Why is the Indy 500 IndyCar’s Biggest Race?

The indy 500 is without doubt one of the largest event of the motor racing year. It ranks equally among races such as the Daytona 500 and the Monaco Grand prix in stature. The length, history and traditions have cemented its position. However, what else makes the Indy 500 the biggest race in IndyCar?

The Indianapolis 500 is one of the longest running races in motorsport. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the largest spectator venues in the world, and each Memorial Day holds close to 300,000 fans. Together with the history,  speeds and spectacle of the races, makes the Indy 500 one of the greatest car races.

We take a deeper look into what makes the Indy 500 such a special and prestigious race in the article below.

When Did the Indy 500 Start?

The first running of the Indianapolis 500 took place in 1911, but at the time it was not known as the Indy 500. Instead, this race was known as the 1911 International 500-Mile Sweepstake Race. The first edition had a world record prize purse of $27,500, which helped to attract 46 entrants from Europe and the United States.

40 of these entrants qualified for the race by sustaining a speed of 75 miles per hour along the straight. This is as 75 miles per hour was determined to be a competitive pace. The first race was held on Memorial Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which had been built three years prior to the first Indy 500.

The tracks’ early years saw several fatal accidents take place at the track, which led to dropping attendance figures. In addition, the owner had to spend $155,000 on repaving the track with 3.2 million bricks.

This led them to devise the 500-mile race, which they chose as it was calculated to be the maximum time the cars could race before darkness descended over the circuit.

The large prize fund and the spectacular format allowed it to feel prestigious from the first edition, and 85,000 spectators attended the first edition which had an average speed of 74 miles per hour. The speed of the car racing has increased over the years to the 200 mile an hour plus races we have today.

Why is the Indy 500 Five Hundred Miles Long?

Prior to 1911 in the first few years of the Speedways operation race programs often consisted of multiple races over the course of the day. The idea was to keep people at the track for longer. So a 7 hour single race was planned. With the speeds of cars back in 1911 this equated to about 500 miles at 75/80 miles an hour.

It turn out that their maths was correct with the first race taking 6 hours 42 minutes and was won by Ray Harroun

Who are the Winners of the Indy 500?

There have been 105 editions of the Indy 500 as of 2021, with a total of 73 different race winners. The only years that the race wasn’t held were 1917 to 1918 and 1942 to 1945, due to World War One and World War Two.

The first edition, in 1911, was won by Ray Harroun who drove a Marmon Wasp for the Nordyke and Marmon Country team. Since 1936 the winner of the race drinks a bottle of milk after the race as a tradition.

Why Does the Indy 500 Winner Drink a Bottle of Milk?

As with a lot of IndyCar traditions this happened purely by accident. One of the all time greats of IndyCar and three time winner, Louis Meyer, liked to drink buttermilk. In 1936 after winning the race he drank some in victory lane.

When that photograph was published in a newspaper an employee at the Milk Foundation, showing marketing skills ahead of his time!, arranged for it to happen again. Although the practice fell by the way side for a few years it was reintroduced in 1956 and continues to this day.

Although in all fairness, Meyer did actually drink Buttermilk, not milk, but marketing is marketing after all and the way buttermilk is made almost a hundred years later means its not creamy, its more bitter and sour. Drinking sour milk after 500 miles of racing…. no thanks.

 Why is the Indy 500 IndyCar's Biggest Race.

What Trophy Does the Winner of the Indy 500 Receive?

In addition to that bottle of milk the winner also receive the Borg-Warner trophy. Four drivers have won the race a record four times: Helio Castroneves, A. J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. Six drivers have won the famous race three times: Dario Franchitti, Louis Meyer, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Wilbur Shaw and Bobby Unser.

Five drivers have won the race in back-to-back years, but nobody has won the race in three consecutive years. The 1924 and 1941 editions were won by two drivers, who shared a single car. The last four races have been won by four different drivers.

Will Power won in 2018, Simon Pagenaud in 2019, Takuma Sato in 2020 and Helio Castroneves in 2021.

What Track is the Indy 500 held on?

The indy 500 is help on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosts the Indy 500 as well as NASCAR Cup Series races, is the largest sports venue in the world, with a capacity of 257,325. The track is located in Speedway, Indiana, which is located within Indianapolis.

