SPORT Everything you need to know about the Indy 500

7 min

Discover why the Indianapolis 500 is often hailed as ‘the greatest spectacle in racing’.

The Indianapolis 500, or the Indy 500, is one of the most iconic events in motorsport history. Thousands of fans flock to the annual event held, fittingly, in Speedway, Indiana, U.S.A. Inaugurated in 1911, it takes its name from the 500-mile course, which was the distance that could be covered from morning to nightfall, before visibility deteriorated. Traditionally held over the Memorial Day weekend, the Indy 500 sits alongside Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix as part of the prestigious Triple Crown. And it’s not known as the ‘greatest spectacle in racing’ for nothing. 

TAG Heuer is the Official Timekeeper of the Indy 500. The next one is scheduled for this Sunday, May 28, 2023.

Where it all began

The Indy 500 has a rich history that spans over a century. The race has become a staple of American culture and an important part of the motorsport calendar. The first Indianapolis 500 was held on May 30, 1911. The track surface was made of crushed stone and tar, which made for a bumpy and treacherous ride. The cars were limited to a maximum of 4.5 liters of displacement, which meant that they were not as powerful as modern-day race cars. Despite the difficult conditions, the drivers put on a show that captivated the crowds.

Ray Harroun won the inaugural race, driving the Marmon Wasp to victory over a field of 39 other drivers. Harroun’s victory earned him a place in history and solidified the Indianapolis 500 as a must-see event.

The evolution of the Indy 500 car

The cars that race in the Indianapolis 500 have undergone significant changes throughout the years. From the early, boxy cars of the 1920s to the sleek, high-tech machines of today, the cars have evolved along with the sport. One of the most significant changes in the history of the Indianapolis 500 occurred in 1965 when the race mandated the use of roll bars in all cars. This safety feature helped to protect drivers in the event of a crash and has since been replaced by even more advanced safety features, such as the HANS device.

Today’s cars are capable of speeds of up to 230 mph and incorporate advanced technology to help drivers navigate the track. From aerodynamic designs to hybrid powertrains, the cars that race in the Indianapolis 500 are some of the most advanced machines on the planet.

The speedway

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the centerpiece of the Indianapolis 500 race. The track is a massive facility that covers over 250 acres and can hold up to 257,000 fans. The track surface itself is made of asphalt and consists of four distinct turns and two long straightaways. The track layout of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is unique in the world of motorsport. The four turns are all banked differently, with turn four being the steepest.

Kiss the bricks

Shortly after the Speedway was first created in 1909, it was paved with 3.2 million bricks, each weighing 9.5 pounds. This ‘upgraded’ the original surface of crushed rock and tar; over the following years, asphalt was gradually added to rougher sections of the track, with all turns fully paved in asphalt by 1937.

Finally, in 1938, the entire track was covered in asphalt with the exception of the mid-section of the front straightaway, and in 1961, this section was covered too, leaving only a 36-inch strip of the original bricks intact at the start/finish line. This, famously, has become known as the ‘Yard of Bricks’, and still remains today. That tradition of “kissing the bricks” was initiated by NASCAR champion Dale Jarrett. After his Brickyard 400 victory in 1996, Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott walked onto the start-finish line, knelt down, and kissed the Yard of Bricks in a theatrical tribute to the Speedway. The gesture caught on. The whole team then joined them for a group smooch of the bricks, and the tradition was born that both Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 winners have followed religiously ever since.

Daredevils and dairy

Experiencing the Indianapolis 500 in person is an unforgettable experience. The pre-race festivities of the Indianapolis 500 are a spectacle in their own right. From the famous “Carb Day” concert to the giant balloon release, there is always something going on to keep the fans entertained. The race also has several quirks that set it apart: from a 33-car field lining up three-wide for the start, the essential singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and the fact that in order to qualify, drivers must complete four (rather than one) timed laps over a designated weekend. But perhaps the strangest of these now-famous traditions involves milk.  

After winning his second Indy 500 race in 1933, driver Louis Meyer made a slightly eccentric request for a glass of buttermilk, which he drank in front of the crowd. When he took his third title in 1936, he asked for another glass – but, in true Indy-500 scale, was given a whole bottle. A photographer caught him swigging from the bottle with three fingers (for three wins) held up in victory.  Inspired by the image, a local dairy company seized the opportunity to promote their wares – and offered to provide a bottle of milk to all future winners. Every year since then (with a brief hiatus from 1947-1955), a bottle of milk has indeed been presented to race winners. Modern drivers are now offered a choice of whole, 2%, or skim milk…and we imagine it won’t be long before there’s a vegan option too. 

From daredevilry to dairy to brick kissing, you can see why the Indy 500 is often called ‘the greatest spectacle in racing’. It isn’t simply a race. It is an institution. 

TAG Heuer is the Official Timekeeper of the Indy 500. The next one is scheduled for this Sunday, May 28, 2023.