Indy 500 Traditions

For the 1st century of automobile racing, folks have been coming to see the big race in Indianapolis. Since the beginning, these same people have been coming back, and bringing their kids. The race tickets get handed down through generations, traditions start and dreams begin.

Now, in the year 2001, we begin a new century. By 2101, our great grandkids will be attending.

I wonder what will be happening at the end of this century...

  • Perhaps one day the track will be lighted for a night race.
  • Maybe the road course will be extended outside of the oval.
  • Perhaps a giant retractable roof (or force field) that would allow the race to continue in a rain storm.
  • Now that cars have seemed to peak out on speed vs safety vs entertainment, what if in one hundred years the track banks up vertically and transparently one hundred feet and the cars can go round and round at 450 mph?
  • Could the cars be replaced with anti-gravity scooters?
  • Maybe some day there will be a magnetic force field that prevents debris from going into the stands.
  • Or a force field around the walls and cars so that they bounce harmlessly off each other if they collide.
    WAIT - if they invent that, then we can all go racing!!
  • More stands could be built along the back straight.

Oh well, those are Dan's Guesses for the year 2101.

If you have any that you would like me to put on here, just email me at

Dave, a transplanted Hoosier, now living in California, predicts:

  • Grandstands A, B, C, H, and The Paddock, along with possibly Grandstands E & J, will be expanded, out over Georgetown road. Georgetown Road, from Turn 1 to turn four, will consist of a tunnel running under the Grandstands!

I hope you make it to the Indy 500 soon and start your own traditions! (January 2001)


What follows are a few articles relating to Indy Traditions.


The garage area is still called Gasoline Alley, even though drivers haven't used gas in more than 30 years.

The final practice is still known as Carburetion Day, although fuel injection systems replaced carburetors decades ago.

And the winners have swigged a bottle of milk in Victory Lane every year since 1933, except when orange-grove owner Emerson Fittipaldi drank orange juice nine years ago.

It's just tradition, you see.

While there have been big changes at the Indianapolis 500 recently, tradition is still embraced.

"The biggest tradition is it's the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's like the Kentucky Derby," said A.J. Foyt, the first four-time winner of the race.

"Everybody knows where the Indianapolis 500 is, that it's the biggest spectator sport in the world, the biggest race," he said.

The speedway, originally a testing ground for the auto industry in the early 1900s, claims a tradition from the very first 500-mile race in 1911 -- the use of a pace car.

"They thought there were too many cars for a standing start and that it would be safer to lead them around with a passenger car and release them with a flag," speedway historian Donald Davidson said. "We believe that's the first mass rolling start for a race anywhere and, therefore, quite possibly the first use of a pace car to start a race."

Which brings up the tradition of 33 cars lined up three abreast. Where did they come up with that number and configuration, anyway?

The first two races, in 1911 and 1912, had 40 and 24 entries, respectively, but they were lined up in rows of five. From 1913 to 1920, the cars were lined up four abreast, then for safety reasons, the traditional three-abreast lineup began in 1921.

The number of cars fluctuated from a low of 21 in 1916, the year before the track was closed for World War I, to a high of 42 in 1933. With a few exceptions, it has remained 33 since then, based on an American Automobile Association recommendation of at least 400 feet of track per car on the 21/2-mile oval.

The 1933 race also established the milk tradition.

It was a very hot day, and after the race, winner Louie Meyer made a beeline for his garage, where he had a bottle of buttermilk in an icebox. As he drank, a photographer just happened to pass by, and the next morning, Meyer's picture -- bottle to lips -- was in the newspaper.

Indiana dairy people thought it was great publicity and talked the speedway into letting them have a bottle waiting for the winner. It's been there ever since.

As for Victory Lane, the tradition for the postrace celebration in a special enclosed area goes back to at least 1920. Victory Lane remained on the same spot at the south end of the pits until 1970, when it was moved to its present location in front of the Tower Terrace at the start-finish line.

