Thrilling as they are, though, engine revving and charging split-second finishes are only part of the Indy 500 attraction, even post-Snake Pit. It isn’t called “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for nothing. The lead-in to the contest is carefully choreographed pomp and pageantry. Fighter jets make fly-overs (the U.S. military gets big props on this day). Celebrities address the crowd and steer the pace car (in 2012, it was Howie Mandel and Guy Fieri, respectively). Hoosier native Florence Henderson (the mom from The Brady Bunch) sings “God Bless America.” And then there’s the showstopper: Jim Nabors singing “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” as he has done nearly every year since 1987. OK, so you’re probably thinking, “Gomer Pyle? Big deal.” But last year, when heart surgery prevented him from making the trip, a film crew taped Nabors singing a rendition from his home in Hawaii. When the performance played on video screens, grown men cried.
The 500 is shining once again with star power on the track as well, thanks to the likes of popular three-time champ Helio Castroneves and his triumphant turn on Dancing with the Stars, and dashing 2012 winner Dario Franchitti, whose (now-estranged) movie-star wife, Ashley Judd, had been a fixture at the race for much of the past decade. Most of the sport’s biggest personalities, past and present, are accessible to fans at meet-and-greet events and charity functions: On Community Day, for example, all 33 starting drivers sign autographs for fans, who can also take their sedans and minivans onto the track.
The town of Speedway, Ind. — a planned community built by the original IMS owners — is becoming a viable destination in its own right, with a massive Main Street makeover well under way. Last year, Dallara Automobili, the Italian company that builds the chassis for Indy cars, opened a sleek new facility there. Fans can tour the factory floor where race cars are assembled, ride through town in modified “street legal” Indy cars or visit the interactive museum with driving simulators and physics-is-fun exhibits. The building also houses the first American location of the Italian chain Lino’s Coffee, a polished café that serves gourmet espresso and deli sandwiches with fresh-sliced prosciutto. Other restaurants dot the same walkable street, including Dawson’s on Main, a solid little steak-and-seafood spot with a lively bar and generous cocktails. Just down the block, one of the Speedway’s old standbys, Charlie Brown’s Pancake & Steak House, is an old-school diner where sweet young servers deliver big American breakfasts and hand-dipped shakes. (Homemade apple pie? Yes, please!) And you never know who might stop by. “Last year, I got a call from [three-time 500 winner] Johnny Rutherford, who said he was at Charlie Brown’s with [four-time champ] A.J. Foyt,” Davidson says.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that after a long-standing hear-no-evil-see-no-evil attitude, IMS now embraces its hard-partying roots — and has, like any good corporation, commodified them. The Speedway books national music acts for infield concerts the Friday before the race, which is known as Carb Day (a holdover from the era when cars still had carburetors). Loading up a cooler before hearing bands like The B-52s or Kid Rock has become an Indy tradition. Management has even embraced the old serpentine moniker with a new “Snake Pit” party early on race morning (last year it featured electronica legend Benny Benassi). Nowadays, the infield party scene is all brats, beer bongs and Frisbees — more spring break than biker rally. “In the old days, people just went to the Snake Pit to drink,” says IMS chief operating officer Doug Boles. “There were no real ‘activities.’ We thought, ‘Let’s bring back the legacy of the Snake Pit, with concerts and activities, but eliminate some of what used to take place there.’ It has been a huge success.”
In other words, while the cherished old 500 traditions remain unspoiled — the call to “start your engines,” the milk-soaked winner’s circle, the kissing of bricks — the spirit of “Race? What race?” is alive and well too.
Evan West is an executive editor at Indianapolis Monthly magazine. His work has been noted in The Best American Sports Writing and has appeared in Fast Company, NFL Magazine, Atlanta and Wabash Magazine. He edits the May Madness blog on IndianapolisMonthly.com, covering all things Indy 500.