INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Hunter-Reay has been around long enough to remember when the Indianapolis 500 was the true culmination of the “Month of May,” when fans would file through the old turnstiles each day during the multi-week buildup to the biggest one-day sporting event in the world.
“You had two different qualifying weekends,” the 2014 champion recalled, “and I really felt like that is what Indy deserved, to be spread out that way, and to have the story lines drawn out.
“You could take your time learning to get the speed out of the car. I enjoyed that,” Hunter-Reay added, almost wistfully. “Now it feels like a fire drill, a rush, all packed into a week.”
More than just about any other event, though, the Indy 500 is built upon tradition.
There’s the three-wide starting grid at the start the race, and the milk given to the winner in victory lane at the end of it. The original yard of bricks still marks the start-finish line, and all the prerace pageantry still evokes the very essence of Americana ‚Äî the singing of “God Bless America” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the balloon release and the ceremonial flyover.
Fans like it that way, too. They know what to expect every Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis, whether it means sitting with the movers and shakers in the famed pagoda overlooking the front stretch, or moving and shaking with the common folk in the aptly name “Snake Pit.”
Yet the stunning failure of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and his well-funded McLaren team to qualify for this year’s race has led some to push for guaranteed starting spots in the 33-car field, a move that would jeopardize another Indy 500 tradition: Bump day.
“Certainly the drama of that, that’s a draw I would think,” said 1986 winner Bobby Rahal, now a team owner. “I think clearly the more qualifiers that make the attempts, the more drama there is, the more interest there is. Surely it’s got to attract more people, I would think.”
But as Hunter-Reay points out, there are plenty of traditions that have changed or disappeared in the lead-up to the 103rd running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” this Sunday.
Some have been the simple result of changing times. Some have been mistakes, others have occurred for good reason. And in some cases, traditions that have disappeared and been resurrected.
Take the old Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel, that green-and-white ode to the 1960s that once stood outside Turn 2. James Garner and Paul Newman would stay there when they arrived in town for the race, back in the days before luxury motorhomes and high-priced, high-rise hotel suites.
The building had begun to decay long before it was torn down a decade ago. And while the area around the speedway undergoes a vast redevelopment, the IMS Motel is now just a page in history.
So, too, are some of the iconic names and voices of the prerace ceremonies.
For so many years, Indiana native Florence Henderson ‚Äî Mrs. Brady, to an entire generation ‚Äî lent the vocals to the National Anthem, “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.” If baritone was more your flavour, there was Jim Nabors ‚Äî ahem, Gomer Pyle ‚Äî singing “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
Both of them are gone now, Henderson dying just months after her final appearance in 2016 and Nabors following her in 2017. But the echoes of their voices live on for many race fans to this day.
“I went with my wife to the French Open for 15 years, and we would hurry home from Roland Garros and watch the Indy 500 and listen to Jim Nabors, and my wife would cry,” said Mark Miles, the longtime ATP executive and now the chief executive of Hulman & Company, which owns the speedway.
Miles grew up in Indianapolis. He remembers listening to the race on transistor radios at family gatherings as a kid. Later on, he would skip school and hide in the trunk of his friend’s car with the cases of beer so that they could catch hour upon hour of practice on warm spring days.
He also remembers the original “Snake Pit,” the rowdy section of the infield in Turn 1 where few people cared about what happened on the track. For them, it was an intoxicating mixture of bikers and beer, streakers on hot, sunny days and mudwrestling on cold, wet afternoons.
That tradition began to die out in the 1980s, shortly after a fan died during the partying and the track took steps to create a more family-friendly environment. But a new “Snake Pit” has emerged in Turn 3, often featuring well-known music acts performing on a large stage throughout the weekend.
“That’s an example of keeping with tradition but innovating,” Miles said. “This ‘Snake Pit’ is different but it has a lot in common: its craziness, its name, the young people who go there.”
Another tradition that changed for the better came in 1977, when Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. Tony Hulman, who had bought the racetrack and resurrected the race after World War II, would always announce, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
Even after Guthrie qualified, Hulman confided to a sponsor that he would stick with the script because the mechanics actually started the engines, and all the mechanics were men.
It was Guthrie’s friend, Kay Bignotti, who came up with a solution.
“She said, ‘We can’t let Tony get away with this. I have a USAC mechanic’s license. I’ve been around the sport all my life. I’ll start your engine,’” Guthrie said. “Sure enough, come race morning, Kay was out there on the starting line and she started my engine, so Tony had to change his tune.”
These days, the command is “Drivers, start your engines.”
Tony George, the chairman of Hulman & Company, has been delivering it the past few years. He’s the grandson of Tony Hulman, keeping the seminal moment of race day in the family.
After all, the Indy 500 is all about traditions ‚Äî those that live and those that fade away.