Indy 500 is always great spectacle, but 100th edition is bigger than ever

INDIANAPOLIS – When Graham Rahal attended the U.S. Nationals drag racing championships, people he was hanging with compared it in scope to the Indianapolis 500.

He tried to be polite, but inside he was howling.

"I went, 'Hold on,' " Rahal said. " 'It's not the same.' "

No it's not. The Indianapolis 500 calls itself "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing," and while that is bragging, that is also accurate.

That appellation is true every Memorial Day weekend, but it has never been truer than this year when the 100th running of the event is scheduled. May belongs to Indy in the motorsports world, but the hold has never been tighter.

The roar of engines is scheduled for Sunday, as long as the Great Weatherman In The Sky pays attention to the calendar. It was raining Thursday as Rahal spoke. It was supposed to rain Friday and Saturday, creating puddles on the asphalt of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The fingers-crossed chance of rain for Race Day is 20 percent.

Talk about raining on a parade if the event gets kicked over to Monday, or even uglier, if it drags on with daily re-scheduling.


Most of the 33 drivers who earned their way into the field for a race that began in 1911 are veterans. They circle May on their calendars every spring. But even they sense the difference in atmospheric conditions in 2016.

The Speedway never gives out attendance figures, but this year, for the first time in a long while, tickets sold out early. The estimated crowd when the largest sports facility in the world is full is between 350,000 and 400,000.

There is no way to avoid Indy 500 hype here. Passengers disembarking at the airport are smacked in the eyes by large signs announcing the 100th. There is no way to reach luggage carousels without passing souvenir kiosks. Once taking to the surrounding highways, billboards announcing the race are almost as ubiquitous as exits.

Drivers who tour the 2.5-mile track at 230 mph in qualifying and nearly that fast in the race look at time behind the wheel as just another day, but when their foot is off the gas they too are absorbing the festivities.

"I feel every Indy 500 comes with a lot of tension," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner. "This year it has been ratcheted up. The knob has been turned all of the way up. I'm glad to see the increase in attention."

Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia is the defending champion. Hunter-Reay called it "a tremendous honor" to be an American victor. "I think it would be great if an American won," he said.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has celebrated several century anniversaries lately. The track opened in 1909. The first 500 was conducted in 1911, but the race was not contested during World War I and World War II, which is why 105 years into its existence this is the 100th running.

As it so happens, this is also the 30th anniversary of Bobby Rahal's triumph. Son Graham, 27, was not born yet.

Graham wasn't trying to be disrespectful to the drag racers. He is married to Courtney Force, a drag racer and the daughter of John Force, that sport's greatest legend. Courtney said not even the Super Bowl can compare to the 500 for excitement.

"It is different from all other events," Rahal said.

Canadian James Hinchcliffe has had a lot of time to think between the 99th and 100th races. Last year he wiped out in practice. This year he captured the pole with the fastest qualifying time of 230.766 mph.

Hinchcliffe, 29, has finished as high as sixth at Indy, but drew more attention for not starting in 2015. A piece of the car's suspension drove into his leg during the crash and he was gushing blood. Hinchcliffe needed 14 pints of blood.

Thursday, Hinchcliffe said he feels a lot of emotion during his successful return to the Speedway.

"I've reflected a lot during the last couple of weeks," he said. "I've got a good car. I've got a good crew. But there are no guarantees in this race."

Unusual for Indy in recent years, only one woman, Pippa Mann, 32, of London, qualified.

"The buildup has been incredible," Mann said. "I think it's special to be part of it."

So does Ed Carpenter, whose hometown is Indianapolis. A two-time pole winner, Carpenter, 35, was schooled in Indy 500 lore since elementary school. He attended his first race when he was 8. He knows the traditions by heart, from the winner drinking milk to kissing the bricks. The pageantry is imprinted on his brain.


"I miss Jim Nabors," Carpenter said. "His not being here, that makes me sad."

For decades, Nabors crooned "Back Home Again In Indiana" before the race. But he is in his 80s, lives in Hawaii and retired from the role in 2014.

Carpenter said his son Cruz wants daddy to win the race so he can swig some milk and then pour the rest on his father's head.

"My 3-year-old is putting a lot of pressure on me," Carpenter said.