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9 Fast Facts About the Indianapolis 500

Scott Beggs
Simon Pagenaud after winning the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Simon Pagenaud after winning the 103rd Indianapolis 500. / Clive Rose/GettyImages
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When it originally launched in 1911 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 was billed as a grueling all-day race designed to earn publicity for new car models and bring in tons of spectators. It was a smashing success, and the annual event has since cemented its place in sports history alongside the likes of the Super Bowl and World Series.

To get you ready for the 106th Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2022, here are 10 fast facts about racing's most important day of the year.  

1. Yes, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 chugs milk afterward.

Dario Franchitti
Dario Franchitti enjoying some milk at the Indy. / Nick Laham/GettyImages

Driver Louis Meyer's mother always used to tell him that there's nothing better to drink on a hot day than a cold glass of buttermilk—and that's exactly what he requested after winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1933. He again followed his mom's advice when he won a second time in 1936, only this time, his dairy indulgence caught the attention of an executive for what eventually became the American Dairy Association. The executive soon pushed to have this be a yearly tradition, with regular milk soon replacing the buttermilk, and outside of a few milkless years following World War II, it's been a post-race ritual ever since.

Modern drivers are given a choice between whole, 2-percent, and skim milk (no word on lactose-free options), and the fans take the tradition so seriously that Emerson Fittipaldi was booed by the crowd when he drank orange juice in 1993 instead. Fittipaldi, an orange grove owner, later apologized for the faux pas.

2. Each lap is two and a half miles.

Just as the name implies, the full race is 500 miles, with each lap of the track clocking in at two and a half miles. There are four turns on the track, each of which is one-quarter of a mile long. Then there are two main straightaways coming in at five-eighths of a mile, and the two "short chute" straightaways measuring one-eighth of a mile each. 

3. Winners get their faces sculpted on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
The Borg-Warner Trophy. / Ronald C. Modra/GettyImages

Indy 500 winners aren't just immortalized by having their name and speed engraved on a trophy—their whole face gets sculpted right onto the side of it. The Borg-Warner Trophy was commissioned by the Borg-Warner Automotive Company in 1935 to be the top prize for the event, and they paid a whopping $10,000 (about $211,000 in today's money) for it. Winners don't get to keep the trophy, but they do get a tiny replica known as the "Baby Borg" at a reception a few months after the race.

New bases have been added to the 110-pound trophy over the years in order to fit future winners, and as of 2022, there are 108 faces in total. If that math doesn't add up, that's because there's one non-winner on there (Anton Hulman, who bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945), along with some extra faces for 1924 and 1941, when there were co-winners due to one driver starting the race and another finishing it.

4. Nine women have driven in the Indianapolis 500.

Although the sport is traditionally dominated by men, women have been qualifying for and driving in the Indianapolis 500 since 1977, when Janet Guthrie made the first of her three trips to the race. In 2005, Danica Patrick (the fourth woman to start in an Indy) became the first woman to lead a lap in the event, ultimately finishing in fourth place that year. In 2021, Simona De Silvestro and the Paretta Racing Autosport Team made history by fielding a crew that was mostly made up of women.

5. No one has ever won the Indianapolis 500 three times in a row.

Stefan Wilson
105th running of the Indianapolis 500 / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

Plenty of sports have dynasties that grab hold of the reigns of power and refuse to let go for years, like the 1990s Chicago Bulls and 2000s New England Patriots. With the Indy 500, it's not so easy to win in consecutive years. Only five drivers have ever won back-to-back events, and no one has been able to do it three times in a row

6. It took four months to decide the winner of the 1981 Indianapolis 500.

Mario Andretti is one of the most successful racers of all time, but he only won the Indy 500 one time in 29 tries. His most infamous attempt was the 1981 race, when he initially finished second to Bobby Unser, only to be declared the winner after Unser was penalized following the event for illegally passing cars while the caution flag was out. Unser immediately appealed the decision, and after months of wrangling, the penalty was rescinded and he was again declared the winner, leaving Andretti in second.

7. The average speed of the winner has more than doubled since it started.

Helio Castroneves
Helio Castroneves / Andy Lyons/GettyImages

What a difference a century of innovation makes. Ray Harroun, the first winner in 1911, averaged 74.602 mph in his Marmon Wasp racer. Fast-forward to 2021, and winner Helio Castroneves flew around the track at an eye-popping 190.69 mph. But that's just the average speed: The fastest single lap is an absurd 236.103 mph, recorded by Eddie Cheever in 1996.

8. The first winning car was also the first to have a rearview mirror.

Back in 1911, racers would have a mechanic sitting next to them in the car to warn of other drivers coming up on their side. Harroun didn't have one. Instead, he outfitted his Marmon with a rearview mirror, something he'd once seen on a horse-drawn cab. “As far as we know, Ray Harroun had the first rearview mirror on an automobile,” Donald Davidson, the official Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian, told The New York Times in 2016.

9. Some drivers race twice that day.

Tony Stewart
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 - Qualifying / Brian Lawdermilk/GettyImages

The Indianapolis 500 isn't the only big race to go down on the last Sunday in May: The Coca-Cola 600 typically takes place later that night at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. And despite needing to take a flight to get there in time, a handful of drivers have attempted to do both events over the years. Emphasis on attempted.

Tony Stewart is the only driver to have finished both races on the same day, completing the gargantuan 1100-mile task in 2001. His first shot at it was in 1999, but he failed to finish the Indy. Looking back on it, he said, “The first year it was terrible. It was a terrible experience. I had no idea what I needed to do, nutrition-wise. I’m not a workout guy. I’m not a nutrition guy. And I realized very, very quickly that day—I learned at the end of the 500, that I had a long day ahead of me still.”

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