Indianapolis 500 traditions
Due to the longevity of the Indianapolis 500, numerous traditions surrounding the race have developed over the years. Traditions include procedures for the running of the race, scheduling, and pre-race and post-race festivities. For many fans, these traditions are an important aspect of the race, and they have often reacted quite negatively when the traditions are changed or broken.
As part of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the pre-race ceremonies of the Indianapolis 500 feature several patriotic songs. The most noteworthy and most popular traditions are the annual singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana," and the victory lane bottle of milk.
- 1 Month of May
- 2 Track lore
- 3 Pre race ceremonies
- 4 Race
- 5 Post-race
- 6 Related events
- 7 References
Month of May
The race has always been scheduled in conjunction with Memorial Day. Through 1970, the race was held on Memorial Day proper (May 30), regardless of the day of the week, unless it fell on Sunday. In those cases it was scheduled for Monday May 31. After the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect in 1971, the race was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend instead.
- From 1971-1972, the race was scheduled for the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.
- In 1973, the race was scheduled for Memorial Day Monday. However, rain delayed it until Wednesday.
- Since 1974, the race has been scheduled for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
- The 1986 race was held the weekend after the official federal holiday because of two rainouts. The race was held the following Saturday, May 31, the pre-1971 date of the race if May 30 was a Sunday.
- The 1997 race was similar to 1973 in having two rain delays, nearly as unique as the 1986 event. It was scheduled for Sunday, May 25, but heavy and persistent rain showers left no windows to get the race underway. The race began the next day, on Memorial Day, but rain showers moved back in. The race was stopped on the 15th lap and could not be resumed. Short of the 101 laps needed for an official race, track officials decided to run the rest of the race on Tuesday, and it was finally run to completion under sunny skies with Dutchman Arie Luyendyk claiming his second race win.
Armed Forces Day also falls during the month of May, and usually coincides with one of the weekends of time trials. Since 1978 at the Speedway, that weekend is often filled with activities honoring the U.S. military, including an oath of enlistment ceremony.
Practice and Qualifying
- The two to three weeks of practice and qualifying prior to the race is known in racing circles simply as "the month of May." In early years, the track opened for practice on May 1 (regardless of the day of the week), and at times, as early as April 28. In 1974, due to the energy crisis, the schedule was reduced, and the track opened instead the Saturday three weeks before race day. The change was well-received, and the new schedule was made permanent, with minor tweaks over the years. Since Indy Racing League, LLC took over sanction of the race in 1996, twice (2010, 2011) another IndyCar Series race has been held on or after May 1 (this does not include 1999, when the League abandoned a race held in May because of spectator fatalities). In 2014, the Month of May will start on the Thursday of the first full week of May as part of IMS being a "doubleheader" race, with the first race on the automobile competition road course and the second race two weeks later on the oval.
- The final hour of practice and qualifying each day is referred to as "Happy Hour." Due to the large double-decker grandstands on the frontstretch, large shadows are cast over a good portion of the track, cooling the asphalt surface. A lower ambient air temperature, along with a lower track surface temperature usually translates into faster speeds. Since Indiana went to Daylight Saving Time in 2006, this phenomenon has been somewhat diminished. However, in 2013, this situation was in place as Q2 began at 6:30 PM (5:30 PM in pre-2006 time).
- The final practice session before pole day qualifying is nicknamed "Fast Friday." The fastest speeds of the month are commonly observed on Fast Friday, as teams and drivers make their final preparations and look for final "bragging rights" before the run for the pole position. Drivers who have been "sandbagging" during the week may chose to reveal their speed, in an effort to distance themselves from the competition. Sometimes the speeds turned in on Fast Friday are overachieved by the respective drivers' due to a tow. Though "Fast Friday" has been a fixture since the 1950s-1960s, the nickname was not coined until about 1996. Track records set on Fast Friday (as well as other practice sessions) are considered unofficial. The sanctioning body only recognizes speeds set during the officially competitive sessions of qualifying and the race.
- The first day of time trials is referred to as "Pole Day." The fastest qualifier on pole day wins the highly coveted pole position. Over the years, the "race for the pole" was often regarded as a race in itself, a speed contest, and was advertised as the second-largest single day sporting event (second only to race day itself). Though crowds have diminished for pole day as of late, and rules changes have curtailed speeds, the nickname "The Fastest Day in Motorsports" is still used.
- The final day of qualifying, when the final starting field is set is known as "Bump Day" (or "Bubble Day"). Drivers who are removed from the starting grid of 33 by being out-qualified by faster cars are said to have been "bumped." The driver with the slowest speed in the field of 33, the first in line to be bumped, is said to be "on the bubble." Unqualified drivers attempt to bump their way into the field and "burst the slower driver's bubble."
- The final practice session before the race, currently held on the Friday before race day, is called "Carburetion Day" (shortened to "Carb Day" since 2000). The name originally came from the fact that it was the final session where teams could tune their carburetors in conditions similar to those that may be encountered on race day. The name has remained despite the fact that no qualified car has used a carburetor since 1963. A pit stop competition, a concert, and the Firestone Indy Lights Series Freedom 100 are also currently held on Carb Day.
