INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA — Indy shuts down for race weekend. If you're not into fast cars, you get out of town. How important is this race to the local economy? The winners raked in something like $10 million, but the city is the big winner. In part because there was also a hometown Pacers game on May 26, Indianapolis took in approximately $64.1 million from the big out-of-town spenders. Race fans have been descending on this Midwestern city since the first running of the “Brickyard” races in 1911.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway sits quietly most of the time, but it comes alive for the Indy 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Red Bull GP. All told, 200,000 visitors spend $145 million.
A few one-day events can’t transform the city. A bus ride from downtown to the Speedway track goes through a string of blighted neighborhoods, with residents holding up “Park Here, $20” signs. As you get closer, the local entrepreneurs give way to elaborate tailgate parties, many run out of giant RVs.
By 1909, entrepreneur Carl Fisher had decided to build a 2.5-mile oval track, and that’s what Indy remains to this day. The surface was paved with 3.2 million bricks later that same year (hence the name), after the crushed-rock-and-tar covering proves disastrous. It takes 200 laps to go 500 miles, and today’s very similar cars (all on Dallara chassis, with Firestone tires and either Chevrolet or Honda power) take about four hours—at speeds often exceeding 200 mph—to cover the distance.
The forthcoming Dreamworks film Turbo (see below) posits an alternative form of "slow no mo" snail power for Indy, but I didn't see Turbo on the Memorial Day Weekend grid. He might have dropped out in qualifying, but it's a Hollywood movie so he has to win, no?
I hadn’t been to the Indy 500 before, though I’ve been a fairly frequent visitor to the city. There were all kinds of dramas at the 97th running of the race, including the lack of a U.S.-born winner—no American has taken Indy since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006. There were high hopes for local-boy Ed Carpenter, who has Steve McQueen movie idol looks and an appealing back story—his Ed Carpenter Racing is a shoestring operation, with Fuzzy’s Vodka as its main sponsor. Carpenter was looking good—he took the pole position with a speed of 228.762 mph. These cars are so similar that not much separates the pole from the 33rd-place car, driven by Katherine Legge of England, who went 223.176 mph).
The women-as-competitors story has been heard before, but this year there were four in the pack and it has become more routine. The best-ever performance was the glamorous Danica Patrick (who announced her divorce on the day of the race). She came in third in 2009, but was absent this year, and 2013 yielded no such spectacular results—the best-placed woman was Ana Beatriz of Brazil in 15th.
There was also high hopes for multiple-race winners such as Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves would win their fourth races to join the ranks of A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser, Jr., but that didn’t happen either. I was rooting for Brazil-born Castroneves, not because he won Dancing with the Stars, but because the genial driver once gave me a memorable lap around Florida’s Homestead Speedway in a Porsche. But he came in sixth.
Famous son-of names such as Graham Rahal (who crashed with seven laps to go) and Marco Andrettti (who finished fourth) didn’t get to go into the history books. At a Firestone Racing dinner the previous evening, Marco’s legendary father, Mario Andretti, entertained the guests with tales of his ’69 win in a car that was badly overheating. “We held together and won the race,” he said. Andretti’s daughter was busy being born while he was racing back then, and his luck held—he called his mother-in-law from a pay phone to give her the good news and got 75 cents back. “Man, I didn’t want that day to end,” he said.
This year’s winner, as everyone now knows, was Brazilian Tony Kanaan, who’s a ringer for Vin Diesel. How come nobody mentions that? (Whoops, they do mention it.) It was a heart-breaker of a race, with the lead changing 68 times, more than ever before. Twenty-one-year old rookie Carlos Munoz nearly won, and might have if not for a caution flag on the 197th lap. After Dario Franchitti’s crash, Kanaan somehow slipped past the great American hope, Dallas-born Ryan Hunter-Reay, to take the lead and hold it. That’s seat-of-the-pants stuff, though from a seat in the bleachers you don’t see all the action. Here’s the view I had:
The well-liked Kanaan (below) came to the Firestone Chalet after his win, got sprayed with champagne (after the milk in the winner’s circle). He seemed genuinely humbled by his win, which was 12 years in the making. Over the years, he led Indy for 221 laps, but never had a victory. Until now. Carpenter, by the way, came in 10th, after leading for 37 laps.
Open-wheel racing has a proud history, much older than the more popular NASCAR. Before the race, I strolled through the Hall of Fame Museum on the speedway’s grounds, and took in a wide range of race winners, including the Marmon “Wasp” that won the first race in 1911 (with Ray Harroun at the wheel). That one’s on a postage stamp. The Millers were highly evocative, as were such two-time winners as the Boyle Maserati, the Blue Crown Spark Plug Special, the Fuel Injection Special and the Belond Special (even the names are great).
The cars that ran the bricks, through the 1950s and even later, were often stripped-down production cars or custom-made specials, with tons of character. The imperatives of reaching higher-and-higher speeds and not giving unfair advantage makes the cars much more uniform today.
But they certainly are fast. The average speed this year was 187.433 mph. In 1913, Caleb Bragg won the poll by achieving 87.34 mph—you could probably equal his time in a Honda Civic these days.
Kanaan, who won $2.3 million and bought a Ferrari with earlier winnings, will be the 100th racer to have his portrait etched into the Borg-Warner Trophy. “Finally, I’m going to put my ugly face on that trophy,” he said. Did I mention he looks just like a much smaller Vin Diesel?