As the winner of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 crossed the finish line, a contingent of Japanese media began to clap, cheer, and hug each other in celebratory joy. Takuma Sato became the first Indy 500 winner from Asia, and his victory—and the reaction from his countrymen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—showed just how much the Indianapolis 500 means to people.
Although this year’s winner wasn’t from the United States, the race is a perfect example of Americana. You can’t go more than 10 feet at the track without seeing red, white, and blue. Driving by the campsites in the infield on race morning blasting “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen with the windows down might be the highlight of this weekend.
It’s amazing how people from all over the world come to see The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. I met people from all over the country. Marie, Julie, and Nicole are from Pittsburgh. “We come every year, this is my dad’s 45th Indy. It’s a pilgrimage, it really is. Everyone has to go to Indy at some point,” said Julie.
I met people from all around the world, too. Spanish media members told me they were excited for the appearance of Spanish F1 driver Fernando Alonso, but long-time IndyCar driver Oriol Servia, from northern Spain, was always close to their hearts.
The best part is that it’s like this all over Indianapolis. There are houses decked with American, checkered, and Indy 500 flags. The streets are lined with “Welcome Race Fans” posters. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw laughing people sitting in the cabs of trucks that were stuck in two-and-a-half miles of traffic along 16th Street outside the famed Speedway.
Even though this race is so dear to local—or not so local—fans, it has an aspect of glamour that attracts celebrities as well. Not just celebrities who grew up in Indiana, and know the race. Not even just those who know the drivers or are close to the sport.
Instead, it was celebrities such as Jake Gyllenhaal, who had never been to a race before. Madison Kocian, an Olympic gymnast, was there. Kevin Seraphin, a Pacers forward, was there. Angela Brown, an Indianapolis native and opera singer, sang “God Bless America” before the race. "I’m an Indy everything fan. When you’re from Indianapolis, it’s part of you, honey,” she said.
It’s not even just for the racing, though. There’s a crazy concert venue in the middle of the infield called “The Snake Pit.” Sounds wild, I know, but I can’t attest to that because I’m not old enough to get in. This year, the Snake Pit featured the DJ’s Zedd and Marshmello. So, when fans aren’t basking in tradition or watching cars sail by at 200 miles per hour, they can party to some electronic dance music.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway does a great job of attracting different people. With amenities from the gorgeous 2.5 mile oval to the always crowded Gasoline Alley to the wild and crazy Snake Pit, everyone is welcome to this Memorial Day weekend tradition. It’s been part of American sports history for 101 years, and will hopefully be around for 101 more.
I talked to fans who had a family tradition to come to the race every year and a few people who had been coming for more than 50 years. "My grandfather started buying tickets back in the 1940s, and my family has been coming ever since,” said Chip Keller, from Martinsville, Indiana, about 35 minutes away.
Eionne and Michelle Bailey danced to “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa, along with the other 1,000 people in the fan zone area on Carb Day. They showed the two aspects of the event. Michelle, says “[Eionne] is a race fan, I’m not. I just like being around people. I come for the party.” And Eionne told me, “It gives you a high, it’s a high you can’t describe. I love the race.”
While the race means something different to everyone, there is one thing everyone can agree on. Since 1911, the race has united people from all around the world—whether from Japan, Spain, or right down the road in Indiana. To me, the unity and tradition is what makes the Indy 500 so special—and always has.
Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images