The SBNation Indy 500 Primer: The Traditions


When you spend nearly a century doing something, chances are that you eventually start engaging in repetitive behaviors.

The usual term for this phenomenon is "tradition," and it has been a watchword at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race for longer than anyone reading this article has been alive (and probably will remain so long after we aren't).

Every major sport has its own traditions. Some are motivated by sportsmanship, like the National Hockey League's tradition of competing teams lining up on the ice to shake hands with each other at the end of a playoff series. Others, like the annual commercial-fest and overwrought halftime show during the Super Bowl, are motivated by commercialism. Still others are born of sentiment, and even visitors to Triple Crown races will tell you that the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home," "Maryland, My Maryland," and "New York, New York" at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes respectively sends chills up and down the spine.

The annual Memorial Day weekend classic at The Brickyard is loaded with traditions - some of them as ingrained in the national psyche as hot dogs and apple pie.

The Pace Car

American racing fans are well-acquainted with the sight of the pace car, the street-legal machine that parades in front of the field during pre-race laps and during caution periods. What race fans may not know is that the first use of the pace car in motorsports was at the 1911 Indianapolis 500.

Carl Fisher, the builder and first owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, came up with the concept of the pace car because he believed that the standing start - the practice in use at virtually every motor racing event in the world to that time - was unsafe. Fisher decided to implement a rolling start so that the competitors could warm up their engines, engine and transmission fluids, and tires prior to the first competitive lap. Fisher himself drove the pace lap for the first five years of the race.

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The 2010 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car (Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

The Indianapolis 500 Pace Car has always been a domestic American brand, from the first Stoddard-Dayton pacer (which you can see on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum) to this year's Chevrolet Camaro SS. The only exception to this tradition would have been in 1991, when Dodge brought their Mitsubishi-built Stealth car to the Speedway. After protests from the United Auto Workers as well as the always-loud traditionalist lobby, the pre-production Dodge Viper was substituted.

Driving the pace car in pre-race pace laps has become something of a plum assignment, and a veritable who's-who list of celebrities have manned the wheel over the years. Some of the more interesting names include Eddie Rickenbacker, Louis Chevrolet, several members of the Ford family including Edsel and Henry II, James Garner, Chuck Yeager, Carroll Shelby, Jay Leno, General Colin Powell and Lance Armstrong.

Post-race, the winner of the Indy 500 traditionally receives the keys to a replica at the Indy 500 Victory Banquet. The original car is stored for display at the IMS Museum. Other pace car replicas are used as "festival cars" during the month of May and are later sold.

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The Indy 500 three-abreast start (Photo: MSN Autos)

The "11 rows of three"

Since 1933, each Indianapolis 500 has had at least 33 starters (the exceptions were in 1979 and 1997, when controversies in both years resulted in 35 starters). On the final pace lap - there are three pace laps after engine start, two ceremonial and one "official" - all 33 starters assemble themselves into 11 rows of three cars in a line-abreast formation until the green flag.

This tradition actually stems from a 1919 mandate from AAA, the sanctioning body for the 500-Mile race at the time, requiring one car for every 400 feet of racetrack.

The Indianapolis 500 is the only race in the world to feature a three-abreast pacing formation for the start of the race. The World of Outlaws sprint car series traditionally features a four-abreast ceremonial pace lap, but the cars revert to a two-wide start before the green flag.

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A photo from "The Snake Pit" at Indianapolis in 1972 (Photo: www.indymotorspeedway.com)

The Snake Pit

There is a tongue-in-cheek theory that if you are an Indianapolis native and were born prior to 1985 that you have a better-than-average chance of having a February birthday.

The reason for this is that until the late 1980s, the biggest party in America north of Mardi Gras was to be found in the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Dubbed "The Snake Pit," the IMS infield became known for a tradition of revelry, violence and debauchery on a legendary scale. Imagine Woodstock, but with more booze, drugs, and burning cars.

With the changes to the track brought on by heightened security, the new infield road course and a generally more politically-correct society, the free-for-all of The Snake Pit has gone the way of the world. Still, the name lives on for the more-subdued parties that take place in the few remaining infield spaces at The Brickyard. As for the debauchery, you can still find it in good measure at the annual Camp and Brew.

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The annual Carb Day Pit Stop Competition (Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Carburetion Day

On the Friday before the race, each qualified team participates in a final practice session. Up until 1955, this meant tuning the engine's carburetor for race conditions, and while carburetors have not been used in IndyCars since then, the name has remained. Carb Day practice is the only day besides race day when all 33 cars can be on the track at once, and it is the final practice session open to the public.

Following the final practice, the annual Pit Stop Competition takes place, followed by a concert - a Carb Day tradition since 2000.