Another tradition dating from the 1920s is Carburetion Day, originally used as one final tuneup when teams could adjust the carburetors.

By the early '50s, carburetors were on the way out, but by then, the tradition had been firmly established. No one has ever suggested changing it.

"The last time they had carburetors was 1963, and they were pretty few and far between then," Davidson said.

The next year, they were gone forever.

Also in 1964, a horrendous crash and fire that killed drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald marked the last time cars used gasoline.

Starting in 1965, they were fueled with the safer, less volatile methanol. Gasoline Alley, however, remains.

The tradition of the pre-race singing of "Back Home Again in Indiana" goes back to 1946, the first race after the track was closed four years for World War II and the first under the ownership of Tony Hulman. The Hulman era also ushered in the tradition of one of the most famous commands in sports, "Gentlemen, start your engines."

Mary Fendrich Hulman isn't around to give the command. She died in 1998 at age 93.

Mrs. Hulman had told drivers to start the race almost every year since 1977, when her husband, Tony, died.

In her place, her daughter, Mari Hulman George, carries on the tradition at an event still billed as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

Wilbur Shaw?s first Indianapolis 500 win came in 1937, but his second and third wins at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ? in 1939 and 1940 ? put him in the history books as the first driver to win back-to-back Indianapolis 500-Mile races. He ranks fifth on the all-time list for laps led, leading the Indianapolis 500 for 508 laps. Shaw became president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945 and would later popularize the tradition of announcing, "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines," in the early 1950s.

Bobby Unser reflects...
"When I came here, I had no idea I was good enough to come here. I came here because of Parnelli Jones. He told me I was good enough and brought me here. He lined me up with the Novi and Andy Granatelli and that started it all. I was totally knowing I wasn't capable of going to Indianapolis, but maybe I was. I didn't know my capabilities.

"Without doubt, this is one of the hardest places in the world to race. You have four corners and it's a very fast place that is very unforgiving."

A.J. Foyt said nobody would know who he was -- despite his hundreds of victories at almost every level of oval-track racing -- if he hadn't won at Indy...
"A.J. Foyt's gone from here now," he said. "But they'll remember me back in history."

They'll remember him like he has remembered the 1935 winner, Kelly Petillo.

"I never met Kelly Petillo," said Foyt. "But everybody used to tell me how he'd go out here and run and people would go watch him run just to see how he drove into the corners so deep.

"I don't know where else he raced or what. But I know that everybody used to say that, when he raced at this track, everybody would go out and watch him practice.

"That's what happens with this place. You always remember Indianapolis."

Agajanian family an Indy tradition

Los Angeles Times News Service

INDIANAPOLIS (LA Times News Service 05-22-1998 18:35 EDT) -- The Agajanian family has been coming to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 50 years, most of the time with a car to race. Twice they had the winning car, in 1952 with Troy Ruttman and 1963 with Parnelli Jones.

Cary Agajanian was 6 when his father, the late J.C., left home in San Pedro to bring his first car to the Speedway.

"I can still see my dad kissing my mother and me goodbye and hopping into a panel truck with Johnny Mantz and Clay Smith with the race car in tow," Cary said. "That's how he got to Indy in those days."

Mantz was Aggie's first driver and Smith his first mechanic.

The cream-and-red colored No. 98 Grant Piston Ring Special, which Mantz qualified eighth and finished 13th with in 1948, took a couple of laps earlier this week before a cheering crowd when the Agajanian family was honored.

"My dad used to light up, it seemed, when May came around. That was the best time of his life every year. He just had such a good time, he had so many friends back here.

"When I come back, it makes me feel good not only because of the way our family is treated by the Hulman-George family, but to know I'm in a place my dad loved so much. It's an emotional thing for us."

With Cary are his brothers, Chris and J.C. Jr., all of whom are involved in motor racing.

Although all of the Agajanians have been around racing all their lives, none has ever driven a race car. There is a reason. Cary explained:

"When my dad was 17-18 years old, he bought a race car and put it in the garage. My grandfather [James T. Agajanian] came home and said, 'What's that?'

