The waving of the green flag Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will mark the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500-or, as we call it, the Indy 500.
Since the very first 500 mile race on Decoration Day 1911—(there was a 200-mile affair in 1910)—there have only been six years Indianapolis didn’t see a checkered flag on or around what is now known as the Memorial Day weekend. There were no races in 1917 or 1918, due to World War I, or from 1942-1945, due to World War II.
Living in Indiana, this time of year everyone becomes a race fan and follows the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” As a kid, I don’t remember paying any attention at all to racing until the month of May. Then I, along with everyone else, started following the patterns and traditions of the 500, from “Carb Day” to qualifications. Then, on race day, we’d listen to the race on the radio (TV blackout), from the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” right down to the winning driver chugging milk in the Winner’s Circle. Despite being only once a year, a major part of the soundtrack to my childhood is the excited voices of race announcers backed by the growl and whine of racing engines.
I find it interesting to look back over the history of the Indy 500. It’s a dual story of tradition and technical innovation.
One tradition is the race’s four–lap qualification system. This was first used in 1920, and each year since 1939.
Another tradition has to do with the winner always drinking from a bottle of milk. This one can be traced back to 1933, when winning driver Louis Meyer wanted a glass of buttermilk. In 1936 he wanted buttermilk again but was given a bottle instead. After seeing a press photo of this, an Indiana dairy saw a marketing opportunity and started offering the winner a bottle of milk each year—not knowing that Meyer’s choice had been buttermilk.
The annual Indy 500 Festival was first organized in 1957. Current events include the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon, the 500 Festival Parade, and the Snake Pit Ball.
Food and alcohol also have a place among Indy 500 traditions. The pork tenderloin sandwich—famous inside and outside Indiana—is one of the best known. Unlike many sporting events, many speedways including Indianapolis and most speedways allow spectators to bring in alcoholic beverages from the outside—in addition to selling it in concessions. The only real restriction is no glass bottles. It’s not for fan safety, though—it’s to avoid broken glass getting onto the track and damaging tires.
One food tradition has faded away. For decades, peanuts were said to be bad luck, and to be avoided, but peanuts are now sold at the speedway.
Besides the milk swig in the winner’s circle, perhaps the most iconic tradition is the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” which since 1946 has included a balloon release. The song is traditionally sung just before the command to start engines is given.
For many years this tradition was associated with Jim Nabors, but his final performance was in 2014. Last year the song was performed by Straight No Chaser, and this year Josh Kaufman will do the honors.
Along with traditions, there has been a consistent line of innovation stretching back through the race’s history.
For instance—did you know the now ubiquitous rear-view mirror was an Indy innovation? In the very first race in 1911, driver Ray Harroun was the only driver with a single-seater. All the other cars had two seats and included a mechanic, whose jobs included watching behind. So, Harroun mounted: a rectangular mirror rear view. Although he did win, and rear view mirrors made their way in every car on the road, it was not because of its helpfulness on that occasion. Turns out it vibrated so badly the driver couldn’t see anything.
Lighter aluminum parts is another example. Louis Chevrolet founded a company and produced several successful cars with aluminum crankcases and more. This led to use of aluminum in engines by others in order to get more speed by losing weight. This in turn helped bring about the high-performance auto aftermarket.
How about front wheel drive? 1922 Indy winner Jimmy Murphy first asked for front-wheel-drive, thinking he’d get better speed in the turns. Engineer Harry Miller developed a transverse-mounted transmission which not only brought about the front wheel drive, but also chopped a lot of weight from the car.
Miller and Indy also first brought us four-wheel disc brakes. He first put them on his four-wheel drive race cars in the late 1930s, and by 1949 Crosley was offering them on their passenger cars.
That dual story strikes a chord with us at Draper, because it’s also an apt description of our own movement through history. From our founding in 1902 we’ve built up plenty of traditions, and introduced many innovations.
And I guess that’s one big reason why both the Indy 500 and Draper are not only surviving, but thriving, after more than 100 years.
So as you enjoy the Indy 500 this year—whether in person, on the big (Draper) screen, or via radio—think of the ways the technology you use has been effected by the technical innovations on display. And remember that the best of the best not only have a strong culture of innovation; they also have a strong tradition upon which to build.
Ladies and gentlemen—start your engines!