When May rolls around in Indianapolis each year, not only does it signify warmer, breezier temperatures and the annual breaking out of the grills, six-packs and barbecue pits, but for Indy residents, it’s officially time to begin celebrating the Midwest’s biggest sporting event of the year and Indianapolis’ sports star. Known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indy 500 was officially born in 1911 and has been a staple of summertime in Indiana ever since. Indianapolis racing fans, start your engines!
Held every year on Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the race inspires an entire month of exciting events in Indianapolis. In 1957, the Indianapolis 500 Festival was created with the mission of organizing community events celebrating the race and its participants. One of the most anticipated of these is the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade, which showcases not only the Indianapolis 500 Festival Princesses-the 33 young women chosen each year to be ambassadors of the festival-but a number of celebrities who spend their Memorial Day weekends in Indy each year attending the race and the festivities beforehand. Marching bands, costumed characters, and the drivers themselves wave to the crowds and the TV cameras as they glide by on giant, elaborate floats. And don’t miss the Indianapolis 500 Festival Breakfast at the Brickyard; this is when one of the 33 princesses is chosen as the 500 Festival Queen.
And if celebrities and “princesses” interest you, it doesn’t get any more exciting than the annual Snakepit Ball. Held the night before the race in the ritzy Indiana Roof Ballroom, it’s a star-studded affair complete with a red carpet. The black-tie event draws the most elite of Indianapolis citizens (or those willing to pay the hefty ticket fee). Dancing and mingling ensue late into the night, with the attendees crawling out of bed at dawn the next morning to settle into the bleachers for the main event.
The 500 Festival also hosts the famed Indianapolis 500 Mini-Marathon, which provides an opportunity for those sports fans who aren’t particularly thrilled by the aspect of Indy Car racing to get in on the action too. The largest half-marathon in the United States, the race sells out each year at an increasingly fast rate. In 2008’s race, 35,000 people completed the course. There are local Indianapolis music bands set up along the streets for encouragement, and for those who don’t lie down in the grass immediately upon crossing the finish line, there is a wide array of carbohydrate-laden goodies waiting.
In addition to activities outside the track, in the weeks leading up to the race, fans can come out and watch the drivers qualify. This provides not only the opportunity to get some sun and do a little tailgating, but to get close to the action. Tours of Gasoline Alley (where autograph-seekers can go to stake out drivers or celebrities) are given on a regular basis, and the final day of qualifying is perhaps the most anticipated event leading up to the race. Known as Miller Lite Indianapolis 500 Festival Carb Day, the last Thursday or Friday before the race has become over the years not only a chance for the 33 drivers to get in some final few critical hours of practice, but for the general public to party. A nationally recognized musical act (past performers have included Kid Rock and the Stone Temple Pilots) performs, making the Indianapolis 500 truly a spectacle to behold.
All of the fun and traditions culminate on race day, which begins bright and early each year on the Sunday before Memorial Day. “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the mainstay that kicks off the event each year, is sung prior to the waving of the flag. 500 excitement-filled laps later, a winner is crowned with great ceremony. He (or she!) steps into Victory Lane to be adorned with the traditional winner’s wreath and receive the coveted sip of milk from the 500 Festival Queen, who is chosen from the group of princesses. The following Monday, the drivers and community members gather for the final farewell to that year’s Indy 500, the Victory Banquet, where the drivers are honored and the festivities come to a close. So get in plenty of celebrating this May, and whether it’s from the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or from a picnic in your own backyard, don’t miss the 2009 Indy 500!
For those who wish to experience the history of the Indy 500, you can also visit the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum which is located in Speedway Indiana right next to the 500 race track. Inside you will witness past winners, famous people who attended the Indy 500, the evolution of the racecar, and countless pictures and stories to help you savor in the rich history that has made the Indy 500 one of the largest sporting events in the world and the most popular of the many Indianapolis attractions.
Pagoda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Track and Pagoda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Front Gate to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Stair Bridge at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Pit Lane at the Indianapolis 500
Tunnel to the Infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway