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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: Indy 500 at 100

  • Image: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
    Indianapolis Motor Speedway
    The Indianapolis 500 celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2011.

    “Ladies and gentlemen: Start your engines.”

    With slight variations on that phrase depending on the gender mix of the 33 participating drivers, those words mark the beginning of the annual Indianapolis 500 automobile race, better known as the Indy 500.

    “My favorite part is the first lap,” said 16-year old Alec Edick of Avon, Ind., who will be attending his 11th Indy 500 race this year. “It feels like the hair on top of my head is standing up. The rush is just amazing.

    Jeff Bliemeister, museum curator of Pennsylvania's Antique Automobile Club of America Museum at Hershey, knows that feeling. “A lot of people focus on NASCAR and the Daytona 500, but the great race is the Indy 500,” he said. “And after 100 years, it’s become the American race tradition.”

    Billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indy 500 has been held every Memorial Day weekend since 1911, except for 1917-18 and 1942-45, when the country’s attention and resources were focused on the world wars. Loud and long, and subject to wrecks and wash-outs, “The 500” pits cars and drivers against each other in a grueling 200-lap marathon around the 2.5-mile oval racetrack at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    This year is the 100th anniversary of the running of the first Indianapolis 500. To celebrate, the racing community has planned many special events and a few surprises for the more than 300,000 fans planning to be at the racetrack on May 29.

    In case you don’t have a ticket, here’s a bit of Indy 500 history and a look at a special exhibition of winning race cars.

  • Early balloon race

    Image: Hoosier balloon at Indy Motor Speedway
    Indianapolis Motor Speedway
    Competitive racing at the historic Indianapolis racetrack actually began in 1909 with balloons, not cars.

    Although it was intended to be a testing ground for Indiana’s early automotive and aviation industries, the first event that took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on June 5, 1909, was a competition involving giant helium-filled balloons. The oval race track for cars was completed two months later. In 1911, after two years of hosting multi-race programs, track owners introduced a 500-mile, day-long race: the first Indianapolis 500.

  • Just one yard of brick remains

    Image: IMS track with one yard of brick visible
    Shawn Gritzmacher  /  IMS
    The track was paved in bricks until 1961; now only a yard of bricks remains visible at the track.

    The earliest car races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway took place on a track made from a mixture of crushed rock and tar, which caused a lot of problems for drivers. “They didn’t realize it wasn’t substantial enough,” said Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian. “But they soon realized it was a mistake and immediately put down a new surface made of 3.2 million paving bricks” each weighing 9.5 pounds. The track at The Brickyard, as it became known, was later covered in asphalt, except for a 36-inch strip at the start/finish line. That strip of exposed brick is now known as the Yard of Bricks.

  • First Indy 500 winner

    Image: Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911.
    IMS
    Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 in the Marmon “Wasp.”

    Driving the six-cylinder, yellow and black Marmom “Wasp” he designed, Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911. His time: 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds. Harroun not only won the race, he introduced an important automobile innovation. Instead of taking a spotter along to watch for other cars on the track, Harroun installed a rear-view mirror.

  • How the milk-drinking tradition was born

    Image: Three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw drinks milk in 1940.
    IMS
    Got milk? Three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw takes a drink after crossing the finish line in 1940.

    Of the many customs associated with the Indianapolis 500, the one that involves the race winner drinking milk in Victory Lane seems wholesome, but a bit peculiar. According to race historians, though, the tradition is a healthy one dating back to 1936, when a newspaper photographer snapped a picture of driver Louis Meyer downing some buttermilk after a win on a hot day. The unplanned advertisement for milk was soon formalized and a new tradition was born.

  • Now, that's a trophy

    Image: Indy 500 three-time winner Helio Castroneves in 2009
    IMS
    The most recent three-time winner, Helio Castroneves, with the Borg-Warner trophy in 2009.

    In addition to a good deal of money and, of course, the adoration of fans, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 is presented with the sterling-silver Borg-Warner trophy. It’s more than five feet tall, weighs more than 110 pounds and is adorned with, among other things, squares bearing a likeness of each winner’s face. The winner doesn’t really get to keep the trophy: The original is kept in the museum at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since 1988, an 18-inch sterling-silver replica of the trophy, the “Baby Borg,” is given to winners.

  • A blast from the past

    Image: Some of the winning Indy 500 cars currently displayed at the Hall of Fame Museum
    Ron McQueeney  /  IMS
    Some of the winning Indy 500 cars currently displayed at the Hall of Fame Museum in Indianapolis.

    The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, on the grounds of the speedway, usually displays vintage motorcycles, rare early passenger cars, race memorabilia and cars that have raced in the Indy 500. Right now, though, there’s a temporary exhibition of 67 winning cars representing 71 Indy 500 wins, including the car driven by the three four-time winners, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. The exhibit includes the Marmon Wasp (the 1911 winner), 30 other winning cars owned by the museum and 36 winners on loan from collectors.

  • Indy 500 honored nationwide

    Image: Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa.
    Antique Automobile Club Museum
    Real and replica pace cars are on display at the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa.

    Celebrations honoring the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 aren’t limited to Indianapolis. In addition to a special U.S. postage stamp marking the milestone, there are Indy 500-related exhibits at car museums nationwide. For example, in Hershey, Pa., the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum is displaying a collection of original and replica pace cars. “These cars are something you see on race track and take for granted,” said museum curator Bliemeister. “But manufacturers considered it an honor to their cars chosen as the pace car and would show off their hottest new models. We have a dozen Corvettes, as well as Buicks, Mustangs, Camaros and Firebirds.”

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