A Tourist’s Guide to the Indianapolis 500

VROOM WITH A VIEW: The world’s largest single-day sporting event turns 100 in May, so it will be bigger than ever—all the more reason to go

Cars racing at the Indianapolis 500
The checkered past: Last year’s Festival Parade on the streets of downtown Indianapolis
 

DESTINATION Indianapolis, Indiana
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 183 miles

Sometimes you win, sometimes you go down in flames. But when you consider that Parnelli Jones has done both, literally, the platitude becomes a tad more powerful. How powerful? We’re gonna quantify it at about 400 horses, which was what Jones harnessed in 1963 when he won the Indianapolis 500 with a top speed of more than 150 miles an hour. “I could have won again in ’64,” says Jones. “But my car caught fire. Dove out headfirst. Sure, there’s always an element of danger. But you just block it out.”

At 77, Jones is revving up to hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway again on May 29th. This time around the two-and-a-half-mile oval, he won’t be blazing records like those he set back when he was careering his way to becoming a Mad Men–era racing icon. Instead, Jones will launch the Indy 500’s centennial celebration with a prerace lap in the bright yellow Marmon Wasp that Ray Harroun drove to win the first race in 1911 with an average speed of 74.6 miles an hour. (The next time you look in your rearview mirror, thank Harroun. His racing team invented it.)

This May, Indianapolis will be consumed with the 100th anniversary of the world’s largest single-day sporting event, an annual competition that plays out before more than 300,000 fans inside a stadium large enough to hold all of Vatican City. And that’s just the crowd watching from within the fabled Yard of Bricks, so named for the roughly 3.2 million bricks used to pave it in 1909. Find a parking spot on Indianapolis’s 16th Street strip on race day, and you’ll be in the raucous epicenter of the world’s largest tailgate party, joined by about a quarter of a million beer-drinking, hamburger-grilling speed enthusiasts, parked bumper to bumper for blocks surrounding the speedway. Want to experience the face-flattening g-force of going 180 miles an hour? For $500, you get a shotgun seat with an Indy racer for about two minutes, or three high-speed laps around the track. (For the same price, you can drive, although non-professionals are limited to 90 miles an hour.)

Racecar culture clearly dominates in May, but there’s a good deal more to the nation’s 13th-largest city. Take, for example, the tranquil and car-free Canal Walk, where the fastest vehicles in sight are the paddleboats and imported Venetian gondolas floating down the White River. A mecca for dog walkers, joggers, and Segway riders, the three-mile loop runs alongside the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the NCAA headquarters and Hall of Champions, and the Indiana State Museum.

A boat cruising on the White River
The slow lane: Cruising along the White River amid the bustle of the city’s attractions

Car traffic is also limited in Monument Circle, ringed with luxury hotels, where street artists often rap, juggle, sketch, and sing on the stone steps leading up to the 284-foot obelisk memorial to the city’s war veterans. Walk to the nearby Artsgarden—a striking glass atrium suspended like a transparent bridge over the intersection of Washington and Illinois Streets—and you’ll find more artists and a changing roster of exhibits and performances. Check into one of the 7,100 hotel rooms in downtown Indianapolis, and you’ll be within walking distance of more than 200 restaurants (see “Where to Eat” for our favorites) and at least 50 attractions.

If you plan to attend the centennial celebration in May, where you sit in the stadium on race day—and during the week of practice runs that lead up to the big event—will play a large part in how you celebrate. Families crowd the grandstand near the second turn, the track’s unofficial no-drinking, no-cussing, kid-friendly section. Rowdier fans favor the Snake Pit, a standing-room-only infield near the third turn. Speedway historian Donald Davidson recommends the view from the upper deck near the first turn.

Having spent 47 years working in Indianapolis, Davidson, a native of England, is the unlikely elder statesman of the city’s racing culture. In 1965, barely out of his teens, he immigrated to the United States for one reason: to be near the Indy 500, which had captured his young imagination as he listened (via the Armed Forces Radio Network) to Sid Collins broadcasting live from the race every year. Davidson’s extraordinary memory was his ticket from ardent fan to Indy 500 insider—that and a meeting with Collins. “I can recall every single statistic I ever learned,” Davidson attests. Stunned by Davidson’s encyclopedic recall, Collins put the 20-something on the air with him. Since then, Davidson has been providing analysis on the sport in a broadcast that reaches 200 countries outside the United States.

Helio Castroneves, the only man in history to win three Indy races (2001, 2002, 2009) and a Dancing with the Stars championship (2007), simply raves: “You never forget your first Indy. It is love incarnate.”
 

ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

The 100th Indianapolis 500 race is Sunday, May 29th. Race-day tickets start at $20; for ticket information and the full week’s schedule, visit indianapolismotorspeedway.com.

WHERE TO STAY The Columbia Club (121 Monument Cir.; 317-767-1361, columbia-club.org) has the ambiance—burnished wood, turn-of-the-century antiques, and oil paintings—of a posh Ivy League club; rates start at $139 a night. The Omni Severin (40 W. Jackson Pl.; 317-634-6664, omniseverin.com) is where Mario Andretti usually stays; rates start at $180 a night. The Conrad Indianapolis (50 W. Washington St.; 317-713-5000, conradindianapolis.com) opened in 2006, making it one of the city’s newest luxury hotels; rates start at $180 a night.

WHERE TO EAT Goose the Market (2503 N. Delaware St.; 317-924-4944, goosethemarket.com), slightly out of the way, looks utterly unassuming from its storefront exterior, but if you crave truly amazing charcuterie, cured on the premises, go in. R Bistro (888 Massachusetts Ave.; 317-423-0312, rbistro.com) is tiny, but the locally sourced, ever-changing seasonal menu by the chef and James Beard semifinalist Regina Mehallick is mighty tantalizing. At Recess (4907 N. College Ave.; 317-925-7529, recessindy.com), the chef/owner Greg Hardesty offers everything from takeout tacos to a four-course tasting menu, all of it locally sourced.

 

Photography: (Indianapolis 500) Nick Laham/Getty Images; (White River) Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association/visitindy.com

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