"My dad said, 'It's a race car. I'm going to be a race driver.'

"My grandfather said, 'OK, you have three things you have to do then.'

" 'What's that?'

" 'Well, you go inside, pack all your bags, kiss your mom goodbye, change your name, and you can go do anything you want. That's the only three things you have to do.' "

That story was told, and retold, so many times by J.C. that by the time Cary, J.C. Jr. and Chris might have yearned to drive, they knew their fate.

"My dad didn't have to be as forceful as his dad was, because we all knew he would kick us out of the house and make us change our name. He didn't have to tell us, we just knew it."

Tom "Voice Of The 500" Carnegie, has been announcing the race since WWII.

The Voice of The 500...

AP Motorsports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (The Associated Press 05-20-1998 9:50 EDT) -- Each May for more than a half century, Tom Carnegie's deep voice has echoed in every corner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

His bellowing cry of "Heeezonit!" for the start of a qualifying run has become as synonymous with Indy as the phrase, "Gentlemen, start your engines."

Some people think Carnegie was here to interview Ray Harroun when he won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. But the son of a Baptist minister is only 78 -- and still going strong.

"I'm a bionic man. I have two (artificial) hips, two (artificial) knees and a restructured femur bone," Carnegie said with a wide smile. "If I can just keep moving, I'm all right."

Carnegie is part of the experience for millions of people who have been at the speedway since it reopened after World War II under the ownership of Tony Hulman and Wilbur Shaw.

He came to Indianapolis in 1945 to work on a radio station and write a newspaper sports column three days a week. A year later, he met Hulman and Shaw.

Carnegie's voice first filled the track for an old-time car parade, part of pre-race activities. "My voice fit the PA system, so they asked me to come and work race day," he said.

On the very first lap, Carnegie was suddenly given the microphone.

"Honestly, I didn't know much about it," he said. "But it's just like calling a basketball game or a football game, just names and numbers. A here-they-come, there-they-go kind of thing.

"I honestly felt that the first 10 years out here, I was not capable of saying much more than the time of day because there's so much history here that you just have to absorb. You can't have it in notes. I was always afraid of making errors. I still am, but at least I speak with confidence now."

Over the years Carnegie has become an icon at the track and his catch-phrases have become part of the fabric of Indy.

"Heeezonit!" is the best known. But there are other favorites.

When someone sets a new standard on the 2 1/2-mile oval, the emotion-laden voice barks: "Listen to this one, fans. You won't believe this. It's a newww traaack record!"

As he spots a familiar face from his perch near the start-finish line, Carnegie will gleefully say, "Hey fans, here's an old favorite of yours." He then proceeds to gather the person in for a folksy interview that sounds more like a conversation between very old and dear friends.

Carnegie carefully pronounces each word and phrase, and the people sitting in the vast grandstands of the biggest race course in the world react with pleasure to his pronouncements.

Carnegie says his catch-phrases weren't planned.

"I'm not working from a structured script," he said. "It's just the inspiration of the moment. Like `Heezonit.' It has become popular. When I started doing it, I had no intention of filing a patent on it. It's just one of those things that happened."

The speedway is not the only place where Carnegie, born in Norwich, Conn., and raised in Kansas City, Mo., made a mark in Indiana. He was sports director of WRTV-TV here for 32 years before retiring in 1985, and broadcasting the Indiana high school basketball tournament for 24 years.

He has yet to slow down.

"I enjoy talking with people and signing autographs," he says with a glint in his eyes. "I enjoy it all. After all, this is theater. ... They're an audience out there, so how do you reach them, how do you get them excited, how do you make them a part of it? How do you introduce the competitors?

"After all, when it's all said and done, it's the people who make this race. It's not how many cylinders or whether it's a double overhead cam. It's the people, the people who remember the Foyts, the Unsers and the Jimmy Clarks."

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