The longtime flagship of the IMS Radio Network is 1070 The Fan (formerly 1070 WIBC). The network dates back to 1952, and was initially launched using WIBC talent. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, the station has featured extensive daily coverage of practice, qualifications, as well as pre-race and post-race coverage on race day.
Since 1998, a concert featuring a top act(s) have been held the weekend of the race. Numerous other local band, indie bands, garage bands, and smaller musical acts perform at other times during the month on days featuring track activity. From 1998-2014 a headlining concert has been held on Carb Day. Starting in 2014, a second headlining concert will be held on Legends Day. The performers have been as follows:
- 1998: Hamilton Brothers
- 1999: Lorrie Morgan and Sammy Kershaw
- 2000: Smash Mouth
- 2001: Collective Soul
- 2002: Better Than Ezra (Nine Days opened)
- 2003: Cracker (Kenny Bräck and the Subwoofers opened)
- 2004: Live (Kenny Bräck and the Subwoofers opened)
- 2005: The Black Crowes (22-20s opened)
- 2006: The B-52's & Third Eye Blind
- 2007: Kid Rock
- 2008: Stone Temple Pilots
- 2009: 3 Doors Down
- 2010: ZZ Top
- 2011: Staind & Papa Roach
- 2012: Lynyrd Skynyrd
- 2013: Poison
- 2014: Jason Aldean (Legends Day); Sammy Hagar and The Wabos & Sublime with Rome (Carb Day)
Last Row Party
On the Friday before the race, the "Last Row Party" has been held for charity from 1972-2012. It is organized by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation. It serves as a roast for the final three qualifiers in the 500, who will be starting on the eleventh and final row. Due to the complex qualifying procedure for the race, these three drivers are usually, but not always, the slowest three cars in the field. Like Mr. Irrelevant, many of these drivers are often obscure, but nine former or eventual race winners have participated in the honor at some time in their career. The three drivers are presented with a special jacket, and checks for 31¢, 32¢, and 33¢, respectively. The emcee for the event is usually a media figure, and past hosts include Bob Jenkins, Robin Miller, Jack Arute, and Laura Steele. The 2013 event was not held, but plans are to resume it in the future.
Recent honorees include:
- 2010: Tony Kanaan, Sebastián Saavedra, Takuma Sato
- 2011: Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz, Ryan Hunter-Reay
- 2012: Bryan Clauson, Simona de Silvestro, Jean Alesi
- 2013: Not held; the last row for 2013 was Conor Daly, Buddy Lazier, and Katherine Legge
Public Drivers Meeting / Legends Day
The day before the race, a ceremonial drivers meeting is held at the track, which is open to the public, and is popularly attended. This tradition dates back many decades. During the meeting, the 33 starting drivers are presented with their starter's ring and various awards and trophies are handed out (such as trophies from the previous year's race, qualifying awards, lifetime achievement awards, etc.) All 33 drivers are normally present (barring unforeseen scheduling conflicts - such as participating in another race; another team member representing that driver will participate in awards) often seated in their ceremonial eleven rows of three, and numerous other celebrities and special guests may be honored or give remarks. Rules clarifications, instructions for the race, and other pertinent information is also discussed in the open forum.
This drivers meeting is separate from the official drivers meeting, organized by race stewards. That meeting, held the morning of the race, is strictly closed to the public and the media.
Starting in 1998, the days leading up to the race have included ceremonies and activities honoring former drivers. In some years, each day during the week would have a featured Indy legend, and might feature the driver taking ceremonial laps around the track in one of his winning race cars, or in a pace car. Other years utilized Opening Day as an opportunity to honor Indy legends. In addition, the day before the race was expanded to include an autograph session featuring the 33 starting drivers, former drivers, Q&A sessions, car displays, a "fanfest" midway, a memorabilia show, and other festivities. Starting 2011, the events of the day before the race have been officially themed "Legends Day," and features a designated honoree.
Legends Day Honorees
- 1998: "Parade of Champions" (Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Tom Sneva)
- 1999: "Legends of the Speedway" (Rodger Ward, A. J. Watson, Johnny Rutherford, Jim Rathmann, Lloyd Ruby)
- 2000: "Legends of the Speedway" (Joe Leonard, Duke Nalon, Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Andy Granatelli)
- 2001: "Salute to cars" (Indy 500 winning cars from 1911, 1922, 1931, 1951, 1961, and the 1968 Wedge Turbine)
- 2003: "Back-to-Back Winners" (Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich, Al Unser, Helio Castroneves)
- 2006: "Andretti Opening Day" (Mario, Michael, and Marco celebrating three generations of the Andretti family at Indy)
- 2007: "A. J. Foyt Opening Day" (Celebrating 50th year of A. J. Foyt participating at Indianapolis).
