Indianapolis 500 traditions
"The Greatest Spectacle in Racing"
The 1953 Indy 500 marked the first time the race was covered from start to finish, with the only breaks coming for commercials. The stations that subscribed to the broadcast requested some kind of sign so they could prepare to play a commercial, and the out cue that was suggested was "Stay tuned to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing." The phrase was made famous in 1955 when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network's chief announcer Sid Collins used it on the national broadcast.
Although the term "Gasoline Alley" was once used just in reference to the area of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway complex where drivers would get their fuel, it now encompasses the entire garage area. Emblazoned with big signs, Gasoline Alley is also more than just a housing area for cars; it also is a major tourist attraction as fans flock to see a car up close. The current Gasoline Alley isn't the original, however. Half of it burned down in 1941 prior to the race.
It's not an achievement on the same level as winning the actual race, but drivers still go all out to claim bragging rights on "Fast Friday." 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 coined in 2000.
Only 33 cars can qualify for the Indy 500, which means the qualifying sessions are absolutely critical. 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 are "on the bubble" and can be replaced in the final field if another driver posts a fast enough time to eliminate them.
No car with a carburetor has qualified for The 500 since 1963, but "Carb Day" still remains a tradition. Originally started so that teams could tune their carburetors in conditions mirroring the actual race, it continues as an opportunity for teams to practice in "Race Day trim." The practice session is the biggest event held on Carb Day, but it also features a pit stop competition and rock concert.
Last Row Party
The starting field for the Indianapolis 500 is spaced so that there are 11 rows each containing three cars. While the favorites tend to occupy the forward positions, those in the back are generally more obscure. 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 roasted as money is raised for charity.
Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade
Threading through the streets of downtown Indianapolis, the IPL 500 Festival Parade brings together hundreds of thousands of spectators, drivers and celebrities for a spectacle of floats, costumed characters, marching bands and balloons the Saturday prior to the race.
Purdue University All-American Marching Band
One of the largest marching bands in the world, boasting over 300 members, the Purdue University All-American Marching Band has been the host band of the Indianapolis 500 every year since 1927.
Traditionally held during Memorial Day weekend, the Indianapolis 500 never fails to pay tribute to the military. They play Taps and have military aircraft fly over the track in a missing man formation.
"God Bless America"
Actress Florence Henderson has sung "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful" most every year since the mid-1990s. Henderson is an Indiana native and a good friend of the Hulman-George family, who own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Back Home Again in Indiana"
Since 1946, the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" has been a traditional event on the morning of the race. Composed by Ballard MacDonald and James Hanley in 1917, "Indiana" is beloved by natives of the state. The New York Metropolitan Opera Company's James Melton, a collector of classic cars, performed the song with the Purdue Marching Band in 1946, and it was so popular that the singing has continued ever since. Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show, has sung the song 30 times during the pre-race ceremonies since 1972.
Starting of engines
A member of the Hulman family has delivered the call for the engines to start since 1955. Although Wilbur Smith, a three-time winner of The 500 and former track president, initially gave the call, when he died in 1954 Hulman stepped in. When he died in 1977, his wife Mary Fendrich Hulman took over the responsibility, and his daughter Mari Hulman George (pictured) now steps to the mike to say "Gentlemen, start your engines!" (With females competing, the phrase is changed to Ladies and Gentlemen.)
Releasing of balloons
As the final notes of "Back Home Again in Indiana" reverberate through the track just before the drivers fire up their engines, a mass of balloons are released. This tradition has been in place since 1950, although balloons have been let go at the Indy 500 since 1947.
The first pace car in racing history is believed to have been used at the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911. Carl Fisher, who helped to found the track in 1909, was worried that the large number of cars participating would make the start dangerous if all started from a standing position. He suggested driving them one unscored lap around the track to get speeds up before letting the race begin. Since then, the use of pace cars has expanded to many other motor sports. Colin Powell (pictured), Lance Armstrong, Patrick Dempsey and Morgan Freeman are among recent pace car drivers. Each winner is given a pace car -- or a replica of one.
Every winner of the Indianapolis 500 since 1936 has received the Borg-Warner Trophy, and every current and future driver dreams of being handed it following the race. The first trophy had the faces of every victor to that point carved onto it, and every winner since then has had their face added. As the number of winners has increased, so too has the size of the trophy. A new base was added in 1987, and when that was filled an even larger trophy replaced it in 2004. The new trophy has enough room to last until 2034.
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 tar. The first race was a disaster, as cars caught fire, drivers and spectators were injured and people died. Safety concerns 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, starting with the rougher portions of the turns and extending out to encompass more and more of 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, situated at the start-finish line. That small stretch of bricks has remained since, and it has become customary for race victors and their teams to kiss the bricks.
One of the most enduring Indy 500 traditions started as a piece of mother's wisdom and was hyped up as a marketing ploy. Louis Meyer believed his mother when she said that drinking buttermilk would refresh him on a hot day, and so he drank some in Victory Lane in 1936 following his third victory. A dairy industry executive thought the glass bottle contained regular milk and saw a perfect way to tie his product with one of the country's most popular events. Since then, milk has been a part of almost every since victory celebration, including every year since 1956. Helio Castroneves, picking up his second Indy win in 2002, drank two bottles.
Since 1960, a garland of flowers have been presented to the Indianapolis 500 winner. The tradition is believed to have been started in 1960 with Jim Rathmann, and the current design has been apparent since 1962 when Rodger Ward won. Famed floral consultant William J. "Bill" Cronin, whose pieces also graced the parades of the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl, designed the wreaths for many years before dying in 1989. His creation contains 33 ivory-colored Cymbidium orchids with burgundy tips and 33 miniature checkered flags, intertwined with red, white and blue ribbons.
Safety patrol uniform
Although the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once protected by the Indiana National Guard, a private Safety Patrol force has been in charge since 1948. Joseph Quinn, a friend of track owner Tony Hulman, initiated a Board of Safety in 1945, and using input from all of the major law enforcement agencies he developed a unit to police the track. Their initial uniforms were dark blue, with department heads wearing gold helmets and everyone else wearing silver ones. The dark-blue wool shirts were extremely uncomfortable and the helmets heavy, so in 1975 a switch was made to short-sleeved yellow shirts. The helmets subsequently were retired in favor of baseball caps.