HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
May 21, 2006

It’s an Indy weekend

By Matt Kane

In the world of sports, there are few venues (past and present) that get a rise out of the hairs on the back of any sports fans’ neck.

The Boston Garden was the place for basketball, and the Montreal Forum was the arena of hockey legend. Still standing are football’s Lambeau Field, the home of the Green Bay Packers, the House that Ruth Built, Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees hail; and, just to the south, on Manhattan Island, sits the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden, where anyone and everyone from Sugar Ray Robinson to Mark Messier shone under the bright lights of New York City.

The first Sunday in May always brings attention to Churchill Downs, a venue so respected it is fit for the sport of kings and the Kentucky Derby.

Horse racing isn’t exactly exploding with television ratings through the first four months of the year, but, come early May, the Kentucky Derby is studied and restudied by the average Joe. In recent times, the same could be said about the Indianapolis 500.

Like the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500 is always scheduled for the same weekend. Before the United States remembers its war heros on Memorial Day, the country, and the world, tunes into the broadcast of the 500, run on the famous brickyard that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

To race fans who were race fans before the NASCAR boom, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the Mecca of motor sports.

The names Earnhardt, Wallace, Stewart and Gordon tend to be the first names that come to mind when talking racing today, but they may never be as well known in the racing world as Andretti, Foyt, Mears and Unser.

These surnames became household names through IndyCar racing, when Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and brothers Jerry, Bobby and Al Unser opened the throttle of their open-wheeled vehicles around the 2 1/2-mile rectangle.

By Sunday night, we will all want to know who won the 91st Indianapolis, but what do we really know about the history of this great race, besides that the winner drinks milk?

I can tell you Foyt, Unser and Mears are tied for the most 500 victories. Foyt won in 1961, ‘64, ‘67 and ‘77; Unser won in 1970, ‘71, ‘78 and ‘87; and Mears won in 1979, ‘84, ‘88 and ‘91.

In case you forgot, Sam Hornish Jr. won the 2006 race, and, for doing so, his team took home $1.74 million of the $10.5 million total purse. When Foyt won his first Indy 500, he pocketed $117,975 of the $400,000 total purse. In 1911, the first 500 winner, Ray Harroun, took home $14,250 of the $27,550 total purse, driving the “Wasp.”

To take the checkered flag, Harroun averaged 74.602 mph, and finished the 500 miles in 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds. Hornish was moving along at a little quicker pace, averaging 157.085 mph, at last year’s race. He finished in 3 hours, 10 minutes, 58.7590 seconds. The fastest average winning speed was 185.981 mph set by Arie Luyendyk in the 1990 race.

History shows, if you want to win the Indianapolis 500, scribble the No. 3 on the nose of your car. No. 3 had led the field to the checkered flag a record 10 times, followed by No. 2, which has won eight races. Two-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves currently sits in the No. 3 car. He won back-to-back races in 2001 and 2002.

As for the age of the drivers, it is good to be 32 years old. Nine different drivers, including Harroun, Foyt, Unser, Mears and Al Unser Jr., won the race when they were 32. At the age of 22 years, 80 days in 1952, Troy Ruttman was the youngest to win a 500, and Unser was the oldest to win, when he was 47 years, 360 days in 1987.

The most dominant performance at the Indy 500 may have been that of Billy Arnold in the 1930 race. Of the 200 race laps, he led 198 (laps 3-200) in a win. In 1912, Ralph DePalma was two off Arnold’s pace, leading 196 laps, but he didn’t win the race due to engine failure. Joe Dawson won the race.

Understandably, Indiana has spawned the most Indianapolis 500 winners. Seven different Hoosier State drivers have won a combined nine races. Twenty different states have claim to at least one winner, including Minnesota. St. Paul’s Tommy Milton took the checkered flag in 1921 and 1923, becoming the first two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. It’s kind of scary, but Milton did so despite being completely blind in his right eye and having impaired vision in his left.

Milton was the American Driver’s Champion in 1921. He officially retired from racing in 1927, and died in 1962.


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