I miss the days when the Indianapolis 500 was one of the biggest sporting events of the year. How long has it been since that was the case? It's probably been since the mid-'90s, when the Indy Racing League (IRL) split from the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series, watering down the talent, confusing casual fans and generally putting a bad taste in everyone's mouth. It's all unified now, but that split coincided with the rise of NASCAR, and since then, the Indy 500 is now just another race, even overshadowed by NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600. It has been quite the fall. Our own Mike Tanier has a sad, useful history of what all went wrong.
It's a shame, too. I love the Indianapolis 500. I grew up about 90 minutes from Indianapolis during a time when the race was the Memorial Day weekend event in the sports world, when the whole planet knew, for one Sunday in May, that my little area of the country actually existed. It has been more than 20 years since I've been to a race, but the three times I've been there, it never failed to blow my mind. It seemed so huge, a massive party with all sorts of goofy traditions I didn't understand but were amazing. It was, in many ways, my Kentucky Derby, done Midwestern style: With cars, beer, hot dogs and, when it's all over, milk. And the stands were populated with tons of guys who looked just like my dad.
The traditions are, in fact, the biggest part of the fun. I don't know who's in the race this year, who's supposed to win, any of the backstories. But I do know the great Indy 500 traditions. The best part about them is that they feel so Midwestern; they're dopey, sorta square and full of huge-hearted good cheer.
So: My 10 favorite Indianapolis 500 traditions...
1. The Hoosier 100. At the Indiana State Fairgrounds -- where I once accompanied my friend Andy and the pig he'd entered into a 4-H competition -- they hold a USAC event, dirt track, to kick off the whole Indy 500 weekend. The cars are cute, the venue is charming and the beer is cold. Ordinarily it's on Friday night, but this year they moved it up: It's actually tonight. You should go.
2. The winner's quilt. Only in the Midwest would the winner of a race be awarded a handmade quilt. A woman named Jeanetta Holder, from nearby Avon, Indiana, knits a quilt for the winner every year. Watch this video and tell me you're not in love with her:
3. Carburetion Day. More commonly known as "Carb Day" -- since cars stopped having carburetors decades ago -- it's the Friday before the race in which the celebration begins, most notably with a big concert at night. This concert features the sort of bands that are huge in the Midwest and mocked everywhere else (even though everyone secretly loves them), like ZZ Top, Kid Rock, the Black Crowes and Collective Soul. (Some of the lousier acts have included Staind, Papa Roach and Live.) This year: Poison. Oh yeah.
4. The Snake Pit Ball. Named after the once-rowdy, now-tamed party area at the track, it's the biggest social night in Indianapolis, a big black-tie event downtown. (I imagine it being the central socialite event of Leslie Knope's life.) This year, Foreigner is playing at a black tie event that costs $275 to attend. Sorry, though: This year's event is already sold out.
5. You can bring your own beer into the track. I repeat: You can bring your own beer in. That's America right there.
6. The Smith curse. I had never heard of this one until I came across it on the Indy 500 Wikipedia page: No one with the name "Smith" has ever qualified for the race. That's so goofy.
7. Florence Henderson and Jim Nabors. Every year since 1991, Carol Brady herself has sang the national anthem, "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America" before the race. (Henderson is from Indiana.) In an even better Midwestern tradition, Jim Nabors, with music from the Purdue marching band, sings "Back Home Again In Indiana" right before the race begins. The actor who played Gomer Pyle has done this every year but six since 1972, and hasn't missed one since 1986, other than the one he missed because of illness in 2007. When he returned in 2008, he received a massive ovation. The Indianapolis 500: Where Jim Nabors gets a standing ovation.
8. They freaking hate peanuts. Seriously: Peanuts, of all things, are considered horrific bad luck at the Indy 500. There are rumors this started because a crashed car in the '40s was found to have peanut shells in it, which makes as much sense as anything. NO PEANUTS.
9. The Last Row Party. They're actually not having this event this year -- I haven't been able to find an official reason as to why -- but traditionally, the drivers that qualify in the last three spots (the last row) are feted on Friday night and written checks for 31, 32 and 33 cents. This seems mean.
10. Milk! Oh yeah, the milk. In 1936, a racer drank buttermilk after the race because his mom told him it would help him on hot days. (His mother was weird.) Now the winner drinks it immediately after the race, though usually they just sip it because it's really hot in those race cars. There has never been a more Midwestern tradition than, the minute a race is over, drinking milk.
I love the Indy 500 so much. I wish I could be there this year. I'll just have to give Jim Nabors a standing ovation in the privacy of my own home. Salutations, Gomer!