Indy 500: Inside the Biggest Auto Race of the Year

May 26, 2019Katie McCarthy
Coffee or Die Photo

The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest auto race of the year, attracting a crowd in excess of 250,000 people. But the weatherman was calling for a better-than-average chance of thunderstorms. Racing is an unpredictable sport to begin with, but throw rain into the forecast and it’s a total crapshoot.

At 7:30 AM on race day, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) was positively buzzing. Tailgating was at full-tilt, fans were filtering into their stadium seats, media crews and race VIPs were moving into position — and there was still nearly four hours until the main event.

In Indiana — and perhaps more specifically in the greater Indianapolis metropolitan area — the entire month of May is preparation for today. There’s as much excitement leading up to the race as the race itself.

The ABC Supply Company racing team prepping the IndyCar for driver Tony Kanaan at the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Photo by Katie McCarthy/Coffee or Die.

If you’ve been to any sporting event, you’ve no doubt had a small taste of what the Indy 500 is like. The sheer size of the race — the IMS covers more than 559 acres and is the highest-capacity sports venue in the world — can feel overwhelming. There are even plenty of non-racing spectacles, such as giant turkey legs and a huge party spot known as the Snake Pit.

But you really get a sense for how many hands it takes to make this operation run when you move down into the pit lane and access the garages. From checking and stacking spare tires to testing all the mechanical components of the IndyCars, there were upwards of 12 crew members per driver and they started working hours before the race even began. Once the race starts, there are at least 15 crew members ready to help out the driver, though only six can be over the wall during a pit stop.

The Indy 500 is also known to bring out some celebrities, and this year Matt Damon and Christian Bale served as the honorary starters — only the second time two people have shared that title. Damon and Bale star in an upcoming movie about racing, “Ford v. Ferrari,” which is set to hit theaters in the fall. NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also in attendance, driving the pace car with Indy racing legend Michael Andretti.

Indy 500 enthusiasts kissing the Yard of Bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo by Katie McCarthy/Coffee or Die.

But the biggest celebrity at IMS — also known as The Brickyard — is the Yard of Bricks, the remaining 36-inch strip of the bricks that were laid over the original crushed-rock surface in 1909. When the track was paved in 1961, this section at the start/finish line was left exposed. In 1996, NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett began the tradition of kissing the bricks. That tradition is alive and well as people nearly caused foot-traffic accidents by dropping to their hands and knees to pay respect to IMS.

Aside from the deafening roar of the engines — there was plenty of that — all of your favorite sports-arena songs made an appearance: Lee Greenwood performed “God Bless the USA” (notably, Greenwood left Indianapolis after his performance and flew to Charlotte to perform his song at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — his own version of Double Duty); Chevel Shepherd, winner of “The Voice” season 15, sang “America the Beautiful”; and Kelly Clarkson — for the third time at the Indy 500 — brought down the house with the National Anthem, complete with a flyover by the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight.

Unique to the Indy 500 is “Back Home Again in Indiana” performed for the third consecutive year by Jim Cornelison. He was backed by the Purdue University marching band, who marked their 100th year marching at the race. Leading up to the main event, the band provided entertainment near the pit lane, even breaking out some Fall Out Boy. If you weren’t pumped for the big race before these performances, you definitely were afterward.

The Indiana National Guard’s 38th Infantry Division was recognized at the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. The unit is set to deploy to Kuwait on Monday, May 27. Photo by Sgt. Tackora Hand/Indiana National Guard.

Though the race was the event of the day, there was a tangible feeling of patriotism — and not just because more than 5,000 active and prior military members were given free tickets. The speedway took time on more than one occasion to recognize Memorial Day and those who died in service to our country. They additionally spotlighted the Indiana National Guard’s 38th Infantry Division, which is preparing to deploy tomorrow. Members of the unit marched a lap around the track, led by their commanding general Major General Gordon Ellis. FORSCOM commander General Michael X. Garrett and Indiana National Guard adjutant general Major General Courtney P. Carr were also there to support the unit.

As they’re infamously known to be, the weatherman was wrong. The 103rd Indy 500 took off without a raindrop in sight, and it turned out to be a perfect day for a race. After an exciting 200 laps — including a major crash during lap 177 that resulted in a red flag — Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud came back from the restart to win the 2019 Indy 500 by two-tenths of a second.

Military appreciation was at an all-time high at the Indianapolis 500. Photo courtesy of Jeremiah McCarthy.

Katie McCarthy
Katie McCarthy

Katie McCarthy is the managing editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. Her career in journalism began at the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer in 2008, where she learned to navigate the newsroom as a features reporter, copy editor, page designer, and online producer; prior to joining Coffee or Die, she worked for Outdoor Sportsman Group as an editor for Guns & Ammo magazine and their Special Interest Publications division. Katie currently lives in Indiana with her husband and two daughters.

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