- 2008: "Unser Opening Day" (Al Sr., Al Jr., Robby, Johnny, and Al III, celebrating the Unser family at Indy)
- 2011: "Legends Day" with A. J. Foyt
- 2012: "Legends Day" with Roger Penske
- 2013: "Legends Day" with Parnelli Jones
- 2014: "Legends Day" with Mario Andretti
The 500 Festival is a non-profit organization founded in 1957 to organize various civic events in the city of Indianapolis leading up to the race. The two largest events are the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in early May, and the 500 Festival Parade the day before the race. Other events include "Community Day" at the track and the annual Snake Pit Ball, a black tie socialite gathering downtown.
In many years, the parade grand marshal has been a celebrity with ties to Indiana or the Indianapolis area, particularly Indianapolis-area sports figures. In many cases, the grand marshal of the parade is also honored during pre-race festivities on race morning. The grand marshals for the annual parade have been as follows:
- 1957 Lt. Gen. G. W. Arnold
- 1958 Shirley MacLaine
- 1960 Gen. David M. Shoup
- 1961 Lt. Gen. Joe W. Kelly
- 1962 Gen. Herbert B. Powell
- 1963 Lt. Gen. Charles G. Dodge
- 1965 James Stewart
- 1966 Walter Cronkite
- 1967 Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon
- 1968 Ambassadors from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador
- 1969 Manuel Fraga Iribarne
- 1970 Edie Adams
- 1971 George W. Romney, John Arthur Love, Carl Stokes
- 1972 Phil Harris
- 1973 James H. Kasler
- 1974 Mickey Mouse
- 1975 Peter DePaolo
- 1976 Tony Hulman & Bob Hope
- 1977 William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
- 1978 Roy Clark
- 1979 Gerald Ford
- 1980 Mike Douglas
- 1981 Joyce DeWitt (grew up in Speedway, Indiana, graduated from Speedway Senior High School)
- 1982 Merlin Olsen
- 1983 Joseph P. Allen (Crawfordsville, Indiana native)
- 1984 David Hasselhoff
- 1985 Mickey Mouse
- 1986 Jerry L. Ross
- 1987 Mario Vázquez Raña
- 1988 Jim Davis & Garfield (Davis is a native and lifelong resident of Indiana)
- 1989 Gene Autry
- 1990 Dan Quayle (sitting Vice President of the United States, an Indiana native)
- 1991 A. J. Foyt & Mary Fendrich Hulman (Foyt was planning to retire after the 1991 race, but recanted); General Norman Schwarzkopf was designated the grand marshal of the race itself.
- 1992 Mickey & Minnie
- 1993 Larry Bird (Indiana native)
- 1994 Mario Andretti & Bonnie Blair (Andretti was retiring at season's end, and 1994 would be his final Indy 500)
- 1995 A. J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Sr. (the three four-time Indy 500 winners)
- 1996 Jim Davis & Garfield
- 1997 Cam Cameron, Bob Davie, Joe Tiller (at the time the head coaches of the state's three Division I-A college football programs)
- 1998 David Wolf (Indianapolis native)
- 1999 Medal of Honor Recipients
- 2000 Jim Nabors
- 2001 Five Public Safety Agencies of Indianapolis
- 2002 Jim Caviezel
- 2003 Wynonna Judd
- 2004 Jane Pauley (Indianapolis native)
- 2005 Reggie Miller (retired after an 18-year NBA career, spent entirely with the Indiana Pacers, days earlier)
- 2006 Lance Armstrong (this was before the 2012 doping scandal)
- 2007 Peyton Manning (won Super Bowl XLI MVP with Indianapolis Colts)
- 2008 Patricia Heaton
- 2009 Dick Vitale
- 2010 Butler University Men's Basketball Team
- 2011 Anderson Cooper
- 2012 Olivia Newton-John
- 2013 Indiana Fever (defending WNBA champions)
The atmosphere at the track during the month of May and on race day has long been a source of traditions.
The Snake Pit
The infield of the track in the vicinity of turn one was known as the "Snake Pit." Long known for a reputation of rowdiness, heavy alcohol consumption, bikers, streaking, flashing, and an overall Woodstock/Mardi Gras-esque atmosphere, the Snake Pit was a popular location for college-age fans to spend time at the track, many of whom had little or no interest in the actual racing activities. Like the infield at the Kentucky Derby, the Snake Pit was often considered a rite of spring, and an excuse to party with abandon. Arrests for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, fights, and drug possession were frequent and common.
In periods of rain, the area usually became overwhelmed with mud, and mud wrestling was commonly observed. Bonfires and burned cars were also noted.
In 1981, track management erected bleachers in the turn one infield in an effort to curtail the revelry. In addition, improvements that included the new Gasoline Alley, a place for competitors to park motor homes row, along with additional support buildings, eventually scaled back the size of the area. As a result, for the better part of the 1980s, the patrons migrated to the infield of turn four, and the less-intense Snake Pit II emerged. By the 1990s, the intensity of the rowdiness had dropped drastically, due largely in part by third-generation management at the Speedway (Tony George) and beefed up law enforcement. The Snake Pit eventually became more of a festive party zone, and by the end of the 20th century, almost disappeared completely.
