Indianapolis — The Indianapolis 500 has outlasted two world wars, the decline of the automobile industry, a bitter split in open-wheel racing and more death than anyone cares to recall.
The Greatest Spectacle in Racing might as well be called the Greatest Survivor in Sports.
Through it all, though, this iconic event in America’s heartland has endured. And after another round of pageantry, another rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” it will run Sunday for the 100th time.
“I know football fans and everyone says the Super Bowl is the biggest thing around, but by the same token, we’re 100 years this year,” three-time champion Bobby Unser said. “One hundred! And it’s still at the top of the heap. That tells you all you need to know about its place in America.”
Those closest to it have fond memories.
As a kid, NASCAR star Tony Stewart would rush home from school every day in May to watch the field turn laps on TV. Fellow NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon stood in line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Rick Mears’ autograph. Sam Hornish Jr. made the trek from Ohio each year with his family to sit in the grandstands and watch the spectacle unfold.
“My parents were working really hard at that time trying to establish a business,” Hornish said. “I always knew where my parents were at night, but there were not a whole lot of days spent with them. So it was really exciting to be able to go and spend a day at the racetrack with them, getting up early in the morning and driving to Indy, getting a bucket of fried chicken and eating it cold in the grandstands.”
His own Indy 500 victory a decade ago is a blur, but Hornish’s early days as a fan are crystal clear.
They were as American as apple pie.
Indianapolis is where A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser became household names. The trio represents the only four-time winners, and Unser, his brother Bobby and son Al Jr. are the only multi-generational winners.
Mario Andretti, despite his gripping duels with Foyt, won only once. His heartbreak in the race has been passed down to his son, Michael, and grandson, Marco. Between five Andrettis, they have just that 1969 win, though Marco will look once more to break the family curse Sunday. So big is this centennial event, IMS officials have announced it is sold out for the first time in 100 years and the race will be shown live on TV in central Indiana for just the third time. The last time it was aired live was in the 1950s.
“This race is a jewel. It’s arguably the best known motorsport race in the world,” Mario Andretti said. “When I won this in ’69, I got fan mail from Tibet and Egypt. To be a part in something like this instills a lot of pride in you. And then to have your family involved is just an incredible feeling.”
Indianapolis is where Formula One world champion Emerson Fittipaldi landed, winning twice. Nigel Mansell left F1 as the reigning world champion and came to Indy, only to fall short in two starts. Jacques Villeneuve used his 1995 victory to launch his F1 career and was world champ within two years. Juan Pablo Montoya parlayed his 2000 victory into an F1 job, then won Indy again last year following a NASCAR stint.
The race lures the biggest names and the biggest crowd and can make or break a career.
JR Hildebrand was one turn away from winning as a rookie in 2011 when he spun into the wall. He’s raced just one full season since, these days called upon mostly to run the Indy 500 every May.
“It’s the biggest race in the world,” Villeneuve said. “There’s half a million people that go there in the grandstands, that watch it. What has made Indy is the level of risk that the drivers are willing to take to go for the win. They are real gladiators and I think that’s what the fans have respected.”
Former winner Buddy Rice likens the speedway to Wrigley Field — you drive through an unremarkable neighborhood and suddenly stumble upon a sporting cathedral. The track was in disrepair after it was abandoned during World War II, but Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman bought the property and pumped life back into it.
His family continues to own the speedway to this day.
Rice said the speedway shows its age, but the cracks and groans are part of the nostalgia, a signal that “you’re going somewhere there’s a lot of history.” Rice believes the track has a special sound, too, recalling echoes off the seats surrounding the 2.5-mile oval that has no floodlights and has never hosted a 500 at night.
“It kind of talks to you when you get there,” he said. “And as it gets closer and closer to race day, it just gets bigger. You keep ramping up. It’s like the buildup to a big fight.”
The track has won its share of battles, with more than 60 deaths over the years tied to racing.
Buddy Lazier listened to the Indy 500 on the radio as a child, using it as a barometer for the official start of summer. His father was an amateur racer and that helped him appreciate the importance of the speedway, the event and its role in the nation’s history.
“I don’t know of anything more America,” the 1996 winner said, “and it’s so relevant to what we as people do every day. No matter where you live, you get in your car, you start it up and drive away, and while you’re doing it, practically everything was filtered through an Indy car. If it worked there, it was worth having. The telemetry, the computer programs, they’re all relevant to America’s youth. The younger generation with computer savviness, they’re very technologically aware. No matter how you chalk it up, it’s got Indianapolis 500 relevance written all over it.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay’s earliest memories of the Indy 500 are as a child, playing with his Hot Wheels in front of the TV. “I don’t know if I was in my diapers or underwear or what,” he said. “But I remember making my own track, watching my heroes.”
Despite winning two years ago, Hunter-Reay still considers it an honor just to be in the 33-car field. He recognizes the special place the Indy 500 is to so many people, and that heroes are made that Sunday every year.
“The history there, the tradition, this is something that is Americana,” he said. “Just to have a shot at it, to be a part of it, is a tremendous honor.”
It’s the main reason the Indy 500 has withstood the test of time, now at 100 years and counting.