the Superbowl. Bigger than the World Cup Final. In fact, it is bigger than both combined – at least in terms of spectators in attendance. It is the Indianapolis 500 mile race and this Sunday it will celebrate 100 years since the first running of this most illustrious of races, although this will be the 95th running of the race (no races took place in 1917 and 1918, and between 1942-1945).
With crowds usually well over 300,000, counting the infield sections in addition to grandstands all the way around the outside of the circuit, the sight of a circuit bursting with life and character on race-day Sunday is something to behold.
Our esteemed IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon takes a look at the form guide and major talking points heading into the world’s biggest oval race…
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a 2½-mile oval with 4 turns, short straight sections between Turns 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, connected with 1 mile long straights, reaching speeds well over 230mph through the speed traps at Turns 1 & 3. These long straights encourage overtaking as it allows plenty of time for a following car to take advantage of the slipstream generated by the car in front.
FOUR-TIME WINNERS CLUB
An ultra-exclusive club of 4-time winners, consisting of Rick Mears, Al Unser Snr and the incomparable AJ Foyt, has the chance to add its fourth member this weekend, if Helio Castroneves, starting from 16th position, is able to race his way to the front. Meanwhile, two-time winner and defending champion Dario Franchitti has a chance to join the three-time winners club.
THE INAUGURAL 500: Following a few minor races in 1909 and 1910, the first Indianapolis 500-mile race was held on Tuesday, May 30, 1911 and carried a winners purse of the princely sum of USD $27,550. The qualifying order for the race was decided by the date the official entry forms were filed, and was won by Ray Harroun, driving a Marmon-Nordyke “Wasp”. Upon winning, Harroun promptly went back to retirement and never raced again.
CLOSEST FINISH: 1992 will always be remembered as “so close, yet so far” for Scott Goodyear. Starting dead-last and in an incident-filled race dominated by Michael Andretti, whom had witnessed both his father Mario and brother Jeff involved in separate heavy accidents and both taken to Methodist Hospital for surgery on broken bones. With 12 laps to go and a 28-second lead, Andretti suddenly slowed with a fuel pump failure. Al Unser Jnr inherited the lead, closely followed by Goodyear. For the final seven laps, Goodyear shadowed Little Al’s every move, and rounding the final corner, Goodyear tucked into Unser’s draft, pulled alongside, but was held at bay and denied victory by 43-thousandths of a second.
TOP SPEEDS: In 1996, Arie Luyendyk set the qualifying lap record of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his Reynard lapped in an average speed of 237.498mph (382.216kph). Tragically that same year, the Speedway witnessed its most recent fatality when Scott Brayton was killed on a practice lap.
2011 TALKING POINTS
WHERE ON THE GRID CAN THE RACE BE WON FROM? The highest grid position that has never seen a winner of the Indy 500 is 18th, whereas the race has been won at least once from as far back as 28th position, the most recent of which was in 1936 when Louis Meyer became the first man to win the race for the third time.
PIT STRATEGY: With speed obviously key to a successful Indy 500 race, only so much fuel can be saved without affecting performance in a detrimental way. Many races have seen winners pitting for a standard fuel and tyres service no less than seven times, although races containing multiple yellow-flag caution periods will usually see less pit stops as less fuel is used when cars are bunched behind the safety car. The key ingredient in a race-winning pit strategy is usually a constant gamble, taking service when you must, but hoping for caution periods to allow you to move up the field when not requiring a stop.
AN UNDERDOG WINNER – SAM SCHMIDT: 1997 doesn’t seem like such a long time ago in many ways. For Sam Schmidt, he made his debut in the fairly new (at the time) Indy Racing League, finished fifth in the series points and started in three consecutive Indy 500’s as a driver. In 1999, Schmidt took his first series victory – from the pole no less – at the Las Vegas Speedway. While testing prior to the 2000 season, Schmidt suffered a massive accident which left him a quadriplegic, and even spent five weeks on a respirator. Inspired by Frank Williams and all his success despite being wheelchair-bound, Schmidt decided to move into team ownership after meeting his Formula One hero, founding Sam Schmidt Motorsports. While running a full-time IRL operation in 2001 and 2002, Schmidt focused on the Indy Lights Series, and is currently the most successful team in the history of the second-division series. Late last year, Schmidt acquired the FAZZT Race Team, which was part-owned by Alex Tagliani. With Tag remaining on board in a driving capacity, and after some positive results in the first four races of 2011, Tagliani claimed pole position for the Indy 500, an overwhelmingly popular achievement up and down pit lane.
INDY 500 TRADITIONS
Not all traditions are necessary to have begun in the very first running of an event. Always an enjoyable moment at the Indy 500 each year is the rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana” by legendary crooner Jim Nabors. The song was first performed at the race in 1946, with Nabors debuting as vocalist in 1972 and singing almost every year since. Although not the official song of the state of Indiana, it is perhaps the best-known song paying tribute to the Hoosier state.
Another important tradition that has survived the test of time is the customary bottle of milk enjoyed by almost every driver since Louis Meyer specifically requested it to quench his thirst following his 1936 victory. While most drivers tend to prefer to jubilantly pour it over themselves and those in the immediate vicinity, Emerson Fittipaldi will always be remembered in infamy for his 1993 decision to switch to orange juice, earning the ire of the crowd in Milwaukee, in the heart of America’s dairyland, a week later at the following race.
This year, Grammy Award winners Seal and Kelly Clarkson will perform the American National Anthem.
While a punter can never rule out Ganassi and Penske from any possible race win, a large number of smaller teams find themselves well placed among the higher grid slots for this weekend’s race. Aside from the previously mentioned Sam Schmidt Motorsports, teams such as Bryan Herta Motorsport, Panther Racing and Sarah Fisher Racing all occupy top-10 starting positions and are genuinely in with a shot at the win if their drivers can keep it out of the wall – a task easier said than done over 500 miles.
RICHARD’S RACE PREDICTION: Alex Tagliani has been so impressive in the lead-up to this weekend’s event, proving himself to be both quick in practice and dynamite in qualifying. It’s a huge gamble to back the pole-sitter at an event like this, as so often can be the case, the winner will come from further down the field. However, Tagliani’s resurgence has been hugely impressive and it’s hard not to place a wager on him. I also expect Oriol Servia to play a significant role this weekend, and I predict a shock podium finish for Simona de Silvestro, who will put in a heroic drive after her almighty practice accident last week.
MY RACE PREDICTION: While I am always a fan of the underdog and for a first-time winner breaking their duck on the biggest stage of all, I believe we will see another Ganassi victory, most likely from the ever-improving Scott Dixon.