Monday 19 August 2013

Kissing the Bricks, Guzzling the Buttermilk

It is the biggest sporting event in the United States.  The crowd numbers 400,000.  The race runs 200 laps. The average speed clocks 187 miles per hour.  The purse totals $2.5 million.  It is the Indianapolis 500.

Racers at the Starting Line

Indianapolis Motor Speedway circa 1909 courtesy

On 328 acres of farmland 5 miles northwest of Indianapolis, Indiana, a 2 1/2 mile track was built.  On August 19, 1909, 12,000 spectators gathered, garbed in their Sunday best, to watch a 5-mile race.  Roadsters lined up to compete, the flag was raised, and off they went in a cloud of dust.  With caps and goggles, the racers dodged each other as they raced down the straightway and negotiated the tight turns.  Averaging a speed of 57.4 miles per hour, tragedy struck when a driver spun out of control on the crushed rock-and-tar track.  When the dust cleared, two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators were dead.  Despite the tragedy, the race was completed with Austrian Louis Schwitzer claiming the prize.

The rock and tar track was immediately replaced with 3.2 million bricks later that year, earning it the nickname, The Brickyard.  Low attendance hampered the 1911 races and therefore the owner decided to hold one big race the following year:  it would consist of 500 miles run counterclockwise along the track. Fifteen thousand paying spectators lined the stands in 1912.  Ray Haroun, averaging 74. 59 miles per hour, and clocking a 6 hour 42 minute race, claimed the $14,250 prize that first year.  For the first time, the press widely covered the sporting event.

The Indianapolis 500 crowds continued to grow each year, with the exception of the First World War, when the event was cancelled.  The Roaring Twenties were ushered in by a race won by Swiss-American auto manufacturer Gaston Chevrolet. Sadly the racer was killed on the Beverly Hills Speedway later that year.

The Dirty Thirties saw more changes at the racetrack.  By 1936, the brickyard's rough spots were covered in asphalt.  The same year, victor Louis Meyer was photographed drinking a bottle of buttermilk and holding up three fingers to indicate his third win.  a local diary owner offered the next year's winner a bottle of milk -- the tradition stuck.  Louis Meyer was the first racer to be awarded the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Louis Meyer circa 1928 courtesy

He was also the first winner of a car, the same model as the official pace car which led the pack at the beginning of each race.  The pace car of 1953 would be a white Ford, now located in The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Fighting Forties saw the sporting event cancelled due to the Second World War.  However, in 1946, with the re-running of the Indy 500, more traditions were introduced including the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" right before the sounding of the gun.  The original singer, James Melton, hailed from the New York Metropolitan Opera.  Jim Nabors has sung the song since 1972 (with a few exceptions).

The following year, hundreds of balloons were released into the Indiana sky immediately following the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana", a tradition which has also stood the test of time.  Military planes joined the balloons to signal the start of the sporting event.


The Fabulous Fifties saw the introduction of "Gentlemen start your engines" announcing the start of the race, replacing "Gentlemen start your motors" from 1948.  The 500 Festival Parade was introduced in 1957.

The first live radio broadcast premiered in 1953.  The first television broadcast too place in 1949, but the event was not regularly telecast until 1965 by ABC.

The Swinging Sixties saw the brickyard completely paved, with the exception of a 36 inch section of bricks located at Victory Lane.  It was winner Dale Jarrett who first "kissed the bricks" in 1966, another tradition which stuck.

Today, spectators at the Indy 500 wear shorts, tank tops and sun visors.  Sunscreen protects their skin and ear plugs help to drown out the drone of the engines over the gruelling 3 hour event.  They drink gallons of beer and munch on Brickyard Burgers and Indy Dogs.  Tony Kanaan, this year's winner, kissed the bricks and drank the trademark bottle of milk.

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