The turn four infield was razed in 1999 to make room for the infield road course. The race day party scene migrated once again, this time to its current location, the turn three infield. Later, the original turn one location was also razed to make room for the motorcycle infield road course. The series of turns is sometimes referred to as the "Snake Pit" section. In 2010, the turn three infield was officially named the New Snake Pit, and began to be embraced and officially marketed by management. On race day, a concert stage is erected, and popular music acts and DJ's perform to entertain the infield crowd in a controlled and festive environment.
Similar to the aforementioned "Snake Pit," the Coke Lot which is located outside the track, is the most noteworthy and popular camping location on the grounds of the Speedway. Officially designated Lot 1C, it has been nicknamed the "Coke Lot" for decades due to the presence of a Coca-Cola bottling plant located adjacent to property.
The lot is an open field located just to the northwest of the track, outside of turn 4 of the oval, off of Georgetown Road. Long known for intense revelry and all-night partying (particularly on the night before the race), the Coke Lot is a festive area and party scene for RVs and campers, as well as tent campers. The lot typically opens a few days before the race and allows fans to stay through the entire race weekend.
While the Coke Lot is the most notorious camping area, several other camping lots are also situated around the vicinity of the Speedway, some focusing on family-friendly environments, while others are considered premium lot for high-end RV'ers.
In years past, another camping area called the "North 40" (named due to its size of approximately 40 acres) was another scene of intense overnight revelry. Located directly north of the track off of 30th Street, it was curtailed and is seldom used for camping any longer. Currently it is typically only utilized for daytime car parking.
Beer (largely domestic) is consumed in considerable amounts at the track. Unlike most sports stadiums and arenas, at Indianapolis (and most speedways), spectators are allowed to bring their own alcoholic beverages into the track for consumption. Beer is also sold at concessions. Glass bottles, however, are strictly prohibited at the track. Broken glass is considered an extreme hazard to the race cars (cut tires) on the track.
Peanuts are considered bad luck. An ambiguous, long-standing superstition against eating peanuts at the race track has dominated Indianapolis dating back to at least the 1940s. Legend says, though unconfirmed, that a crashed car was found with peanut shells in the cockpit. As of 2009, however, peanuts are sold at trackside concessions, and the myth has lost a lot of its following.
From the mid-1960s until her death in 1975, Mary Catherine "Mom" Unser (mother of Jerry, Bobby, and Al) was a well-known fixture at the race, famous for her spicy chili. Each year, she would treat the participants to a cook-out in the garage area.
Curse of the Smiths
Among the over 730 drivers who have participated in the Indy 500, none have had the last name Smith, the most common surname in the United States. Several Smiths have attempted to make the race, the last being Mark Smith who failed to qualify in 1993 and 1994. By contrast there have been seven different drivers with the last name Jones, and four with the last name Johnson.
Only two drivers with the surname Smith have ever competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, albeit in different events. Regan Smith has driven in the Brickyard 400 since 2008, and made a 2013 start in the Indiana 250. Motorcyclist Bradley Smith has competed in the Red Bull Indianapolis GP 125 cc division. Neither driver has won the events. Regan has though come in 3rd in the 2011 400.
A German language translation of Smith has participated, with Sam Schmidt making three starts.
Pre race ceremonies
- At 6 a.m., and in some years as early as 5 a.m., an explosive is set off to signal the opening of the gates.
- At 8 a.m., the "Spectacle of Bands" marches around the racing circuit. Numerous marching bands from nearby and neighboring high schools and universities entertain the early arriving fans. Most of the bands in attendance also participate in the 500 Festival Parade downtown the day before. Traditional participants include the Purdue All-American Marching Band (along with the World's Largest Drum which is driven around the track) and Speedway High School.
- The Purdue University All-American Marching Band plays several pre-race songs, including "On the Banks of the Wabash" and "Stars and Stripes Forever."
The Star-Spangled Banner has been performed before the start of the Indy 500 in most years. Up through the 1970s and early 1980s, the song was typically played by the Purdue All-American Marching Band without a vocalist. However, in some rare occasions, a vocalist was used. In 1976, Tom Sullivan and Up with People were invited to sing, as a gesture to the U.S. Bicentennial.
By the mid-1980s, the Speedway began inviting notable artists to perform the national anthem. In nearly all cases, they would be backed by the Purdue Band. In 1983, James A. Hubert flubbed the lyrics. He omitted the line "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?" and instead repeated the second line "What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming", stumbling on the word "twilight" the second time around.
In most years since 1991, the song "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America" has also been performed by Florence Henderson. Henderson, a native Hoosier, is a friend of the Hulman-George family. Her performance, often not televised, immediately precedes the national anthem. The performance was introduced for the race's 75th anniversary running in 1991, in part due to Operation Desert Storm. Henderson switched to the national anthem for 1993–1997, then returned to the special pre-performance in 1999. In 2003, the song switched to "God Bless America," which became more popular in the post-9/11 era.
