“The Greatest Spectacle In Racing,” the famous Indianapolis 500, has become steeped in rich tradition since its first 1911 race. Here is Part One of the history of some of the most popular and enduring traditions of the great Indianapolis 500 race.
“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”
The 1953 Indy 500 marked the first time the race was covered from start to finish. The stations that retransmitted the broadcast requested some kind of audio sign so they could prepare to play commercials, and the cue that was suggested was “Stay tuned to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Yard of bricks
When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909, it featured a track surface made from a combination of crushed rock and sand. The first race was a disaster, as cars caught fire, drivers and spectators were injured. This prompted the original surface to be replaced by about 3.2 million street-paving bricks. Over the years, patches of asphalt were poured on the track. By 1939, bricks only covered around 650 yards of the main straight, and the rest was smooth asphalt. An October 1961 track renovation covered up all but three feet of bricks,. That small stretch of bricks has remained since, and it has become customary for race victors and their teams to kiss the bricks.
According to our Indy buff at Flemington Chrysler Dodge (Flemington, NJ), no car with a carburetor has qualified for The 500 since 1963, but “Carb Day” still remains an honored Indy 500 tradition. Originally started so that teams could tune their carburetors in conditions mirroring the actual race, it continues as an opportunity for teams to prepare all facets of the cars for the race. The practice session is the biggest event held on Carb Day, but it also features a pit stop competition and rock concert.
The Friday practice session prior to pole day qualifying typically showcases the fastest speeds as teams prepare to compete for the pole. The term “Fast Friday” was formally coined in 2000. According to drivers, achieving the fastest speeds on Fast Friday is almost as coveted as winning the actual race!
Only 33 cars can qualify for the Indy 500 and the final day of qualifying is known as “Bump Day.” If time remains after 33 cars have posted qualifying speeds, those drivers with the slowest times can be replaced in the final field if another driver posts a fast enough time to eliminate them. Bump day is second only to the actual race in terms of stress.
Last Row Party
The starting field for the Indianapolis 500 is spaced so that there are 11 rows each containing three cars. While the big names tend to occupy the forward positions, those in the back are generally “unknowns”. The one time the spotlight truly shines on them is at the Last Row Party, an event that has been held every year since 1972. The three qualifiers with the slowest speeds are ceremoniously roasted as money is raised for charity.
500 Festival Parade
The day before the race, the city of Indianapolis holds a massive 500 Festival Parade. The first took place in 1957 and it has continued since. Of special importance is the appearance of the Purdue University All-American Marching Band. One of the largest marching bands in the world, boasting over 300 members, the marching band has been the host band of the Indianapolis 500 every year since 1927.