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A Proper British Visit to the Indy 500

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Indy 500: The Greatest Spectacle in Racing with a Travel Belle

Kate Turner in the driver’s seat of an IndyCar

It’s billed as ‘the greatest spectacle in racing’ and said to be the largest one-day spectator sports event in the world. It’s so famous that even I – a non-motor sports fan resident several thousand miles away across the Atlantic Ocean – had heard of it. What am I talking about? The Indy 500, of course.

When I discovered that my 10-day trip to visit my friend in Indianapolis coincided with the race, I knew we had to get tickets. Neither myself nor Vicki (a fellow Brit who’s relocated to Indy) knew much about the sport, but as the event that put Indianapolis on the world map, we weren’t going to let that hold us back; we were going to the race.

First held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (to use its official title) is a 200-lap event which lasts around three hours. Thirty-three IndyCars compete against each other to race the 2.5-mile oval circuit and be declared the winner. The race takes place each year on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and is preceded by the 500 Festival, a programme of related events including a parade through downtown Indianapolis – and plenty of partying. Arriving only the evening before the race, I would, unfortunately, have no time to get myself into the festive spirit; there was just enough time to sleep off a bit of jet-lag before we headed to the track.

On Sunday morning, the streets surrounding the race track were charged with atmosphere – and traffic. Every type of business in the vicinity bore a banner declaring “Welcome race fans!” Smart locals rented out their driveways for spectator parking and race-goers bearing backpacks and coolers swarmed toward the track.

The number of tickets sold for the Indy 500 is never released by the Speedway’s owners, but the track’s capacity is around 400,000 – and given the chaos surrounding the stadium, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised at such a gate statistic. For two clueless British girls caught in a crowd of fans, it was a little overwhelming – especially given the extreme heat, which topped 90 degrees during the day.

We took our prime seats in the Paddock area and were instantly glad to have shelled out $90 each for entry. Advised by Vicki’s cousin, a long-time Indy resident, we’d chosen seats in the centre of one of the track’s two straightaways (5/8 mile sides) – and the only straightaway with seating. This meant we had views of both turns leading into the straightaway, as well as the pits and the winner’s podium.

Unfortunately, this location was also popular with the sun, so we slapped on plenty of sunscreen and hats and waited for the spectacle to unfold. Excitement among spectators was running high; from the bikini-clad college girls next to us to the families and the groups of young men, everyone was eager for midday to roll around and the race to begin.

We missed the vintage car laps that take place on the morning of the race, but we did arrive in time to see the military parade and flyover in honour of Memorial Day. This was followed by renditions of “America the Beautiful,” the national anthem and “Back Home in Indiana.” As Brits, we were both awed by the scale of the pageantry at the Indy 500, and the pride most race-goers seem to take in their country, given their vocal contributions to the songs.

There was also a tribute to Dan Wheldon, the two-time winner of the Indy 500 who died last year in a crash at the IZOD IndyCar World Championship in Las Vegas. Anthems and tributes over, the immortal words ‘Ladies and gentlemen start your engines’ were uttered and the chequered flags waved. The 2012 running of the Indy 500 had begun.

Moving too quickly to capture!


With three women and five Brits competing, we were spoiled for choice when it came to choosing whom to root for – so we arbitrarily plumped for Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who shares the same surname as a mutual friend. Hey, it’s as good a reason as any, given our lack of knowledge – and his bright green car was easy to spot. Thumbing through the race day copy of local paper The Indianapolis Star and the official programme, we learned just enough to guide us through the next three hours.

Before the field evened out and the leaders separated themselves from the pack, the cars zipped past in a blur of color and noise – most of our fellow spectators seemed to have come equipped with earplugs, but we didn’t find the sound levels as bad as we’d feared. It was sometimes a struggle to hear the commentary over the loudspeaker, advising everyone of lead changes and informing us about pit stops and crashes. Fortunately, there weren’t too many of the latter.

IndyCar racing can be a dangerous sport; the Indy 500 has claimed the lives of 14 drivers during its history. Although several caution flags were raised during the course of the race, this year’s Indy 500 was largely incident-free. The only multiple crash toward the end ruled out both Will Power and Ed Conway, but a number of drivers also spun and hit the wall.

With a record 35 lead changes, this year’s race was an exciting one to watch. Given the speed of the cars – they’re capable of more than 220 miles per hour – it can feel difficult to follow at times, but the commentary and leaderboard help even the most clueless of spectators to keep track of the action. With second-placed Takuma Sato crashing into the wall as he tried to overtake leader (and eventual winner) Dario Franchitti in the final lap, the tension was maintained until the final moments of the race – and given that it lasts three hours, that was no mean feat. Even if you think motorsports aren’t for you, you can’t fail to be captivated by the spectacle of the Indy 500. As we learned, it’s not just the cars that are on show – there’s plenty of people-watching to do too.

Travel Belle Tips for watching the Indy 500

1. Research your seating carefully before buying a ticket. If you’re sensitive to the heat, a seat in the shade is well worth it – we were only undercover for the last hour, which made the race a test of stamina for us as well as the drivers.
2. Come prepared with sunscreen, food and drinks. The beer-swigging college kids were certainly jealous of our impressive picnic – and our cartons of wine.
3. Try to learn a bit about IndyCar racing before you arrive at the race. Boning up on both the sport and the competitors while the show was getting underway wasn’t ideal. If possible, visit the track in advance. The Hall of Fame Museum has a great movie detailing the history of the race and the speedway, and the bus tour of the track helps you see things from a driver’s point of view.
4. Choose someone to support. Having someone to cheer for maintains your interest.

Our driver came in fifth, so there was plenty to cheer about during the race.
5. Take a break. It’s often hot on Memorial Day weekend, so make sure you head inside the concourse for a few minutes to cool off during the course of the race.

Have you ever been to the Indy 500?  Do you want to go someday?

For more information visit the Indy 500 website.

All photos property of and by the author.

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About the author

Textbook editor Monday to Friday, travel writer weekends and holidays. Originally from the north-west of England, Kate currently lives in Spain and enjoys the challenges it brings. Her blog is Oh Hello, Spain. She also writes for Rough Guides and Flush the Fashion.

4 thoughts on “A Proper British Visit to the Indy 500”

  1. Did you know I lived in Indianapolis for three years and NEVER made it to the race?! Gah! Unforgivable. 🙂 So glad you made it and had so much fun. 🙂

  2. I met a guy who has lived there his whole life and has never been! I suppose maybe it was more exciting for me as a tourist than for a resident who drives past the speedway all the time. I would definitely recommend it though, even to those who know nothing about motor sports – the spectacle is worth it!

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