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INDY 500 FUN FACTS you might not have known

Paul Dalbey
| May 11, 2011


Now that our complete and undivided attention has turned to the Month of May and the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, I felt this would be a great time to share some of my knowledge about the Indianapolis 500 with my fellow IndyCar fans.  Though I had originally intended to post about the IZOD IndyCar Series team owners’ stance on aero kits, the weather here in the Chicago outpost is just too nice for such a controversial topic.  I’m in the mood for something much more uplifting and entertaining.

And with that, I give you 10 facts that you may not have previously known about the Indianapolis 500.  No, these aren’t necessarily Donald Davidson-level trivia (who, by the way, is reported to be the only known official historian of any race track in the world -- that’s fact #11, and it’s on the house!). But if you remember what you read here, you’ll be sure to impress at least a few people on Georgetown Road the Night Before the 500!

1.)  For many years, when the track still opened on May 1st every year, the first fan in line waiting for the gates to open was a man named Larry Bisceglia.  Typically arriving in the waning days of April, Bisceglia aimed to the first person in line every year.  After a couple of unsuccessful attempts in 1948 and 1949, Bisceglia accomplished his goal in 1950.  For the next 36 years, Larry’s arrival at the gates of 16th and Georgetown signaled the arrival of May and the opening of festivities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

2.)  There have been two men to drive in the Indianapolis 500 named Howdy Wilcox.  The first Howdy Wilcox won the 1919 ‘500,’ the first race back after the World War I hiatus.  The second Howdy, believed to be of absolutely no relation to the first and often referred to as Howdy Wilcox II, started only one ‘500’ but was able to come home with a solid second-place finish in 1932 behind winner Fred Frame.

3.)  Though commonly referred to in public as the “Indianapolis 500,” that was not the official name of the race until 1981.  Nearly every year from 1911 through 1980 (with a few exceptions), the official name of the event was the “International 500-Mile Race Sweepstakes.”  For reasons well beyond the scope of this trivia, the race became an invitational event after 1979, and the term “International Sweepstakes” was officially dropped from the title.  Interestingly, though the Borg-Warner Trophy was commissioned in 1935, it bears no mention of the “International Sweepstakes” moniker.  During the 2009-2011 IMS Centennial Era, tickets for the Indianapolis 500 have borne the words “500-Mile International Sweepstakes” in homage of the event’s history.

4.)  The ‘500’ has not always had 33 starters.  After allowing all who could meet the 75 mph minimum speed requirement in 1911 (which turned out to be 40 cars), AAA (the sanctioning body of the event at the time) determined that while on track, cars at speed should be spaced an average of 400 feet apart from each other.  As a result, over the course of 2.5 miles, exactly 33 spots would be available.  In many of the early years, less than 33 cars started the race, and in a few years during the depression, the 33-car maximum was waived.  However, with only a pair of exceptions, the field has been capped at 33 cars since 1934.

5.)  Although the US Census Bureau estimates there are approximately 2.75 million people in the country with the last name “Smith,” making it the most common surname in the United States, not a single one of the 732 drivers to have driven in the Indianapolis 500 has been named Smith.  In fact, the only driver known to have competed in any event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway named Smith is NASCAR driver Regan Smith, who made his debut in the 2008 Brickyard 400.

6.)  One three different occasions, a driver has taken the white flag (meaning one lap to go) twice in the same race.  In each case, the driver passed the leader on the last lap to unlap himself and be allowed one more lap.  Those instances were in 1979 (Mike Mosley), 1990 (Emerson Fittipaldi) and 1995 (Arie Luyendyk).

7.)  For the first many years of the ‘500,’ the colors of the flags were very different than today’s standards.  The race actually started with a red flag instead of the green.  The green flag meant there was one lap to go, not the white flag.  However, the checkered flag still meant the race was finished and can be seen in the picture of Ray Harroun winning the first 500-mile race in 1911.

8.)  In 1992, Roberto Guerrero won the pole position with a record qualifying run but crashed on the parade lap before the race started.  Following the 1992 season, team owner Kenny Bernstein sold the car Guerrero crashed to Pagan Racing, where it was used during the 1993 IndyCar season.  During the running of the 1993 Indianapolis 500, driver Jeff Andretti, running in the same car Guerrero had crashed on the parade lap in 1992, crashed in turn 3 on lap 124.  In the crash, Jeff tangled with none other than Roberto Guerrero.  For 1994, Roberto Guerrero was hired by Pagan Racing, where he drove the same car that he and Jeff Andretti had crashed the previous two years.  On the 20th lap, Guerrero crashed the car yet again.  In three consecutive years, Guerrero had been taken out in crashes all involving the same chassis.

9.)  The closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis 500 was the 1992 finish between Al Unser, Jr. and Scott Goodyear.  Officially, the margin of victory for Little Al was 0.043 seconds.  However, it is actually even closer than that.  The new Galmer chassis that Unser drove in 1992 was not able to place the timing transponder in the standard position, which at the time was approximately next to the driver in the left sidepod.  Instead, the timing and scoring transponder on Unser’s car was actually located in the nose near the front wings, whereas the transponder on Goodyear’s standard-issue Lola was in the normal position, much further away from the front of the car.  The difference in position was about three feet.  Given that the margin of victory in terms of distance was around 10 feet, those three feet become pretty significant.  Though the official margin of victory remains to this day 0.043 seconds, unofficial estimates put the actual margin of victory closer to 0.033 seconds.

10.) During the entirety of his career at Indianapolis, Dennis Firestone drove on Goodyear tires.  Though Scott Goodyear drove on Goodyear tires early in his career, he nearly won the race in 1995 and 1997 on Firestone tires.  In 1920, Gaston Chevrolet, younger brother of Chevrolet Motor Car Company founder Louis Chevrolet, won the race driving a Frontenac-powered Ford Model-T racer.  In 1982, Jim Buick attempted to qualify a Chevrolet-powered Eagle.  The Eagle, of course, was designed and built by Dan Gurney, who was instrumental in bringing Ford back to the Indianapolis 500… with Lotus!


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    Wilcox II was also a diabetic, and was later banned from the 500 for safety concerns, despite protestations from many of the other drivers. He never raced at Indy again.
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