- 1991 - "America the Beautiful" by Florence Henderson
- 1992 - "America the Beautiful" by Florence Henderson
- 1993-1998 - none
- 1999 - "America the Beautiful" by Florence Henderson and "God Bless the USA" by Lee Greenwood
- 2000 - "America the Beautiful" by Florence Henderson
- 2001 - "America the Beautiful" by Florence Henderson
- 2002 - "America the Beautiful" by Florence Henderson
- 2003 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson and "Have You Forgotten?" by Darryl Worley
- 2004 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson
- 2005 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson
- 2006 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson
- 2007 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson
- 2008 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson
- 2009 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson and "America the Beautiful" by Miss America 2009 Katie Stam
- 2010 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson and "America the Beautiful" by Major Lisa Kopczynski (Indiana National Guard)
- 2011 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson and "America the Beautiful" by Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan
- 2012 - "God Bless America" by Florence Henderson and "America the Beautiful" by Specialist Ron Walker
- 2013 - "God Bless America" by Jon McLaughlin and "America the Beautiful" by Lindsey Kraner 
Starting in 1974, the Indy 500 was moved to the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. As a gesture, the Speedway added an invocation to the pre-race ceremonies. In most years, the Speedway has invited the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. In selected years, others have been invited including nationally famous clergymen Oral Roberts and Billy Graham.
Archbishop Edward T. O'Meara participated several times until his death in early 1992. Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein took over as the traditional clergy in 1993. Buechlein customarily ended his invocation with the word "Godspeed" in the languages of all of the participating drivers. In 2011, Buechlein fell ill, and resigned from the archdiocese. In 2011-2012, Auxiliary bishop Christopher J. Coyne took his place. Archbishop Joe Tobin is expected to deliver the invocation most years beginning in 2013.
In remembrance of Memorial Day, "Taps" is played, and a U.S. military aircraft does a fly-by. In some years, multiple aircraft participate, executing the missing man formation. Traditionally, a member of the public address announcing team recited a preamble honoring those who have died in combat, and those who have perished in automobile racing. Jim Philippe recited the preamble until he died in 2003. Dave Calabro said it in 2006, and Jerry Baker reprised it in 2012. Since 2000, a notable military or government official has also offered a tribute or remarks.
The traditional preamble goes as follows:
"On this Memorial Day weekend, we pause in a moment of silence, to pay homage to those individuals who have given their lives--unselfishly, and unafraid--so that we may witness as free men and women, the world's greatest sporting event. We also pay homage to those individuals, who have given their lives--unselfishly, and without fear--to make racing, the world's most spectacular spectator sport."
In the 1960s and 1970s, "Taps" was typically rendered by a combined U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard. Then from the 1980s through 2005, it was usually played by the Purdue Band.
Rendering of "Taps"
- 1980: Purdue Brass Quartet
- 1983-1984: Purdue Band
- 1985: Combined U.S. Armed Forces color guard
- 1986: Ron Blomberg & Robert A. Nixon (74th Army Band of Fort Benjamin Harrison)
- 1987-1996 - Purdue Band
- 1997 - Larry Wiseman
- 1998-2005 - Purdue Band
- 2006-2008 - Sgt. Byron Bartosh (Indiana National Guard)
- 2009-2010 - Sgt. Joseph Young (Indiana National Guard)
- 2011-2013 - Sgt. Ron Duncan (38th Infantry Division Band)
- 2000 - U. S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen
- 2001 - General James L. Jones
- 2003 - General Jack Keane
- 2004 - General William J. Begert
- 2005 - General Colin Powell (former United States Secretary of State)
- 2006 - General Colin Powell (former United States Secretary of State)
- 2007 - General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr.
- 2008 - General Victor E. Renuart Jr.
- 2009 - General Craig R. McKinley followed by a 3-volley salute
- 2010 - Rear admiral John W. Miller followed by a 3-volley salute
- 2011 - General Peter W. Chiarelli followed by a 3-volley salute
- 2012 - Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr. followed by a 3-volley salute
- 2013 - Colonel Jack H. Jacobs followed by a 3-volley salute
- 1991 - Four A-10s
- 1992 - The "Black Aces"
- 1994 - Four P-51 Mustangs, led by Chuck Yeager
- 1995 - B-17 Flying Fortress, led by Chuck Yeager
- 1996 - Four F-18 Hornets (Marine Aircraft Group 31)
- 1997 - Stealth Bomber
- 1999 - Stealth Bomber & four F-14 Tomcats
- 2000 - Two AV-8B Harrier IIs
- 2001 - Four F-16s, "The Racers" (181st Fighter Wing, Indiana Air National Guard)
- 2002 - Stealth Bomber "Spirit of Washington" (509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base)
- 2003 - Stealth Bomber "Spirit of Indiana" (509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base)
- 2004 - Four F-16s, "The Black Snakes" (122d Fighter Wing, Air National Guard)
- 2005 - Stealth Bomber
- 2006 - Historic Aircraft & four F-16s
- 2007 - Four F-22 Raptors (Langley AFB)
- 2008 - Two F-16 Vipers & two F/A-18 Hornets (Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center)
- 2009 - Two WWII B-25 Mitchell bombers
- 2010 - Four F/A-18 Hornets (Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center)
- 2012 - A-10 Thunderbolt "Warthog", F-16 Fighting Falcon, two P-51 Mustangs.
