What’s the deal with the race Fernando Alonso opted to do over the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix this year? It’s the 101st running of the “greatest spectacle in racing,” the Indianapolis 500, and it’s perhaps the most prestigious oval race on earth. Here’s the basic rundown in case you’re new to this show.
Why is the Indianapolis 500 such a big deal?
The Indianapolis 500 is America’s lone leg of the Triple Crown of Motorsport: the three races that are widely considered the biggest feats in the racing world. That puts a race smack-dab in the middle of Indiana in the same breath as the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s been going on since 1911, and this is the Indy 500's 101st running.
It’s certainly the biggest oval race in the world, too. It’s a 500-mile race on a gargantual 2.5-mile oval, thus lasting 200 laps. Teams often field multiple drivers, but the big emphasis is on the drivers themselves—the first across the finish line wins.
No power steering. No power brakes. Crashes are a big ol’ mess. Get the strategy wrong and you might have to pit for gas at the wrong time, losing track position to your opponents. Merely making it to the end is a gargantuan feat of driver, team and car.
It’s the crown jewel of the IndyCar season known for a colorful history, close racing and the occasional delightful surprise, like Alexander Rossi’s unbelievable coast-to-a-win strategy call that gave him the win last year in his rookie season.
Most of all, it’s an undeniably American tradition. The race is expected to draw over 300,000 fans, which would make it the second-largest home crowd after last year’s sold-out 100th running, per USA Today. Fans are passionate and this is their Super Bowl, only it’s a crowd the size of about three Super Bowls. It’s nuts.
What’s the deal with IndyCar?
IndyCar is another open-wheel single-seater series similar to Formula One, although the cars are kept a lot more similar to each other and IndyCar races on ovals in addition to road courses. We made a handy chart last year explaining most of the key differences, but the big takeaway is that there isn’t as huge of a gap between the car in front and everybody else thanks to more items being kept spec. This leads to some delightful chaos during the race.
Everyone shares the same Dallara IR-12 chassis, regardless of team. Honda and Chevrolet are the two engine suppliers for the series, and they’ve also developed their own manufacturer-specific “aero kits” (with different wings and other aerodynamic add-ons) for the cars to tell them apart. Both manufacturers’ engines are V6 turbos, sans the expensive hybrid tech that has made Formula One so hard for teams to afford.
Admittedly, all of this cost-controlled stuff isn’t exciting for engineering geeks, but it means that more teams are competitive in IndyCar, which makes the races a lot more fun to watch.
Sadly, the Indianapolis 500 is the lone race that most people who aren’t die-hard racing fans pay attention to. IndyCar used to be a much bigger deal as the premiere American open-wheel series. However, viewership is down as it is with all forms of motor racing, and Indy in particular never completely healed from an acrimonious split into two series in the 1990s, despite everything merging back under the IndyCar name in 2008.
But fear not—even if your neighbors are off doing something else this afternoon, they’re missing out. IndyCar races are a blast. There’s always a ton of passing, and when they do it at speeds well over 200 mph, you honestly wonder how anyone’s balls fit in those tiny cars.
Best of all, this year, the series finally looked beyond the state borders of Indiana to get internationally beloved two-time Formula One champ Fernando Alonso to the race, attracting more attention than I’ve seen to the race in a long time. Hopefully this cool cross-over action that speaks to racing fans outside Indy’s core base is a sign of good stuff to come, because I’d love to see more people care about IndyCar.
What’s so special about Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
This is the same rounded-off rectangle they’ve been running on since it was paved with bricks—hence Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s nickname of the “Brickyard.”
It’s been such an institution for so long that almost everyone has some story about the Indianapolis 500. Insane things they did at the race weekend. The most incredible races they saw here. If you don’t have any of those, that’s okay.
The entire region around the speedway embraces this track like nothing else, with even the homes next to the speedway opening up their yards for parking, and joining in the big party. While the most cynical among us are quick to say that isn’t exactly a ton else going on in the upper midwest, you have to admit that the amount of local support the Indy 500 gets is incredible, especially in this age of NIMBY neighbors and tracks being forced to adopt oppressive noise limits. You won’t find that here.
What about the traditions?
While I’m all for ignoring or throwing away traditions that suck, most of the Indianapolis 500’s compliment the atmosphere. Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list for the curious, but many of them hark back to cool parts of Indy history. You’ll see historic cars run before the 500 itself, and past winners who’ve come back for the big show all weekend long.
Oh, and the winner doesn’t get champagne—they get milk. It all goes back to a racer whose mother said that buttermilk of all things would be a refreshing post-race drink. Because Indiana is farm country, Indiana’s dairy producers seized on the phenomenon and now ask for drivers’ milk preferences before the race.
Who should I pay attention to?
The big story of the year—and why you may be reading one of these for the first time—is Fernando Alonso, who skipped doing the Monaco Grand Prix in his Formula One car to try winning another leg of the Triple Crown.
It’s exciting. IndyCar’s fanboys aren’t sure what to make of the idea of Alonso coming over and winning on the first try, but he’s widely considered one of the best modern-day racing talents. It’s going to be a blast seeing him run this race in a competitive car, and so far, he’s done well, qualifying in fifth.
Last year’s winner, Alexander Rossi, is back and just kept getting better and better in an IndyCar throughout the regular season. We’re also big fans of last year’s big comeback story: lovable jokester James Hinchcliffe, who overcame a life-threatening injury from the 2015 Indy 500 practice to win pole position in 2016. Hinchcliffe and I are big fans of sneaking funny photos onto credentials, among other pranks. And of course, 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier is back yet again.
One woman is starting today’s Indianapolis 500: Pippa Mann, who became Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s fastest woman ever with a record-setting lap on Fast Friday.
Recent Taco Bell theft victim (true story!) Scott Dixon will be starting on pole, however, as Autoweek notes in their run-down of big talking points, the pole sitter rarely wins the Indianapolis 500. Will Dixon break that trend?
Lastly, there’s the odd sight of IndyCar powerhouse Team Penske’s cars not qualifying well at all. All but Will Power qualified outside the top nine for this year’s Indianapolis 500. Will they find speed for this race? We’ll see shortly, as the pre-race broadcast has already begun.
You can check out the full list of drivers here.
Wait, what channel do I need to be on?
If you’re in the United States and aren’t in the Indianapolis area where there’s a broadcast block-out (sorry!), you can catch the race starting at 11 a.m. ET today on ABC.
Let’s watch some racing, then.
Look, even Mike Pence is watching this one and he and I agree on almost nothing. The Indy 500 is just a universal good, and one of America’s greatest traditions.
Get comfy and settle in for the watch. Maybe even pour a nice glass of milk. (No? More of a beer person? That’s also fine.)