The Indy 500 is as much about concerts and other activities as it is about the race.
Chris Owens/IMS Photo

In Indianapolis, May means music, celebrities, parades and parties. Oh, and a little speed-crazed motorsports extravaganza known as the Indy 500.

The question has no official attribution, but if you’ve spent any time on the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) — a vast expanse of grass, gravel, bodies and beer encircled by two and a half miles of grandstands and screaming asphalt — you might have repeated it right about the time you realized you were having a riotously good time and it was merely incidental that a world-famous auto race was running full roar all around you.

At the Indianapolis 500, “Race? What race?” is either ironic observation, motto or historical footnote, depending on the context. It probably originated sometime in the 1970s, at the height of Indy’s glory, when the Sunday before Memorial Day meant watching the open-wheel extravaganza on TV if you were anywhere in America but the Circle City, in which case you were either at the race, camped out somewhere nearby marveling at the hysteria, or wishing you were. When race winners like Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt were household names, the Indianapolis 500 was part Super Bowl, part ­Kentucky Derby, with horsepower instead of horses. (With crowds of 200,000-plus, the gathering is believed to be the world’s best-attended annual single-day sporting event.) “Race? What race?” emerged also because the 500 was the Midwest’s answer to Mardi Gras, with every bit as much bare-it-all transgression as the Cajun bacchanalia. For most of May, a large swath of the IMS infield became known as the “Snake Pit,” where law and morality held little sway and local teenagers would cut class to down six-packs and watch tattooed rowdies engage in behavior not suitable for description in print. Stories of those shameful episodes linger in Indianapolis lore like campfire horror tales. “Race? What race?” was whatever occurred in the Snake Pit, where formal ­preparations for a grueling 500-mile sprint might as well have been 500 miles away.  

Chris Owens/IMS Photo
IMS closed the book on its infamous Snake Pit chapter in the 1990s, laying paved parking and bleachers throughout­ the years over the muddy stomping grounds. And it would be a great dis­service to the grand old landmark to paint it only with the brush of its former excesses. An old joke holds that history’s first auto race occurred shortly after the world’s second automobile was built. The Indianapolis 500 came fast on the heels of that. The first running was in 1911, when the thrill of manning machines at speeds faster than horse-drawn carriages was still fresh. Many of the early drivers were mechanically inclined (or had mechanics ride along during the race), and cars evolved with the event. Inaugural winner Ray Harroun is credited, if apocryphally, with using the first rearview mirror. (His car, the Marmon “Wasp,” is on display at the worth-a-visit IMS Hall of Fame Museum.) “The speedway was conceived as a testing ground,” says track historian Donald Davidson. “Many of the automakers were located nearby.”

For the next 100-plus years, the race marched in lockstep with the advance of vehicular technology, from carburetion to fuel injection to aerodynamics to ethanol. By the 1990s, the cars were so fast that climbing into one verged on madness; in ’96, two-time champ Arie Luyendyk turned a qualifying lap averaging 237 mph. The efforts of then-IMS president Tony George to cap such death-defying speed, as well as to level the driving surface for modestly financed teams that couldn’t keep up, are widely blamed for precipitating an infamous split in open-wheel racing that would drive the sport’s biggest names to boycott the 500 for several years. During that time, the storied event sputtered along with second-tier drivers and lackluster, poorly attended races — a dark period from which the national treasure has only just begun to recover.

These days, average lap speeds top out in the 220s — not as hot as in days gone by, perhaps, but it’s impossible to grasp just how fast that is unless you’ve felt it firsthand. Ask around at the 500, and you’ll quickly tire of fans recounting the first time they stood near the starting line, heard 33 turbocharged engines whine to life, then watched breathlessly as they whiplashed past — 132 exposed wheels gripping at the same thin slice of pavement. The rush hooks a lot of newbies forever.