When it opened in 1909, it was only the second purpose-built banked oval in the world, after Brooklands which was in the UK. It was the first track to be called a speedway. The track cost $3 million to build at the time, which would currently be $86 million.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Track Facts.

We are in the process of covering track facts in both NASCAR and IndyCar so we will expand on this is due course.(ha!) However here are some basic indy car facts to keep you going.

The circuit is currently a Grade 1 FIA circuit. The circuit is made of asphalt and brick, which is part of the reason why it has the nickname ‘The Brickyard’. The four turns around the oval configuration have a banking angle of 9.2°.

The straights have no banking. The race lap record at the circuit is 37.895 which was set by Dutch driver Arie Luyendyk in 1996. The track also has a museum and hall of fame, as well as hosting a golf course. The garage area of the circuit is known as ‘Gasoline Alley’.


The Indy 500 is always the most-watched race on the NTT IndyCar Series calendar, and the 2021 edition was no exception. The race got 5.8 million viewers across the NBC network, 51% up on the previous year, which did not take place on the traditional Memorial Day weekend due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 edition was the least-watched edition of the famous race since it began being broadcast live. The 2021 race had a peak viewership of seven million. The 2021 edition’s impressive viewing figures were the highest for five years and the highest for any IndyCar race on the NBC network since they took over from ABC.

The Indy 500 may switch TV networks in 2022, as the IndyCar series deal with NBC is set to expire. From 1995 to 2020 the Daytona 500 was the most-watched motor race of the year, however, in 2021 the Indy 500 stole this title.

The race is popular for a variety of reasons. The over 100-year history means that every race is very special, and that every winner is in good company. The speeds of over 220 miles per hour are thrilling to watch, and there are still technological advancements year-on-year.

The Indy 500 is Not Shown on TV in Indianapolis

While news to me, it clearly won’t be news to the residents of of Indianapolis. The race is not shown live in Indianapolis in an effort to encourage residents to go and attend the race in person. In fact according to motorsport.com there have only been five times in the last 105 runnings of the Indy 500 when they were able to watch from home. ” 1949, 1950, 2016, and in 2020 when tickets weren’t on sale, and 2021 due to reduced capacity”

I’m sure with streaming, YouTube and other platforms there are ways to get around this if needed, but it’s one of those crazy facts most of us didn’t know!

What is the Double Duty Challenge.

Double Duty is when a driver takes part in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Both events are traditionally held on Memorial Day weekend. The Indy 500 is IndyCar’s biggest race, whilst the Coca-Cola 600 is considered to be one of the biggest NASCAR races besides the Daytona 500.

The Coca-Cola 600 is held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and the race takes place in the evening. The Indy 500 takes place in the afternoon. This means that drivers can first complete the Indy 500, and then without any postponements, they can board a flight to Charlotte. However, it is a condition that the winner of the Indy 500 will not do double duty.

The feat is both physically and mentally demanding, as the drivers have to complete 1000 miles of racing over the day, spending the majority of the day in their cars. Therefore, only four drivers have ever tried the complete it: John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. Stewart’s 2001 attempt is the best combined result ever with a sixth-place finish in the Indy 500 and a third-place finish in Charlotte.

The feat was not attempted between 2005 and 2013, but Kurt Bush attempted it in 2014, finishing sixth in the Indy 500 but 40th in Charlotte. We have more information on the Double Duty challenge in the link above.

How Long Does the Indy 500 Take to Race?

Despite the first race taking almost 7 hours to race, the speed of cars has increased dramatically. Even with cautions the Indy 500 usually finishes in around 3 hours of racing. The fastest was 2 hours and 40 minutes and the longest in the modern era at least was 3 hours and 13 minutes with Tony Kanaan, and Takuma Sato winning respectively.

Final Lap

The prestige of the Indianapolis 500 is certainly not questioned. Having been run every year, with very few exceptions, for over 100 years is an achievement for any race. The sheer number of fans in attendance, the speeds the cars can reach, the history both shining and dark, the traditions developed over so long all combine to make the Indy 500 one of the finest spectacles of motorsport on the planet.






Al lifelong Motor Racing Fan, with a particular love of NASCAR and IndyCar racing. Been in and out of cars of varying speeds since i was a child and sharing what i have learnt here.

Recent Posts