Watch superfast cars speed around and around and around
Fervour for NASCAR racing may have overshadowed the long-running Indianapolis 500 in recent years, but you’d never know it from the spectacle of more than 250,000 fans flooding into the Indiana capital on Memorial Day weekend at the end of May. (For the vehicularly challenged, the fundamental difference between the two schools of racing is that NASCAR vehicles are fully enclosed passenger cars, while Indy cars have rear engines and four times the horsepower of the average passenger car.)
What is still billed as the largest single-day sporting event in the world takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a 2.5-mile oval track, essentially unchanged since it was built in 1909. The first 500-mile race followed two years later in 1911; the winning speed averaged around 67 miles per hour and the purse was $14,000 (£9,000).
On race day, autograph hunters, photographers and celebrities create a circus-like atmosphere as VIPs mingle around the track and grounds. Be on the lookout for legends with last names like Andretti and Unser—or even for talk show host David Letterman, a hometown hero and racing enthusiast who co-owns an Indy team. One of the biggest stars in recent years has been a young brunette named Danica Patrick, only the fourth woman ever to race in the Indy 500.
From the grandstands, the Indy 500 can seem like a deafening marathon blur as the 33 cars scream past at speeds over 200 miles per hour. Behind the steering wheels, the heavily protected drivers experience G-forces comparable to those of astronauts blasting off from the launch pad. Pit stops, pile-ups and rare fiery crashes aside, the only lull in the roar comes under yellow caution flags, requiring drivers to slow down. Tension mounts leading up to the final, 200th lap, as drivers surge towards the finish line and that famous black-and-white chequered flag. The winning purse was $10 million (£6.5 million) in 2006, split among all 33 drivers and crews. The winner, who traditionally glugs down cold milk in Victory Lane, gets a big chunk of that ($1.7 million (£1.1 million) in 2006).
If you can’t make it to Indy on race day, you can whet your need for speed with a trip through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum on the track grounds. Browse the showroom, which displays about 80 cars, including such automotive treasures as a 1927 Duesenberg and a 1957 SSI Corvette, as well as the cars driven by four-time champion A.J. Foyt. For some, a highlight of the museum experience is a bus ride around the oval track. It’s not as fast as an Indy car, which can travel the length of a football field in one second, but it will have to do.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.