- 2013 - One WWII North American B-25 Mitchell "Axis Nightmare" (Tri-State Warbird Museum) and five North American T-6 Texan trainer aircraft
"Back Home Again in Indiana"
The most traditional performance is the singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" by Jim Nabors, accompanied by the Purdue Marching Band. Nabors has performed the song in most years since 1972. During the line "...the new mown hay..." thousands of multicolored balloons are released from an infield tent. This tradition has accompanied the race since 1946. The song has long been the last event in the order of the day, immediately proceeding the command to start engines.
The song, which was first published in 1917, is reported to have been first played at the race in 1919. A trackside brass band played the song as Indiana-born Howdy Wilcox was finishing the final laps to victory.
In 1997, the race was rained out on Sunday, and the start was rescheduled for Monday. Nabors (as well as the Purdue band), had left the grounds by Monday morning. Rather than find a last-minute replacement, Nabors suggested that the Speedway utilize a recording of one of his previous performances. The Speedway replayed his 1993 rendition, and it was well received by the fans. Two days before the 2007 race, Nabors canceled his appearance due to an illness. On race morning, Nabors recorded a special video greeting to the fans from his Hawaii home, which was streamed over the internet. Fans were invited to sing along with the Purdue band, and a "get well soon" message was displayed for Nabors. In 2008, Nabors made a well-received return, and received a standing ovation at the public driver meeting.
Nabors again missed the race in 2012 due to an illness. This time, the Speedway sent a television crew to his home in Maui, and recorded a performance that was played on the video boards on race morning. In March 2014, Nabors announced that the 2014 race would be his final performance.
The call for the engines to start is made by stating "Gentlemen, start your engines!" When female drivers are competing, the call has been amended to "Lady and Gentlemen..." or "Ladies and Gentlemen..."
The exact origin of the phrase is unclear, and there have been several conflicting accounts of who was the first to recite it, and what the exact wording of it was. Prior to WWII, it was commonplace for an aerial bomb to signal the start of the engines. Seth Kline was the official starter of the "500" from 1925-1926 & 1934-1953. Kline is thought to have made an informal "Gentlemen, start your motors!" command as early as 1948 to accompany the bomb. The first documented case was in 1950, and that was recited by prolific public address announcer John Francis "Irish" Horan. Kline was again reported as saying it in 1951, (though some report it was Horan) Either Kline or Horan said it again in 1952. It was around that time the command was changed from "...motors!" to "...engines!" The participants and officials alike, preferred the more technical term "engines" to describe their machines. Sid Collins stated that chief steward Harlan Fengler explained to him "there are no motors in the race, just engines."
Wilbur Shaw, president of the Speedway from 1946–1954, was once believed to be the person who coined the phrase, and it was erroneously claimed in his autobiography that he recited it in all the post-WWII years until his death. Speedway historian Donald Davidson, however, believes Shaw only recited it twice, in 1953 and 1954.
After Shaw's death, Tony Hulman started reciting the command, and made it popular and famous. The normally soft-spoken and shy Hulman had a proud and vociferous version of the command annually. After Hulman's death in 1977, his widow Mary F. Hulman or his daughter, Mari Hulman George has done the honor.
In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first female driver to qualify for the Indy 500. Controversy surrounded the command, because the Speedway management did not want to alter the traditional phrase. During the week before the race, the management announced that they would not change the wording of the command. Looking for an excuse, they insisted that the cars were actually started by male crew members with an electric hand-held starter from behind the car. Guthrie and her crew were quite displeased by the stubbornness of the Speedway management, considering her unprecedented accomplishment. The crew reacted by assigning Kay Bignotti (wife of George Bignotti) as the crew member to operate the inertial starter at the back of Guthrie's car. The Speedway's argument fell apart, and they decided upon a special amended command for that year. They did not announce beforehand what the special command would be, and Hulman's highly anticipated phrase was the following:
|“||In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines.||”|
In 1978-1979, when Guthrie again qualified for the race, it was simply amended to "Lady and..." In 1992, Lyn St. James became the second female to qualify for the race. She publicly requested, albeit not contentiously, that the command be changed to "Drivers, start your engines." The request was dismissed, and the command used was the now customary "Lady and..." variation.
For many years, the traditional location for giving the command was at the pace car in the front of the starting grid. Public address announcer Jim Philippe normally introduced the command, describing it as the "traditional command" or the "famous four words." Phillippe's final 500 was 2003. Likewise, for many years through 1989, Luke Walton traditionally introduced the command on the radio network broadcast. Since 2004, Dave Calabro introduces the command normally by calling it the "most famous words in motorsports."
In most cases, Hulman would give the command, then ride in the pace car during the pace laps. Mary F. Hulman would give the command near the pace car, but rarely rode in the pace car due to her age and declining health. Eventually, the location was moved to near the start/finish line, and in 2001, it was moved to the new Victory Podium stage adjacent to the Pagoda. In 2011, however, Mari George moved back to the front of the starting grid to give the command, and she rode in the pace car with A. J. Foyt.
- 1948-1952 - Seth Klein/John Francis "Irish" Horan (unconfirmed)
- 1953-1954 - Wilbur Shaw
- 1955-1977 - Tony Hulman
- 1978-1980 - Mary F. Hulman
- 1981 - Mari George
- 1982-1996 - Mary F. Hulman
- 1997-2013 - Mari George
On occasions when an accident or rain has halted the race, a second command has typically been given. Years include: 1967, 1973, 1982, 1986, 1997, 2004, 2007. The amended command, "gentlemen, re-start your engines," has usually been used. In 1986, this restart command was given by Tony George. In 1997, it was given by Mari Hulman George. In 1982 and 2004 the command was given by public address announcer Tom Carnegie.
Over the years, the starting command has been adopted to start all sorts of auto racing in the United States, including but not limited to NASCAR. However, in many venues outside of Indy, the phrase "Drivers, start your engines" appears to be the preferred version.
A recently-added tradition is the use of an honorary starter. A special guest has been invited in recent years to wave the green flag to start the race.
- 1993 - Nick Fornoro (retired CART starter, retired at the end of the 1992 CART season)
- 1996 - Robert James Eaton (Chairman and CEO of Chrysler Corporation)
- 1997 - General Ronald Fogleman (Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force)
- 1998 - Mark Page (Sr. VP of Store Operations for Pep Boys, IndyCar Series sponsor)
- 1999 - Jim Postl (President and CEO of Pennzoil)
- 2000 - Howard Katz (President of ABC Sports)
- 2003 - not used
- 2004 - Nick Lachey
- 2005 - Reggie Miller
- 2006 - Sugar Ray Leonard
- 2007 - Peyton Manning
- 2008 - Kristi Yamaguchi
- 2009 - Allen Sirkin (COO of Phillips-Van Heusen, IndyCar Series Sponsor)
- 2010 - Jack Nicholson
- 2011 - Bruce P. Crandall (Medal of Honor recipient)
- 2012 - Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels
- 2013 - Michael Peña (promoting the film Turbo)
Since the early years of the race, celebrities from all walks of fame have been invited to the race, some have returned for many years or even decades. Television and movie stars, recording artists, sports figures, politicians, and military, are among the many dignitaries invited. During the pre-race, a parade of stars is conducted around the track, usually in convertibles. Clark Gable is seen in a famous photograph of the 1947 race. Among the many celebrities who have attended multiple Indy 500s include Jim Nabors, James Garner, former vice president Dan Quayle, David Letterman, Tim Allen, Florence Henderson, Linda Vaughn, and many others. Paul Newman, who starred in the Indy-related film Winning, attended the race many times, and from 1983-1995, and again in 2008, was at the race as co-owner of Newman/Haas Racing. During the 1960s and early 1970s, several NASA astronauts from the Apollo program were among invited guests.
- The cars begin the race in a rolling start, traditionally in eleven rows of three, for a field of 33 total cars. Most other automobile races have two cars per row. The 33-car field derives from a 1919 AAA mandate of one car for every 400 feet (120 m) of track. Early races, however, saw varying numbers of starters, from as low as 21, to as high as 42. The number of cars in each row also varied, with as many as five abreast. Since 1933 there have been no fewer than 33 qualifiers. Exceptions to the 33-car field are as follows:
- In 1941, 33 cars initially qualified for the field during time trials. Sam Hanks was injured in a practice crash the day before the race and withdrew. Then on the morning of the race, George Barringer's car was destroyed in a fire that swept through the garage area, thus only 31 cars lined up to start the race.
- In 1947, only 30 cars qualified. A boycott over the purse led to the smaller field.
- In 1979, after a rules dispute over turbocharger inlets, and after controversy regarding the refusal of some entries from members of the CART series, a special fifth day of qualifying was added. However, only two cars ran sufficient speeds to be added to the field, and 35 cars lined up to start the race. Heavy attrition early on saw one car fail to complete a lap, and 7 cars out by lap 22.
- In 1997, which used an "all exempt tour" concept similar to the PGA Tour since 1983, the top 25 teams headed in Indy Racing League team entry points standings earned exemptions into the field, with the top nine non-exempt cars making the race on speed. Some exempt teams bumped out other non-exempt cars that had actually qualified with faster speeds, but their teams were not in the top 25 of League points. Two bumped cars were restored to the field to ensure that the "33 fastest entries" were part of the field, for a total of 35 starters. Ironically on the pace lap, three cars crashed out together, while two suffered mechanical problems, and only 30 cars took the green flag. (A similar rule was used at the Crown Royal presents the Your Hero's Name Here 400 from 2005–12, and is used in the Indiana 250.)
- Tom Carnegie announced on June 9, 2006 that the previous month's race, would be his last as official track announcer. Having called the race since 1946 on the public address system, he is best known for his lines, "He's on it!" (signaling the start of a qualifying attempt), "It's a new track record!" (when a driver surpasses either a one- or four-lap track record in qualifications), and "He's slowing down on the backstretch!" or "Andretti's slowing down!" (The latter for the Andretti family's historical misfortune at Indianapolis.). Indianapolis television personality David Calabro became the second PA announcer in the Hulman-George era after Carnegie's retirement for the 2007 race.
