Here is the history of some of the most popular and enduring traditions of the “500,” written by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson:
500 Festival Parade
The 500 Festival Parade took place for the first time in 1957. It, and several other related activities, largely came about following a series of newspaper editorials by local columnists over a two- or three-year period, who had witnessed the several-day celebration in advance of the Kentucky Derby.
“Back Home Again in Indiana”
Although there are reports that “Indiana,” as the song was originally titled when published in 1917, was played by a trackside brass band as Hoosier driver Howdy Wilcox ran out his final laps on the way to winning the 1919 “500,” it was not until 1946 that it was sung on race morning. James Melton, of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, was a collector of classic cars, and was at one time president of the Antique Automobile Club of America. He supplied several of the vehicles which participated in a race-morning lap of classic automobiles around the track in 1946, and approximately 45 minutes before the start of the race, he sang “Indiana” with the Purdue University band over the public address system. It was so well received that he was invited back the following year, and in 1948, it was decided to “move it up” to its current slot in the order of the day, just prior to the firing of the engines. Among Melton’s better-known successors have been Mel Tormé, Vic Damone, Dinah Shore, Ed Ames, Peter Marshall, Dennis Morgan and Johnny Desmond, with popular Jim Nabors having missed only a handful of years since 1972.
Balloons Before the Start
It is believed that 1947 was the first year for the release of multi-colored balloons on race morning and that it was Tony Hulman’s wife, Mary Fendrich Hulman, who made the suggestion. By 1950, the release had been timed to coincide, as it does to this day, with the final notes of “Back Home Again In Indiana.”
The Borg-Warner Trophy, one of the most recognizable trophies in all of sports, has been awarded to the winner of every Indianapolis 500-Mile Race since 1936. Crafted out of sterling silver by Spaulding-Gorham of Chicago, it was unveiled at a dinner in New York in February 1936, featuring bas-relief sculptures of every “500” winner up until that time. The new winner has been added every year since, and in 1986 (the trophy’s 50th anniversary), the final space became filled. The solution for 1987 was to add a base, but this too became filled, and in 2004, an even larger version replaced it, this one with enough spaces to last through 2034. The only sculptured face not of a winning driver is that of the late Speedway owner Tony Hulman, whose likeness, in gold, was placed on the base in 1987.
The Greatest Spectacle in Racing
It was on Race Day 1955 when the world heard this famous phrase for the first time. While made famous by Sid Collins, chief announcer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network broadcast of the “500,” it was actually a young lady who coined it. Dating back into the mid-1920s, radio broadcasts of the “500” typically consisted of a few minutes of coverage of the start and the finish, with brief updates in between, aired every 15 or 30 minutes. When the track created its own network in 1952, this same format was continued. In 1953, however, history was made when the race was covered in its entirety, with no breaks at all except for commercials. When representatives of the skyrocketing number of subscribing stations were asked for comments and feedback, the most common request was that their engineers could be alerted to an impending commercial break by use of a standard “out cue.” The request was turned over to the sales staff of Indianapolis radio station WIBC, the network’s “flagship” station, and it was a female copywriter in her early 20s named Alice Greene who suggested the enduring classic, “Stay tuned to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The Yard of Bricks
The Yard of Bricks is another nostalgic link with the past. After the track’s original surface of crushed rock and tar was abandoned after only a few days of use in August 1909, it was replaced during that fall by 3.2 million street-paving bricks, trucked in by rail from the western part of the state. Approximately 90 percent were Culver Blocks, manufactured by the Wabash Valley Clay Company of Veedersburg (near the Illinois border), the remainder being supplied by other firms in the same general area. The bricks were laid on their side in a bed of sand, staggered in rows and separated by about 3/8th of an inch on either side so that mortar could be poured between them for strengthening. In the spring of 1936, patches of asphalt were applied to the rougher portions of the turns. Over the next couple of years, more and more asphalt was applied, so that by the time of the 1939 race, only about 650 yards of the main straight were still of bricks. This portion survived for another 22 years until October 1961, when it too was covered over, leaving exposed only 3 feet for the entire width of the track at the start/finish line. The entire 2½ miles has been resurfaced several times since then, with a fresh batch of the original bricks being inlaid at the start/finish line once the new surface has had time to harden.
Winner’s Drink of Milk
Three-time “500” winner Louis Meyer regularly drank buttermilk on a hot day, as his mother had told him it would refresh him, and he consumed some in Victory Lane as a matter of course after earning his third “500” victory in 1936. A dairy industry executive happened to see a photograph of this in the following day’s newspaper and, believing it to be regular milk, vowed to make sure this would be repeated in the coming years. Milk was part of the Victory Lane ceremony between 1937 and 1941 and then again in 1946, the first year after World War II, but disappeared between 1947 and 1955. The tradition was revived in 1956 and continues to this day.
Long used in Grand Prix racing, the winner’s wreath at Indianapolis appears to have debuted in 1960, when a wreath featuring several exotic-looking, dark-yellow and brown flowers was placed on the shoulders of Jim Rathmann. A garland of white and red carnations of the type normally associated with horse racing was placed around the shoulders of A. J. Foyt in 1961, and in 1962, Rodger Ward wore a wreath not too dissimilar from those seen today. Underwritten by Borg-Warner Corporation, the wreaths were the creation of William J. “Bill” Cronin, a longtime Indianapolis florist, who was at one time a floral consultant for the parades of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl and the 500 Festival. He died in 1989. For most of the last 30 years, the wreath has featured 33 ivory-colored Cymbidium orchids with burgundy tips, plus 33 miniature checkered flags, intertwined with red, white and blue ribbons.
From the time the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 until immediately after World War II, all events at the track were policed by the Indiana National Guard. Shortly after Tony Hulman purchased the track in November 1945, one of his right-hand men, Joseph Quinn of the Clabber Girl Baking Powder Company, set up a Board of Safety which sought input from all of the major law enforcement agencies. By 1948, the track’s own Safety Patrol had been established, featuring dark-blue uniforms and pith helmets, those of department heads painted gold, and the rank and file, silver. The long-sleeved shirts, made of wool, were extremely uncomfortable to wear, both on a hot day and when soaked with rain. In the early 1970s, some of the senior staff members switched on weekends to considerably more comfortable short-sleeved yellow shirts, while golden plastic “bump” or “batting” helmets replaced the pith helmets. By 1975, all of the blue uniforms had disappeared completely; baseball caps had replaced the bump helmets and the term “yellow shirt” had come into vogue.
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