Turning Left at 230 mph: Why the Indianapolis 500 Is the Ultimate Sports Event

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Turning Left at 230 mph: Why the Indianapolis 500 Is the Ultimate Sports Event
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2014 Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter.

Think of something scary.

No, something really scary.

How’s this?

Strap yourself inside of a rocket ship that flies just an inch off of the ground. Surround yourself with a flammable liquid and then aim yourself at 230 miles per hour toward a wall off in the distance.

Just before you get to the wall, turn left—without slowing down—and then do it another 799 times in a row.

Got your attention?

There will be 33 very special and very different people who are planning to do just that exact thing Sunday afternoon. Collectively, they are the starting field for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Among them are six former winners, including Jacques Villeneuve, who is 43 years old and making his first IndyCar start since 1995.

There’s a woman, Pippa Mann, who will be driving a pink car in support of the Susan G. Komen foundation.

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

And there’s an Andretti. The name is synonymous with the Indy 500. Mario ran it 29 times, won it once, was in the Top 10 11 times and was second once. Son Michael ran it 16 times, never won and was in the Top 10 nine times.

Third-generation racer Marco nearly won in 2006. Only 19 years old at the time, Marco led by a full second as he crossed the finish line to take the white flag. It was a lock. But, as the Andretti luck would have it, with just yards to go, Sam Hornish Jr. used a slingshot maneuver to pass Marco as the two came off the final turn and headed toward the checkered flag.

Hornish won by 0.0635 of a second.

As with any major sporting event, the winner is rewarded with a substantial bounty. And it’s big here. But this race isn’t being contested just for the money.

There’s so much more.

For starters, the winner is immortalized with their face sculpted onto the winner’s trophy, the Borg-Warner Trophy, where it is to be viewed and even touched by future generations of race fans and drivers.

Then there’s the introduction. You will forever be introduced as "Indy 500 winner…" Even the most diehard of stick-and-ball fans can respect that.

And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you were the very best at something that very few in this life get the chance to do.

 

A Look Back

For years, the Indianapolis 500 was also known as the largest single-day sporting event in the world. But in 1996, at a time when Indy car racing was far more popular than NASCAR—drawing tremendous crowds at every race—somehow the inmates took over the asylum, and open-wheel racing in the United States hasn’t been the same since.

It was called "The Split," and Indy car fans found themselves having to choose sides between the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the owners of the race teams. It lasted for more than a decade and a half, nearly destroying big-time open-wheel racing in America.

Robert Laberge/Getty Images

During those years, there were still 33 cars in the field for the Indy 500, but many of those seats were filled with one-offs, drivers of questionable skill who were willing to strap themselves in for the ride of a lifetime.

There were rodeo cowboys and television reporters and more than a few who got hurt in the process. It seemed for a while as though anyone who was willing to don a racing suit and helmet and take aim at those 800 walls would be in the race.

Eventually, smarter minds and lesser egos took control of Indy car racing, and fans and competitors once again found themselves racing as one. And the Indianapolis 500, which admittedly lost a good deal of its luster during the era of "The Split," is working hard to regain its status as the premier auto race in the world.

 

The Best of the Best

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

This year, the field of 33 is the fastest on record with an average speed of 229.382 mph.

The driver who will lead them to the green flag for a second year in a row is, fittingly, a local boy. Ed Carpenter, whose stepfather is Tony George—part of the family that owns the Speedway—is hoping to take his sponsor, golfing legend Fuzzy Zoeller, with him into Victory Circle on Sunday. George, by the way, was the force behind the split and for years was the head of the failed Indy Racing League.

There are seven rookies in the field, including one driver who really isn’t a rookie, but in these cars he is. 

Former Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch has been the fastest rookie in practice and qualifying and will start on the outside of Row 4. An opportunity to test in an IndyCar with Michael Andretti’s team last year, when both men were associated with Chevrolet (Busch still is), led to an offer by Andretti for Busch to come race in the 500 this year.

While some liken Busch’s entry to a stunt, it is far from it, as the 2004 champion proved the hard way after he slammed into the Turn 2 wall earlier in the week during practice. He was unhurt, but he’ll start in his regular starting spot in a backup car.

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And then there’s 46-year-old, 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier. He’s the slowest car in the field, but he’s a wily ol’ fox who, if he can stay out of trouble and if his car doesn’t fall apart, will likely be a top-10 finisher. The check isn’t as big as the winner’s, but it’s still a nice reward for 800 left turns away from a wall.

The field is one of the most diverse ever with drivers from France, Australia, Spain, Colombia, Japan, England and Russia alongside a dozen or so Americans.

If you talk to any one of the 33, you’ll get 33 different reasons why they’ll strap themselves into a rocket ship Sunday and, well…you know the rest.

It’s scary, but none of them will be scared. Because this is what they do.

There is a mystique that surrounds the Indy 500. It has to do with the history, the fans and the people, especially those who made it a personal challenge to be the first across the finish line in what is arguably the biggest and baddest race in all of motorsports.

You feel it when you walk around the infield or sit in the grandstands. Men have lost their lives there in pursuit of being the best at what they do.

It’s why the Indianapolis 500 is a sporting event unlike any other.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis

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