The Indianapolis 500 Is America at Its Finest

Cars race during the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, August 23, 2020. (Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports)
And it offers the rest of the world a glimpse of a great, if overlooked, city of the heartland.

In 1945, the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations considered Indianapolis as a possible location for the headquarters of the newly founded international organization.

Thank goodness they didn’t ruin the city with that.

Instead, Indianapolis is internationally known as the location of “the greatest spectacle in racing,” the Indianapolis 500. Americans, especially those who live on the coasts, might think of Indianapolis as a second-tier city, but in the world of racing, it’s the capital.

The 33-car starting grid for today’s race (coverage begins at 11 a.m. on NBC) features drivers from New Zealand, the United States, the Netherlands, Brazil, Spain, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Colombia, France, Australia, and Switzerland. They didn’t convene to vote on nonbinding resolutions.

The world descends upon Indianapolis every May to watch a combined 18,000-horsepower field lap the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway 200 times. It’s faster than fast. The pole speed this year was 231.685 mph, by New Zealand’s Scott Dixon — and that’s a four-lap average.

The Indianapolis 500 is almost always held the day before Memorial Day, and the leadup to it is unlike any other racing event. This year, the IndyCar Series last raced on May 2 at Texas Motor Speedway, with the rest of the month spent in Indianapolis. Why? The drivers and teams need that time to prepare for the grueling events ahead. On-track activities start with practice and qualifying for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, which is run on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield road course two weekends before the 500. The winner of this year’s Grand Prix, held on May 15, was 20-year-old Rinus Veekay of the Netherlands, in his first career win.

After that full regular-season race is complete, all focus is on the 500. The first practice was on Tuesday, May 18. Calling it “practice” makes it sound like it’s no big deal, but by the time practice is complete, most drivers will have run over 500 miles already. Practice is split over four days, with the track open for hours each day, enough time that drivers ran a combined total of 3,326 laps on Wednesday, May 19, the busiest practice day this year. That day also saw the most practice laps completed in one session: Both Ed Jones and Pietro Fittipaldi ran 126 laps, well over half the distance of the actual race.

“Fast Friday” is when teams are allowed to let loose. On the first three days of practice, the cars’ turbochargers are limited, but on Friday, the limits are off. Speeds are about 10 mph higher than in the first three practice sessions. Dixon topped the charts on Friday too, at 233.302 mph, faster than his eventual pole time.

All that practice may seem a bit excessive. After all, they’re just driving around in circles, right? George Will has said that calling baseball a game is like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground in Arizona. Calling the Indianapolis 500 driving around in circles is like calling summiting Mount Everest a hike.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, unlike many other high-speed oval tracks, has very low banking. The turns at Talladega Superspeedway, the fastest NASCAR track, are banked at roughly 33 degrees. At Indy, it’s only about nine. The cars come off the straightaways at around 230 mph and have to turn with only nine degrees of banking to lean on. And on an ideal lap, drivers never so much as tap the brakes.

To compensate for the centrifugal force that wants to throw the cars off the track, engineers build race cars that are basically airplanes in reverse. Instead of creating lift, every horizontal surface is designed to create downforce. The car design must abide by strict technical specifications with small margins for error. Millimeters can make the difference between a winning car and a tenth-place car.

And good driving is the difference between a winning car and a wreck. If you want perspective on how hard it is to drive at Indy, keep in mind that pretty much every year, drivers crash driving alone in qualifying. One wrong flinch and you’re in the wall faster than you can even think about what happened. It doesn’t matter if you’re a past winner, or you’ve turned hundreds of laps before. The cars are on the verge of spinning out of control the entire time. They have to be, because qualifying comes down to split seconds.

After the week of practice is complete, drivers do time trials over the weekend to determine the starting order for the race. A qualifying run for any other race is one lap, but at Indy, one qualifying run is four laps. You can’t just get lucky once; you have to be consistently fast.

This year, 35 cars entered to compete for 33 starting spots. Starting positions ten through 30 are set at the end of Saturday’s qualifying session. The fastest nine cars and the slowest five cars have to qualify again on Sunday. For the slowest five cars, Sunday is called “Bump Day.” At the end of Sunday’s qualifying session, the two slowest cars got bumped from the field. Their Indy journeys are over.

For the fastest nine cars, Sunday is called “Pole Day.” You have to earn the privilege of starting on pole at the Indianapolis 500, and this qualifying session with only the fastest cars from Saturday is where that finally happens. This year, the difference between first and ninth was only 1.367 mph. The difference between first and second was only 0.03 mph, approximately two-hundredths of a second.

Later in the day on Sunday comes one more two-hour practice session. Then, everything comes to a stop. There is no more on-track activity until Friday. Drivers are on track every day for six days, turning hundreds of laps at mind-boggling speeds, with a singular focus and the utmost determination, and then — nothing. What was a physical and mechanical challenge becomes a mental challenge. Drivers have to keep their nerves in check through days of media attention, fan interaction, and promotional activities, without being able to drive on track at all.

Final practice is on Friday, known as “Carb Day” (historically, it was for adjusting the carburetors on the race cars). Carb Day is one 90-minute practice session, but it’s also usually a huge day for fans, with concerts and the pit-stop challenge, a single-elimination tournament where the pit crews compete to see who can change four tires the fastest. The coronavirus has toned down Carb Day festivities a bit this year, but the drivers are happy to get that final practice session in before Sunday’s race.

Pre-race ceremonies are designed to remind you that though the world is welcome and watching, this is an American event. In addition to the national anthem, and an invocation (which is common in racing), the crowd is also treated to the singing of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” A bugler plays “Taps,” for it is Memorial Day weekend. And the last song to be sung before the race begins is “Back Home Again in Indiana,” which is belted out as loud as possible to make sure nobody forgets that this great international event is in the capital of the Hoosier State.

It’s fitting that Indianapolis gets this event the day before Memorial Day. The city has more war memorials than any American city other than Washington, D.C.

The largest, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of downtown, is so massive that you can spend a half hour looking at it and walking around it without getting bored. The monument has four sides, one each for the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War (the monument was dedicated in 1902). The Civil War side contains one of the only acceptable depictions of the Confederate flag in American statuary: It’s shown under Lady Liberty’s foot.

As “quoted” in Talladega Nights, Eleanor Roosevelt, one of America’s first delegates to the United Nations General Assembly, said, “America is all about speed — hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.” She (er, Will Ferrell) was right. The Indianapolis 500, which attracts people from all around the world to a great midwestern city, is America at its finest.

You can have the U.N., New York. America’s heart is in Indy.


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