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Drivers Nelson Philippe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alex Tagliani at the 2009 Last Row Party (Photo: www.indypressfoundation.org)

Driver Parties

There are two major parties held for Indy 500 competitors. The first of them is held on Carb Day for the three slowest qualifiers in the field. More a roast than an actual party, the Last Row Party dates to 1972 and raises funds for charity. Although one might expect the attendees to be obscure or lesser-light drivers, to date eight former or eventual Indy 500 winners have been "honored" at the Last Row Party.

The other big party is the post-race Victory Banquet held in downtown Indianapolis. The race winner is honored by the other teams and competitors, as well as IMS officials and city dignitaries. The winner also officially receives the keys to his own replica Indy 500 Pace Car at this event.

Indy 500 race-day traditions

The actual day of the Indy 500 is packed full of traditional events, starting at 6:00AM on race day when a percussion grenade is exploded to signal that the track's gates are open.

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The Purdue University All-American Marching Band, an Indy 500 staple (Photo: purduetrumpets.com)

Pre-race ceremonies

As fans file into the facility, the Purdue University All-American Marching Band begins to play. Their playlist fluctuates from year to year but always included are the songs "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "On the Banks of the Wabash."

Celebrities then take to the track for laps in "festival cars" - usually replicas of the Indy 500 Pace Car or cars and trucks from the Pace Car manufacturer's inventory - and the 33 competitors are introduced to the crowd in groups of three, from last row to first.

Given that the race takes place on Memorial Day weekend, subsequent pre-race ceremonies are heavily patriotic. Indiana native and star of "The Brady Bunch" Florence Henderson traditionally performs either "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America," followed by the singing of the National Anthem (usually by special guests of the Speedway), all accompanied by the Purdue band.

A special performance of "Taps" is then played, followed by remarks honoring America's veterans and those who have died in combat. This Memorial Day tradition has taken on special significance since September 11, 2001, with the remarks being delivered by a high-ranking member of the military. A military fly-by usually follows this portion of the ceremonies.

What many traditionalists consider to be the highlight of the pre-race ceremonies is the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana." This is one of the oldest traditions at the track, having been performed since 1946. Other singers have sung it over the years - including Dinah Shore, Mel Torme, Ed Ames and Peter Marshall. But for most race fans of this generation, the song is irrevocably connected to Jim Nabors, the man who made Gomer Pyle famous.

During the rendition of "Back Home Again in Indiana," speedway officials release thousands of multicolored balloons from a tent in the infield. This tradition is an homage to the first competitive event at the Speedway, which was the U.S. National Balloon Championships in 1909.

Following this song, the track announcer gives the command: "Drivers, to your cars!" Then, the "most famous words in motorsports" are spoken: "(Ladies and) Gentlemen, start your engines!" The tradition began with Wilbur Shaw in 1946 and has been voiced since 1955 by a member of the Hulman-George family (since 1996 by Mari Hulman George, daughter of Tony Hulman).

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Dario Franchitti drinks the traditional swig of milk following his 2010 Indy 500 victory (Photo: IndyCar.com) 

The milk

The most famous Indy 500 tradition is the one that occurs immediately after the race's finish.

In 1936, race winner Louis Meyer pulled into victory lane worn out and exhausted after hours of difficult driving and competition. Remembering his mother's advice on how to deal with hot days, Meyer asked for a glass of buttermilk. Like most traditions, the reason why it caught on was inexplicable - but it caught on nonetheless.

Belatedly, milk companies caught on to the fact that the tradition was a marketing bonanza for their industry, and by 1956 local milk producers became sponsors of the post-race ceremonies. Today, the race winner receives $10,000 from the American Dairy Association if he sips milk in victory lane.

The only driver in the past 74 years who has defied the tradition - at least initially - was Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993, who owned citrus farms in Brazil and consequently asked for a glass of orange juice. However, Fittipaldi eventually did sip the milk after a hearty chorus of boos from the grandstands.

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The Borg-Warner Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Indy 500 (Photo: IndyCar.com)

The Borg-Warner Trophy

Easily one of the most famous trophies in all of professional sports, the Borg-Warner Trophy is awarded to the winner of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

The victor's face is sculpted and placed on the trophy itself along with his name, average speed and the race date. Until 1988, the race winner kept the trophy itself for a year (similar to the traditional awarding of the NHL's Stanley Cup), but when the trophy was renovated that year to add room for more race winners, the procedure was altered to give the victor a replica trophy as a permanent award.

The trophy itself remains on display at IMS year-round.

If you wish to hear audio files of the songs and other traditions at the Indy 500, visit Paul at IndianaRacing.net - make sure you buy him a beer!

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