The Indianapolis 500: Brickyard is still ‘holy ground’

May 22, 2012 3:00 AM

Today the Daytona 500 is considered “The Great American Race,” but the motorsport’s traditionalists will never concede that any event tops the Indianapolis 500.

The Brickyard was “holy ground,” and when the NASCAR boys had the nerve to hold a race in “enemy territory” the Indy 500 began to lose a bit of its luster. Still, it is a spectacle for the incredible speeds and crashes that occur.

My first memories of Indy were in the early 1960’s when top Formula I drivers on the Grand Prix circuit like Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart came to the states to challenge the best American-based drivers of that era – A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unser brothers.

Later, women like Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Danica Patrick dared to test the men at the Brickyard and a nasty feud between CART and Indy League drivers diluted the talent at the 500 for over two decades in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Top drivers like Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart would race both the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca Coca 600 the same day, flying from Indianapolis, Ind., to Charlotte, N.C.

Today, the race doesn’t quite enjoy the huge publicity it once had as America’s premier motorsport event, but it is still raced over Memorial Day weekend. And, Jim Nabors’ version of “Back Home Again in Indiana” still brings chills leading up to the call of “start your engines.” (Due to to heart surgery, Nabors will not be at the track this year, but his voice will still be heard via pre-taped video.)

All that said, the allure of the race remains the cars. While, NASCAR had Chevys, Fords and Dodges we all could purchase, Indy and the Formula I had all those sleek Ferrari’s, Lotuses and McLaren’s – futuristic, one-seat, open-wheel cars built low to the ground with oversized tires racing at speeds of well over 200 mph.

So fast were these cars that too often Indy and other related races on the circuit dealt with death. The most recent occurred at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when two-time Indy champion Dan Wheldon perished last October. Wheldon was the defending Indy champion.

Sadly, 14 drivers have died at Indy including two in 1919. Among the more well-known warriors to have perished were Bill Vukovich (1955), Eddie Sachs (1964), Swede Savage (1973) and Scott Brayton (1996). The last driver fatality was Tony Renna in 2003.

There was no sports betting in Nevada in the heyday of Indy, but this year’s race had five drivers open co-favorites at 5-1. Helio Castroneves, one of the quintet, is the top Indy winner among active drivers with three. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears share the all-time record with 4.

While the books have odds on NASCAR races each week, Indy basically stands alone in betting on its circuit. The first Indy 500 was raced in 1911 and won by American Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp averaging 74.6 miles per hour.

The record average speed was 186 mph in 1990 when Arie Luyendyk won for Lola/Chevy. Wheldon’s winning speed in 2011 was 170.26.

Gaston Chevrolet in 1920 was the last foreign driver to win at Indy until England’s Clark broke through in 1965. Hill, another Englishman, followed in 1966 and then came a gap of 23 years until Brazil’s Emerson Fittipaldi did it in 1989.

Now international drivers dominate Indy. Americans have only won the 500 twice since 1999 – Buddy Rice in 2004 and Sam Hornisch Jr. in 2006. Again this year, none of the pre-race favorites are Americans.

While other racing venues would celebrate in Victory Lane with champagne, beer or soft drinks, Indy was famous for milk. Ask the novice race fan today about Indy and most probably wouldn’t know the drivers. But, they will watch just to see the crashes and the spectacle.

The drinking of milk started in 1936 when Louis Meyer won. The champ today gets a wreath and a “kiss the bricks” chance along the start/finish line. The first “kisser” was Gil de Ferran in 2003.

The Borg-Warner Trophy has been awarded the victor since 1936. The champ also receives the pace car from the race. Wheldon won $2.56 million last year.