Since 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has been an American Memorial Day tradition. Like the Kentucky Derby and horse racing, it's the one event where people who don't even care about the sport end up watching. The difference? The damn horses don't go 240 MPH.
So, yeah, you should watch it. This is easily the most entertaining, accessible, and exciting race to watch on Memorial Day weekend. Here's what you need to know to enjoy the 500 to its fullest.
IndyCar racing isn't nearly the most popular form of motorsports in the United States like it once was. Likewise, ratings for the Indy 500 aren't close to what they were in years past. This all has to do with something called "The Split," a Moses-like acrimonious parting of seas between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the CART series that occurred in 1996.
Without getting too detailed, there were two open wheel race series created in America: The IRL, which had no-name drivers but the world's biggest race and CART, which had the star drivers and no marquee event.
The IRL eliminated innovation from Indy, preferring a lower tech package that would bring in more American grassroots racers. The new formula brought lower speeds, and with no more records and drivers nobody cared about, the 500 started a decline.
After 12 years of everyone saying "screw this," the series merged back together in 2008. The damage was already done. The 500 still isn't the same crown jewel it once was. But that doesn't mean it isn't on the way back, because the racing is still incredible and the event is like nothing else in the world.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a 2.5 mile oval with very low, nine degree banking in the corners. Cars run 200 laps and make somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 pitstops. The race takes around three hours, far longer than most other races on the IndyCar calendar.
All 33 competitors (the traditional number of starters at the race) run a Dallara chassis dubbed the DW12 and have 2.2 liter turbocharged V6 engines from Chevrolet or Honda. Average lap speeds in qualifying were 231 MPH for the front row this year, but look for those to drop to around 223 in the race.
The field does a flying start in 11 rows of three on the front stretch. It's a breathtaking sight.
Tradition And History
The Indy 500 has the most history and tradition of any motor race anywhere on this planet.
This year is the 98th running of the race in 103 years. It is still the biggest single day sporting event in the world and occurs at the highest capacity sports venue in the world. That's a lot of records.
Traditions run wild at the Brickyard, a circuit that originally got its name from being totally paved in brick but now has just one yard of the surface left at the start finish line. Winners drink milk, a tradition started after Louis Meyer requested butter milk to drink after winning the race in 1936. Jim Nabors sings Back Home Again In Indiana, Florence Henderson, yes, Mrs. Brady, usually sings God Bless America, and taps and a 21 gun salute honor our soldiers.
It's steeped in ritual like no other race in the world. To some people, Indy isn't a race, it's religion.
What To Watch
If you aren't familiar with IndyCar, or even if you are, the first thing you should do is pick a driver. Personalities in the series aren't hard to come by since they haven't been neutered by PR the way a lot of drivers in NASCAR have been. Find a couple drivers in the field that you want to follow for all 200 laps. Some solid picks are Marco Andretti, Kurt Busch (who is also running the NASCAR Coke 600 on the same day), Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Juan Montoya, and Will Power.
The stunning part of the field is the diversity. You have Formula One winners in Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Montoya, NASCAR racers like Kurt Busch, and drivers from 11 countries. There are men and women, though there aren't any from an unspecified third gender. At least not yet.
The 500 is never boring, there is always action in the field even if it isn't for the lead, though it frequently is. The 2013 race had 64 lead changes amongst 14 drivers. And this isn't a NASCAR race like Daytona where everyone runs a restrictor plate. This is at speeds approaching 230 MPH.
It's knife edge stuff with split second decision making. Wheel to wheel contact means there will be a crash. A mistake in the pits can be a disaster. Yet they still run inches from each other, they still risk it every lap, they still come inches from the wall on every single corner.
It's a chess game at 230 MPH. Except, instead of chess where a wrong move can cost you a pawn (Oh, it's boring to watch too. This is a bad analogy), a wrong move here can cost a life (See? Bad analogy.). It's one of the most thrilling and enthralling things you can watch.
And saying that it's an oval and boring and you aren't going to watch is rather trite. Every lap is variable. Wind speeds, car positions, fuel savings, passing, and more all contribute to creating a tension that lasts for 500 grueling miles.
There is no other race like this anywhere. It's a must watch.
What If You Hate It?
Turn it off.
What If You Love It?
GREAT NEWS! IndyCar is a series with super close racing all year round. This year the schedule lasts until Labor Day, which is a bit short, but there is talk of a winter series that goes overseas on some of the world's greatest road courses.
Color me excited.
Whatever made you go away from the 500 in the past, try it again. It's the most exciting race of Memorial Day weekend and isn't like watching NASCAR, which is often like viewing colorful traffic sponsored by a phone company no one uses.
The race will be on Sunday, May 25th on ABC. Coverage starts at 11 AM. Or just do what I'm doing and go to the track.