10 questions people always ask about the Indy 500, answered

Indy 500
Indy 500 2021

Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo by Corbin Millard)

Note: This story has been updated to reflect Tony Kanaan’s record-setting average speed in 2013. The fastest-ever speed was incorrect in a previous version.

INDIANAPOLIS — Need some conversation starters heading into race weekend?

Brush up on your Indy 500 facts or add some knowledge to your mental library with answers to these frequently-asked questions.

Why is the Indy 500 so famous?

There’s no one right answer, but it doesn’t hurt that the Indy 500 is the world’s largest single-day sporting event, held in the world’s largest sporting venue.

There’s also longevity. First held in 1911, the Indy 500 predates prestigious and world-famous races like 24 Hours of Le Mans (1923), the Monaco Grand Prix (1929) and the Daytona 500 (1959). IMS is the oldest continually-operating racetrack in the United States.

Factor in a rich history with legendary drivers, record-breaking moments, colorful local characters who became icons in their own right, odd but unbreakable traditions, and unrivaled people watching, and there you have it: the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Why is it called the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’ anyway?

The term was first used in 1955 by Alice Green, a copywriter at WIBC. Sid Collins, the legendary voice of Indy 500 radio broadcasts, made it famous and the moniker stuck.

How big is Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

To put it in perspective, these five world landmarks would all fit inside with room to spare: Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, The Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum and Vatican City. IMS has four full-length golf holes inside.

The property is 559 acres, or about .87 square miles — the size of more than 500 football fields. The track has more than 250,000 seats, and in a typical year (pre-COVID), full venue capacity on race day is about 400,000, including workers.

Another interesting fact: Even at 40% capacity with 135,000 fans, the 2021 Indy 500 will be the world’s largest sporting event since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

How did the Indy 500 start?

Driver Gil Anderson of Norway at the 3rd Indy 500 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1913.
Gil Andersen of Norway with his riding mechanic before the start of the third Indy 500 in 1913. (Photo by Topical Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 as automobile testing ground to support Indiana’s fast-growing auto industry. Four local businessmen pooled their resources to purchase the land and build the track.

The first competitive event at IMS was a gas-filled ballon race in June of that year, followed by a motorcycle race in August. The first 500-mile race, then called the “International Sweepstakes,” took place on May 30, 1911 with a winning average speed just under 75 mph.

If you’re interested in learning more about the track’s history, check out the IMS Digital Archive. It is packed with facts and statistics from every decade of racing, along with historical photos and videos.

Who won the most Indy 500 races?

There’s a three-way tie for the honor of four-time winner:

  • A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977)
  • Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987)
  • Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991)

Why do Indy 500 winners drink milk?

Driver Louis Meyer, as he always did, asked for a drink of buttermilk to refresh himself after winning his third Indy 500 in 1936. An executive from the Milk Foundation caught the moment and vowed to have it repeated every year after.

Who refused milk at the Indy 500?

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Emerson Fittipaldi celebrates with his team after winning the 77th Indy 500 in 1993. (Photo by Steve Swope/Getty Images)

1993 winner Emerson Fittipaldi initially elected to have orange juice instead of milk, but the decision caused such a stir that Fittipaldi — a Brazilian orange juice producer by trade before launching his second career as a racecar driver — ended up taking a drink of milk to keep the tradition alive. He later issued a public apology through the American Dairy Association for the ‘misunderstanding.’

Future drivers: You’ve been warned.

How much does an Indy car cost?

IndyStar did some research on this a few years back. A car alone isn’t going to win the race, so it makes more sense to consider the total cost of a team. Building a team from scratch is likely to cost $2 million or more, longtime team owner Chip Ganassi told the paper in 2018.

That covers the car and its engine, a top-notch driver and crew, equipment, supplies, and a backup car, just in case.

What is the fastest Indy 500 time?

2013 Indianapolis 500 Champion Tony Kanaan of Brazil is carried by Kyle Sagan as they pose with the Borg Warner Trophy at the yard of bricks during the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Trophy Presentation. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Tony Kanaan set the record for fastest-ever finish time in 2013 with an average speed of 187.433 mph, beating Arie Luyendyk’s record of almost 186 mph set in 1990.

Luyendyk holds the record for fastest official lap at the track — 237.498 mph during qualifying on May 12, 1996. He actually clocked a faster speed of 239.260 during practice that year, but the record is unofficial.

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Indianapolis 500 winner for 1997, Arie Luyendyk of Holland, kisses the Borg-Warner trophy after the official winner’s photo. (Photo by Matt Campbell/AFP via Getty Images)

How long did the first Indy 500 take?

Inaugural winner Ray Harroun finished in just over six hours and 42 minutes. The length of the race was by design: IMS founders settled on 500 miles thinking the race would last about seven hours from mid-morning to late afternoon.

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