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On the speedway, they’re drinking milk. In the Snake Pit, they’re guzzling beer. Welcome to the Indy 500.
INDIANAPOLIS — At 4:45 a.m. on the day of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, a man in his 20s plunks two cases of beer on the counter of an all-night Speedway gas station.
“Beer sales don’t start til noon on Sunday,” the clerk tells him.
“You going to the 500?” asks the clerk.
The man nods..
“Pay cash,” the clerk says softly.
Welcome to the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500.
It is the world’s largest single-day sports event, and the rectangular 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is enormous. The White House, Vatican City, Taj Mahal, Roman Colosseum, Yankee Stadium, Rose Bowl Stadium, Liberty Island, and Churchill Downs can all fit inside the infield. There’s even a golf course with four holes inside the oval where golfers make the turn.
“It’s just incredible,” says Fionn Herlahy of Ireland. “Ireland is a small place, this racetrack fits [expletive] half of Ireland.”
The speedway was built in 1909, using 2.5 million bricks hand-laid on sand. It’s all been paved over except a three-foot-wide section at the start/ finish line, the yard of bricks giving the track its nickname, “The Brickyard.”
Most everybody who gets to the sacred spot drops to their knees and kisses the bricks, including the winner.
Yum. Oil, gas, saliva, and God knows what else.
There are no doors in the race cars and pit stops are for tires and fuel. There are no bathroom breaks. Some drivers hold it for the entire 200 laps, a few have admitted to relieving themselves in their fire suits.
The winner drinks ice cold milk, their choice of skim, 2 percent or whole. The milk is an Indy tradition that started in 1936 when Louis Meyer drank buttermilk in Victory Lane.
Everyone else drinks early and often. More than 300,000 fans attended the 2023 Indy 500, It’s a party atmosphere and fans are allowed to bring in coolers with their favorite beverages.
Inside the oval around Turn 3 is the infamous Snake Pit, where an electronic dance music concert draws 25,000. The bass drowns out the cars. Fans, some dressed in minimal checkered flag clothing, rage in a haze of smoke and chugging gallon jugs of assorted beverages. Raging fire cannons send flames leaping 25 feet in the air. Things get raunchy.
Nearby, Brad Ringer, who works at the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course pro shop, has been playing here since he was on the golf team at Speedway High in 2003.
“You learn to play golf so that a little noise on your backswing is no big deal,” he says laughing. “It’s unique. Someone talking wouldn’t bother me at all.”
As start time nears, there’s a flyover and parachutists and the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana.” For years it was sung by actor Jim Nabors, who was famous for playing ”Gomer Pyle” on the television series of the same name in the 1960s.
Then, at precisely 12:38 p.m., Roger Penske, the legendary car owner who owns the race and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, utters the words that every race fan lives for:
“Drivers, start your engines.”
Seven minutes later, 33 of the fastest cars on the planet are off.
The deafening din of the high-octane, twin-turbocharged 2.2-liter V6 engines sounds like a national convention of leaf blowers, or maybe a convoy of traveling root canals drilling through your head. It will rattle your bones.
This year the average speed at Indy was the fastest ever at 232.184 miles per hour.
The race settles into an early rhythm, but it is broken up by the first crash of the 200-lap race in Turn 1 of Lap 92 by a rookie named Sting Ray Robb ― that’s his legal name ― who started in the 31st position on Row 11 and finished 31st.
Near the end of the race, a tire flies over the grandstand at 150 m.p.h. on Turn 2 and smashes into a car in the parking lot. There are no injuries.
In 1987, Lyle Kurtenbach, a cement additives salesman from Wisconsin, sitting near the top of the grandstand in Turn 4, was struck and killed by a tire that flew into the stands. Today, everybody is lucky and Penske buys the car owner a new car.
This year’s race is marred by three red flags on the final 16 laps. Josef Newgarden, 32, posts a 0.0974-second margin of victory over defending champ Marcus Ericsson – the fourth-closest finish in 107 years. Newgarden nets a $3.666 million payday.
On a raised platform in Victory Lane, Kerry Estes, an Indiana dairy farmer who trained two years for the title of Veteran Milk Man, hands Newgarden a 32-ounce bottle of ice cold whole milk.
Newgarden chugs some milk and pours the rest over his head.
“I was either going to win the race or I’d end up in the wall,” he says.
Read more in this series
- Augusta National Golf Club
- Cameron Indoor Stadium
- Lambeau Field
- Michigan Stadium
- Churchill Downs
- Fenway Park
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.