- A long-standing tradition of the Indianapolis 500 is for the victor to drink a bottle of milk immediately after the race. This practice first began in 1936 after Victor Louis Meyer asked for a glass of buttermilk, something his mother had encouraged him to drink on hot days. By 1956, it became a ritual as milk companies became sponsors of the race purse and handed a bottle of milk to the winner to promote their product. A sponsorship of currently $10,000 now paid out by the American Dairy Association if the winner sips the milk in victory lane. In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi drank orange juice instead of milk after his victory. Later he took a sip of milk. Fittipaldi owned citrus farms in Brazil, and wished to promote his industry. As a result, he was booed in driver's introductions the following week by the crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the heart of "America's Dairyland."
- A bas-relief sculpture of the winner's face, along with his name, average speed, and date of victory is added to the Borg-Warner Trophy. The trophy has been in use since 1936. A smaller replica of this trophy has been officially presented to the winner after the race since 1988 and team principal since 1997, usually in a press conference either at the Speedway or in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show at the BorgWarner exhibit, except for the 2011 race because of extenuating circumstances (the winning driver had died in a crash at an aborted INDYCAR race; the winning team principal and the driver's widow were presented with the respective trophies in the ensuing January). Prior to that, winners received a replica mounted on a chestnut plaque.
- The winner has been awarded one of the pace cars, or a replica, almost every year since 1936. In 1941, there were only six copies of the special Chrysler Newport Phaeton, and no production models created. The co-winners did not receive it. In 1946, an oil painting and a trip to Italy was substituted as the award, but winner George Robson died in a motor sports accident before he received it. In 1991, the Dodge Viper was still a prototype vehicle, and only two were in existence. Winner Rick Mears was awarded instead a Dodge Stealth, which was to be the original pace car but after protests by the UAW (because the Stealth was a captive import built by Mitsubishi in Japan), they were instead used at the track for festival cars.
- The morning after the race, the winning driver and team participates in the traditional winner's photo shoot at the start/finish line. The 1981 photo shoot is notable in that race winner Bobby Unser was stripped of the victory when official results were posted. Second place Mario Andretti was elevated to the win, and Andretti actually took part in the photo shoot. Later in the year, Unser was reinstated the victory. In 2009, heavy rain on Monday morning forced Helio Castroneves' photo shoot to take place indoors.
- The night after the race, the prizes are distributed at the annual 500 Victory Banquet. The traditional awards banquet dates back many decades. Since 1972, the black-tie gala has been held at the Indiana Convention Center. The 1973 banquet was cancelled due to the rain delay and tragic circumstances surrounding the event. For a brief time (2000-2001), the banquet was held on Sunday night, a few hours after the conclusion of the race. The 2000 race did not end until nearly 6 p.m. due to a rain delay, and participants had to rush downtown to make the banquet on time. In 2002, the banquet was moved back to Monday night. In 1986, the race was delayed until the following Saturday due to rain, and the banquet was cancelled due to scheduling concerns. A private victory luncheon for the top three finishers was held the day after the race at the Speedway Motel.
- The tradition of the winning driver and crew kissing the yard of bricks that mark the start/finish, started by Dale Jarrett at the 1996 Brickyard 400, appears to have carried over to the Indy 500, starting with Gil de Ferran in 2003.
- Among the numerous awards presented to the winner is the traditional Winner's Quilt. Since 1976, Jeanetta Holder has hand-crafted a special quilt blanket for the winner, which features an Indy-related design. She presents the quilt to the winning driver the morning after the race, during the traditional winner's photo shoot.
- For many years, the results of the race were considered unofficial until the following day. After the race, the sanctioning body, namely USAC, would review the scoring records, as well as video tapes and film, prior to releasing the official results. It was not unusual for the vetting process to go late into the evening, past midnight, and into the early hours of the morning. Traditionally, the official results would be posted at 8 a.m. local time the morning after the race. Revisions were not unusual, as assessed penalties and scoring corrections would be part of the official standings. A brief protest period would open for the teams to voice complaints, and if there were no protests, the official results would stand. The most famous instance of protest occurred in 1981. Starting in 1990, a new electronic scoring system was implemented, simplifying the scoring process. In that year, officials compiled the official standings very early in the evening, but still released them at 8 a.m. the next day. By 1993, the rules were amended such that the official standings would be released approximately six hours following the conclusion of the race (rather than the next morning). This was largely due to the fact that computer and GPS-based scoring systems had automated the process, and errors were almost non-existent outside of manually-assessed penalties (such as time penalties assessed for violations in the final five laps of a race that would normally result in a black flag, but there would be no possible way to serve the penalty).
During the days leading up the race, numerous other related and unrelated events are held in and around Indianapolis.
- The Little 500 - Anderson Speedway: A 500-lap sprint car race held the night before the Indianapolis 500 at Anderson Speedway in Anderson, Indiana since 1949.
- The Night Before the 500 - Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis
- Hoosier Hundred - Indiana State Fairgrounds
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