Why the Indy 500 is gearhead heaven

Indy 500 race car

Sweat. Mud. Milk. Blood. Bricks. Can the Indianapolis 500 be described in mere words? I’ll do the best I can.

My 2019 Indy 500 started Friday. Carb Day, it’s still called, despite the fact that the only carburetors on the property were either in the museum, or on the GMC Eleganza II motorhome parked just outside turn 4. The track was packed with people, many of whom were enjoying early morning beverages of the sort that require an ID. Outfits ranged from “I call in sick on Carb Day,” t-shirts to checkered flag tank tops revealing a shocking amount of side-boob—and that was just the men.

sleeping arrangements
Elana Scherr

The track highlight was the pit-stop challenge, where a 12-car ladder of top Indy racers competes in an eliminations bracket that requires a drag race start to a pit box about 200 feet away. While the stopwatch clicks, the teams mimic a pitstop with a four-tire change and simulated refuel, then the cars peel out to a green flag at the end of the pit lane. It’s all tire smoke and strategy, and it’s fun enough to watch to be its own sporting event. Maybe NHRA should bring its nitro engine rebuilds to half track? In the end, Marcus Ericsson and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports beat out the pitstop champ Scott Dixon and Ganassi Racing for the win.

Indy cars on the track
Elana Scherr

Friday evening—I was still hungry for wheel to wheel action, so I left the Speedway for the Raceway, Lucas Oil Raceway, in Brownsburg, Indiana. The Raceway hosts the famous US Nationals on its quarter-mile dragstrip, but during the Indy 500, it’s the (slightly more than) half-mile oval that sees action. The hunchy, snorty, small-block-powered Silver Crown cars bunch up and tear around the short ovals like a herd of buffalo farting fire. Kyle Hamilton claimed the trophy after a wild race that saw several on-track attempts to reshape one-another’s bodywork.   

racing at Indy
Elana Scherr

Saturday is the Indy 500’s quiet day, two-seater Indy Car demo rides and classic Indy Car parade laps being the majority of the track action. Of course, if you are one of the lucky folks getting the demo ride, Saturday just might be the best day of the weekend. Month. Year. You know that centrifuge they strap astronauts in for high-G training? Well, imagine that, but powered by a twin-turbo V-6 and running on alcohol right behind your head.

Driver Matt Brabham took us around at 180 mph, fast enough to take pole position in an early ‘70s Indy race, but nearly 50 mph slower than the top speeds the drivers would see during their 200 laps on Sunday. At 180 for two laps, I could barely breathe, my eyesight was blurry, a string of drool slid back along my cheek and I didn’t have the neck or chin muscles to close my mouth.

“Oh yeah, I do special exercises,” Brabham told me afterwards when I asked if he had trouble adjusting to the G-forces (I didn’t mention the drool). “It’s best to be short with a short neck,” added a voice from the other car. I’ll trust that guy, it was Mario Andretti.

Elana Scherr selfie
Elana Scherr

Ah, but now we get to race day. Hot. The stands smell like beer and bodies. The skies are periodically ripped open by fighter jets, and each time, the crowd turns and gasps like a single, massive organism. This same big intake, the slow “oooooh,” will happen over and over during the race as the cars surge and poke at each other, testing limits of adhesion and patience. Colton Herta is out quick, mechanical failure. Marcus Ericsson spins on a pit stop. Will Power gets a drive through penalty. Simon Pagenaud stays out front, and lets the disasters happen behind him.

When the big wreck comes, it crumples dreams along with carbon fiber, but for those who escape it, it’s time to race. Alexander Rossi challenges for the lead. He’s seething. You can practically see adrenaline sizzling off his helmet. He passes, three laps to go. Pagenaud takes it back, two laps left. Rossi looks like he might just drive up and over the Frenchman, but Pagenaud holds him off, weaving and waiting and finally, winning.

Maybe you can’t describe the Indy 500 in words alone, but I’ll say two for certain. Worth seeing.