Living in Europe, I never grew up with the Indianapolis 500, my world has always been centred around Formula 1. I’m British so the big event was the British Grand Prix, then the Monaco Grand Prix. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is up amongst them but while it has a huge crowd it doesn’t always have a ton of media interest.
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American racing doesn’t really enter into it unless you are already a fan of racing and you go on to learn about Indianapolis and Daytona. Sure most people have heard of those names in relation to speed, and most racing fans know these are historic locations but perhaps don’t know any more than that. Many follow US-based racing reasonably well and are very knowledgeable about the acheivements of drivers, and enjoy some very good racing. But even these most ardent racing fans in Europe don’t always really get Indy, or Daytona for that matter. Accusations of ‘talentless left-turn-only’ are rampant.
In America this is not so. Perhaps it is among the non-fan, perhaps the non-fan in America thinks the same, associates them with speed but doesn’t really know the history. That’s fine, they aren’t fans, we don’t expect them to know. But for the racing fans? My impression is it is totally different. For them, Indianapolis is like a European F1 fan’s Monza – but more so. If speed is our religion, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of our most holy temples, and it has taken me a while to realise this.
I’ve known for a while that Indianapolis has a lot of racing history. I wasn’t aware of just how ingrained in the psyche of the US open wheel fan it is, until this year. The IndyCar blogging community has been coming up with some truly fantastic writing over the last month and on the eve of the 500 I feel the need to share some of them. Whether you are a fan of IndyCar racing or not, I urge you to read these pieces.
People think as an oval, Indy is easy. It is not. Most ovals now are high-banked and essentially two turns, one at each end. Indy is not. Indy has four distinct corners which are each to be approached in a different way. This is what Indy means.
Indianapolis is dangerous. Its narrow road and concrete walls tear at man and machine. A skillful drive can turn to disaster without warning, but the quickest times are found just inches from the walls. It is there the bold must rise. Searching for the fastest lap, even the bravest are not without fear.
To drive Indy requires skill. To race at the front: dedication. To win: courage. A champion must push beyond fear. The four corners at Indianapolis draw out a special significance.
from Paul Page’s opening to the broadcast of the 1992 Indy 500, as shared by Will of Is It May Yet? (Tw @IsItMayYet)
As an experience it is like no other in racing. To an outsider such as myself, IMS’s self-styled phrase “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” sounds obnoxious or pretensious. Surely a Formula 1 grid is louder, more energetic, and faster on a non-oval? Surely 55 Le Mans cars heading down the Mulsanne as one is the greatest spectacle of all? Perhaps not. Perhaps the following perspective has made me rethink that view. This is what Indy means.
Then, at the end of the final pace lap, you look into turn three and see the cars arranging themselves into eleven rows of three. And that’s when the chills start racing up your spine. You can’t help it. The pace car flashes past and dives for pit road, and the cars are alone on the track. As they go by the engine pitch starts to rise, but it is quickly lost in the loudest cheering you’ve ever heard in your life. 300,000 people are screaming at the top of their lungs and, you discover, so are you. Screaming to tear out your throat, in fact, because on the screen you see the green flags waving and you know that the race is underway.
by Tony of Pop Off Valve (Tw @SBPopOffValve)
There’s the effect on lifelong fans. This is what Indy means.
The first car race I ever heard about in my house was the Indy 500. Memorial weekend, my Dad would lug the cooler outside loaded with his favorite beverage, some sandwiches, and other snacks. He would turn up the radio so loud I’m sure the neighbors would hear it. I don’t think he cared. It was the Indy 500 he was listening to for crying out loud. My Mom would tell all of us, “Don’t be bothering your Dad, the race is on.” That was a time he was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. He would jump out of his lawn chair and yell at the top of his lungs at the radio. Then he would do it all over again when they would show the replay hours later on TV.
by Matt from Planet-IRL (tw @Indy44)
Then there is what the place can do to people. How it creates new fans. This is what Indy means, and this really is worth reading.
We sat there in the grandstands hardly saying anything – with him intently watching the cars, and me intently watching him. And while that sounds a bit more melodramatic than I’d like, it’s the truth. We were both entirely fascinated, but for entirely different reasons.
by Roy of Versus.com
Finally, I can’t pick a quote but this post from the_race-gIRL (Tw @the_race_gIRL) is also worth a read as she introduces the sport to her brother. A new fan, right there. Perhaps you haven’t read everything I’ve linked. That’s fine, there are a lot of words. I do urge you to at least read the Pop Off Valve and Versus articles.
I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the community has produced this Month of May (shortened or not). I can’t speak for how many people feel this way, the IndyCar viewership figures would tend to suggest not many yet IMS is packed most years and the 500 is the most-watched IndyCar race by far, often by an order of magnitude.
This is more than any old oval race run for spec cars. This is different. This has 101 years of history, countless traditions large and small, and is still one of the fastest tracks in the world – faster than most other ovals on the schedule save Texas I believe – while remaining a tricky test of nerve, skill and patience.
This is what Indy means.