This weekend marks the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 motor race. While it no longer dominates the news cycle as it once did, the event still attracts the largest single day crowd in sports. The actual size of the crowd is never disclosed, but it is rumored that actor/racer Paul Newman once paid some kids to count the empty seats and came up with more than 250,000. No one could think of a way to count the always rowdy infield crowd.
I only attended one race myself (2005), because big crowds are just not my thing. It was an exciting race with the winner not determined until the final lap, the actual pass taking place right in front of our seats. Unfortunately the cars are so fast it hardly registered until the checkered flag was waved.
It has been many years of limited variation in the starting fields, a situation dictated by safety concerns and budget limits. In its heyday, “The 500” was an annual test of innovation, engineering, and wackiness. Trade magazines and popular publications filled their April and May issues with pictures of the new entrants and stories of the brave men piloting them.
A car with two motors once started on the middle of the front row. Major companies funded the construction of some amazing racers, such as the Gulf-Millers of the late 1930s with rear-mounted, supercharged engines and four-wheel drive. A car with six wheels made the field several times. So did a diesel-powered roadster. For the gear engineer, those oddball cars are well worth a look.
The innovation that started with Ray Haroun’s rearview mirror probably peaked with 1967’s STP turbine car. Ever since then, the rules have been frequently revised to restrict the competitors from going too fast. Millions still watch, but it is not quite the same spectacle it once was. Given the speed capability of modern race cars, it is probably best for all concerned.