The month of the Indy conjures up many a meaning to many a folk.
Named for Maia, the Greek goddess of fertility, May hosts modern and ancient anniversaries or moments in time.
The first of the month is International Workers Day and is also the day in 1931 that New York’s Empire State building was officially opened.
Old English folklore considered the month a bad time to marry but the month’s recognised birthstone is emerald, held to mean rebirth, love and good fortune. May is also celebrated in England as “national smile month”.
Scott Dixon takes to the track. Picture /AP
The month brings smiles aplenty for motor sports fans around the world because to them May means the annual pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the famed 500 — or just plain old Indy.
This year the event (for it is an event more so than a simple race) is more special as it is the 100th running of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’. Not the 100th anniversary of the actual event, that happened in 2011, but this year marks 100 races taking into account the shutdown of the Speedway for both world wars.
Accommodation, flights and tickets sold out long ago and the crowd will be enormous.
The Speedway — nicknamed “The Brickyard” because 3.2 million bricks were used to pave the original track — never releases crowd figures but the seating alone caters for in excess of 270,000 people with another estimated 100,000 in the infield.
Those figures ensure that the event, in the world’s largest sporting arena, has the world’s largest single day attendance with the winner of the event taking home nearly $4 million and even those in the last few places earning around $500,000. The event and the speedway are steeped in tradition.
The town of Speedway (yes, there is a town called that) is in Wayne Township, Marion County, Indiana and still has a long road called “Gasoline Alley” where many a race shop is to be found.
The Speedway personnel are a breed apart with positions often handed down from father to son, mother to daughter and the “Safety Patrol” are the police of all they survey.
Easily recognised in their traditional yellow shirts, many of them are of advanced years but the Speedway is in their blood. They are all courteous to a fault and a mine of information, as long as you don’t disobey an instruction.
“Bump Day” has been one of the most exciting days of the event. This is held on the Sunday before the race, and it is the last chance for cars and drivers not yet qualified to join the traditional 33 to get in. They do this by trying to ‘bump’ the last guy out of the field by setting a faster qualifying time.
With a maximum of 33 cars allowed to race — and some 40 cars entered for this centenary event — Bump Day will bring joy to some and despair to others.
Carb Day is another hangover from a past era when the cars had carburettors to tune and this day was the last practice day before the event for them to do that.
Not too many “carbs” around these days, the last one was in 1963, but the day is still the final chance for the drivers to get on the track before the big day.
Before the race start at midday, the traditions start after the gates are opened at 6am and gradually ramp up with parades and bands.
Another tradition is the Gordon Pipers whose dulcet tones of the bagpipes have graced every ‘500’ since 1963, and to this day four bagpipers play in victory lane. The four represent the winning car coming to victory lane with four wheels intact.
2002 Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Brazil pours two bottles of milk onto his head after winning his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 auto race. Picture/AP
Constant parades of marching bands, celebrities from every walk of American life introduced to the crowd, the invocation, anthem singing, presentation of the colours by the military to mark that the race is always held on Memorial Day weekend, parade laps, Stealth fighter aircraft fly pasts and more driver and VIP introductions ... and, finally, it gets to the final moments before the race.
With the singing of Back Home In Indiana, a tradition dating from the earliest days of the event and then, on the last note of the song, the release of hundreds of coloured balloons, a tradition dating from 1947, and finally the words “gentlemen — start your engines”. It is all emotional, extremely patriotic and stirring like no Formula 1 Grand Prix can be.
At the race end the winner drinks the milk, a tradition that’s been around since 1936. Three-time winner Louis Meyer drank buttermilk regularly on a hot day, due to advice his mother had given him as a boy. It was after his 1936 win that milk was introduced to victory lane.
Emerson Fittipaldi is the only driver since 1956 to not drink the milk. He drank a glass of orange juice to promote the Brazilian orange growing industry and to this day, has never been forgiven by the Speedway or the fans.
With the milk comes the traditional winners wreath and then the huge, magnificent, sterling silver Borg Warner trophy with a likeness of all the winning drivers featured on it and worth over US$1 million.
Standing 1.65m tall and weighing 50kg, the trophy has personal guards and no one is allowed to touch it without wearing special gloves. (If you can get near it.)
This event is like no other in the world and I shall be there, yet again, to hopefully witness Scott Dixon drink that milk.