It isn't called "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing" for nothing!
The Indianapolis 500 is a must-watch event every year, but Fernando Alonso’s decision to take part in the famous race instead of the Monaco Grand Prix means that there’ll be quite a few extra eyes on it in 2017.
But if that alone isn’t enough to convince you to give it a go, we’ve come up with a list of eight reasons why you should be watching.
The Monaco Grand Prix was first raced in 1929. The first 24 Hours of Le Mans took place in 1923. That’s a lot of history, but the Indy 500 blows them out of the water: the first race at the brickyard took place in 1911. This year will be the 101st running and unlike many other historic races, it takes place on exactly the same track, meaning you can make pretty direct comparisons with the past.
It doesn’t just have the history, but it also embraces it. The start-finsih line still has a strip of the original bricks that onces covered the entire track (hence the ‘Brickyard’ moniker), and many of the celebrations that take place before and after the race have been part of the event for decades. In victory lane the winning driver still drinks milk (unless you’re Emerson Fittipaldi), and the winner gets their face sculpted onto the famous Borg-Warner trophy alongside all the other past winners.
Oh, and the list of past winners features some incredibly famous names. Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Emerson Fittipaldi, Dario Franchitti, A.J. Foyt, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve and many others. And that’s without mentioning the plethora of immensely talented American drivers - A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, and more. And of course there’s the Andretti family, who have been competing at the brickyard for more than 50 years, although Mario’s triumph in 1969 remains their only win.
The Indy 500 is reported to be the largest single-day sporting event in the world, with well over 300,000 people attending every year. Although IndyCar itself has suffered from poor attendance in recent years it’s never a problem with the 500, as its prestige and allure transcend all else.
On race day the huge grandstands are absolutely packed, turning the whole circuit into more of a stadium than a race track. The noise can be incredible, and just watching it on TV can make you feel like you’re a part of it. Once you’ve seen the way the whole venue celebrates the winner you’ll be frantically figuring out how you can get there yourself for next year.
Technically any motor race can be won by anyone, but it’s highly unlikely. Somewhere out there is a set of circumstances that will allow Jolyon Palmer to win a Grand Prix, but it’s not going to happen. But in the Indy 500 every single one of the drivers can realistically envision themselves as the winner, because there’s so much more to it than just being fast (the last five winners all started from outside the top 10).
Or course being fast helps, but one lap pace is nothing without a decent strategy. And there is no such thing as an ideal strategy, because so many things will happen during the race that many teams and drivers will adjust it three or four times during the race based on what’s going on. A caution period can totally turn the race on its head, and in an instant a strategy that was bad can suddenly become perfect (and vice versa).
As a result it’s often hard to say who’s going to be in the hunt to win until the final few laps, and even then things can change. Just ask JR Hildebrand…
There’s a lot more to the Indy 500 (and all oval racing) than just turning left. At speeds in excess of 220mph even the tiniest bump in the road or sudden gust of wind can have a dramatic effect because the cars are constantly on the very limits of adhesion.
A driver who is good on a road course doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be good on an oval because the skillset needed is very different. Racing at such high speeds with such high G-forces for over three hours, dealing with dirty air, lapping traffic and making a strategy work all whilst battling other cars requires immense levels of concentration and adaptability which can take years to fully get to grips with.
Add on top of that the need to drive a certain way to make a strategy work, or how to deal with dirty air from other cars and you’ve got driver who have as much on their plates - if not more - than F1 drivers, albeit with much more disastrous consequences for getting it wrong.
These guys and girls aren’t just sitting there with their foot on the floor and turning left, they’re working extremely hard and have as much on their plates - if not more so - than F1 drivers, but with much more distasterous consequences if they get something even slightly wrong. They’re absolute superstars.
In F1 whenever we see an overtake in a fast corner like Eau Rouge, Blanchimont, or 130R we justifiably go nuts. After all, these are high-risk moves that reward bravery, commitment and respect from every driver involved. At the Indy 500, every overtake is like that.
Although the rarity of such passes in F1 is definitely a huge part what makes them so special, just because they’re more frequent at Indy it doesn’t make them any less impressive. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s duel with Helio Castroneves at the end of the 2014 race was an absolute thriller:
In most cases it’s basically impossible for anyone to break the slipstream of the car behind so battles can rage on for several laps. And when the cars are packed up after a restart you’ll start to see some incredibly daring maneuvers, particularly if it’s coming up to the end of the race.
If you’ve ever wanted to see someone successfully pull off a lunge into a 200mph corner with a couple of wheels on the grass, the Brickyard is the place.
There’s nothing unusual about seeing a name familiar to F1 fans in the Indy 500, but what makes Fernando Alonso’s entry special is the fact that he’s a current F1 driver who has chosen to skip Monaco to race at Indy. That hasn’t happened for 40 years, let alone to someone considered among the best Formula 1 drivers of all time.
To watch Alonso tackle the race in his quest to eventually win the Triple Crown is a huge, huge moment for motorsport as a whole - hence why there’s so much coverage of it. Why would you want to miss out on that?! Especially if he ends up somehow managing to win. If that happened and you didn’t watch it, you’d kick yourself…
Of course, Fernando is just one of 33 drivers who will be racing in the Indy 500, so what about the other 32? Well, there are a whole host of talented people out there. Seven of them are past winners of the event, one of whom - Helio Castroneves - is still in pursuit of a record-equalling fourth victory.
Last year’s rookie winner Alexander Rossi returns, and Juan Pablo Montoya is back to try and add a third win. Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon (who is widely considered to be one of the best drivers to never have raced in F1) are other former winner, while the seventh, 49-year-old Buddy Lazier - first competed at Indy in 1989!
Add to that 12 other IndyCar race winners and a whole host of other talented young drivers, and you’re looking at probably two-thirds of the grid (or more!) who will go into the race with genuine aspirations of victory. Although as I said earlier, anyone can win it!
Although the Indy 500 is a massive event on its own, it’s also the sixth round of the IndyCar championship. So once you’ve watched and enjoyed the 500 (and you will enjoy it!), why not check out the rest of the season?
One of the best things about IndyCar is the calendar. There are 18 races, equally divided between ovals, street tracks and road courses, making it perhaps the truest test of driver abilities of any championship in the world. And those road courses are the kind of undulating, high speed rollercoaster rides that we all wish F1 raced on, but since that’ll never happen, watching IndyCars race at the likes of Road America and Watkins Glen is as close as you’ll get.
Because the calendar is so diverse and the cars so evenly matched that makes for lots of different winners throughout a season. And lots of different winners means close championships. That’s good in it’s own way, the fact that the racing is often so entertaining as well is just a bonus.
So yeah, throw all your pre-conceptions about IndyCar out of the window. It’s not full of F1 rejects, they don’t spend a year lazily turning left, and it has a history to match any championship in the world. It isn’t F1, but it isn’t trying to be. The Indianapolis 500 is its showpiece event and if this year’s race is going to be your first time watching IndyCar, then I guarantee you it won’t be your last.