Two years ago, USA Today polled its readers for their bucket lists of sports events they most wanted to attend at least once.
The top vote-getter wasn’t the Super Bowl or the Masters or the Olympics.
It was the Indianapolis 500.
The iconic race returns Sunday for the 100th running of the Memorial Day weekend classic, which draws more than a quarter of a million spectators captivated by its s speed, danger and tradition.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway said Sunday’s race is sold out. The track doesn’t divulge exact numbers for spectator capacity, but the number of grandstand seats is about 250,000 and the track reportedly sells at least an additional 70,000 infield general-admission tickets.
There’s plenty of room. The speedway likes to boast that the Rose Bowl, Yankee Stadium, Vatican City, Churchill Downs and more would fit inside the massive infield of the 2.5-mile rectangular track that sits in a residential neighborhood.
The speedway -- dubbed “The Brickyard” because long ago it was paved with 3.2 million bricks -- also said it has suspended its practice of blacking out the race on local television in Indianapolis. It’s the first time since the early 1950s that the race will be televised live in central Indiana.
“There’s no event like the Indianapolis 500 and for the event to sell out on the occasion of the 100th running is a testament to the enduring legacy of ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’” Mark Miles, chief executive of track owner Hulman & Co., said in a statement.
The Indianapolis 500 has remained one of the nation’s preeminent sporting events despite a 12-year civil war between the sport’s leaders that ended in 2008, a decline in the popularity of IndyCar racing overall, a dearth of American drivers and a long history of tragedy on the track.
“The Indy 500 is part of the beautiful essence of America,” said 1998 Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever, now an analyst with ABC, which televises the race. “Wherever I am in the world, I never have to explain to people what it is. They know.”
For the 33 drivers in the race, many say they would rather win the Indy 500 than the championship of the Verizon IndyCar Series, a stance heightened by knowing this is the race’s 100th running.
“This place makes careers and changes lives,” said Ed Carpenter, an Indianapolis native and driver/team owner who sat on the pole in 2013 and 2014 and who starts 20th this year. “It’s been my dream to win this race for a long, long time.”
Veteran Tony Kanaan, 41, a fan favorite who finally won his first Indy 500 in 2013, said the Indianapolis speedway “is magical” and that the “buzz around the city, it’s unbelievable” this year.
“I thought I had seen it all, but I haven’t seen this place sold out,” Kanaan said.
The first Indianapolis 500 was held in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun. The race has been held ever since except during six war years: 1917-18 and 1942-45.
This year’s race already has one heartwarming story: James Hinchcliffe, the 29-year-old Canadian who nearly died from injuries in a practice crash a year ago, won the pole position during qualifying last Sunday.
Indeed, though motor racing inherently is dangerous, the threat is magnified at Indianapolis because of the high speeds.
Mike Conway of England crashes in the third turn in the closing laps of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 2010,(James Miller / Associated Press)
A burning tire, left, flies toward spectators after a gasoline tank explosion resulting from a crash on the fourth turn on the second lap of the 48th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1964.(Bob Daugherty / Associated Press)
The feet of Salt Walther protrude from his car (77) after a crash during the Indianapolis 500 on May 28, 1973. Walther survived the crash.(Charles A. Robinson / Associated Press)
Swede Savage’s car is in flames after a crash during the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1973. Drivers Art Pollard, Savage and crew member Armando Teran were killed while Salt Walther, somehow survived a frightening, pin-wheeling crash. Savage died more than a month after the race.(Associated Press)
Eddie Rickenbacker, center, signs papers selling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr., left, as Wilbur Shaw, right, and T.E. Myers look on in Indianapolis on Nov. 14, 1945. Three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rickenbacker canceled the 1942 race. The federal government banned automobile racing in July 1942, and when the war ended in 1945, the track was in disrepair. Hulman, a businessman from Terre Haute, Ind., bought the track in November 1945 and refurbished it in time for the 1946 race. His descendants still run the track.(Associated Press)
This 1945 photo provided by Indianapolis Motor Speedway shows the speedway in disrepair. Indianapolis Motor Speedway closed its doors to racing in 1917 and 1918 because of World War I, but it was the closure during World War II that posed the biggest threat to the historic venue. Three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, speedway President Eddie Rickenbacker canceled the 1942 race. The federal government banned automobile racing in July 1942, and when the war ended in 1945, the track was in disrepair.(AP)
Parnelli Jones, center, celebrates his victory in the 47th running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race in front of the Borg-Warner Trophy on May 30, 1963. Jones can remember his 1963 triumph like it happened last week. “It was just a tremendous thrill,” he said. “You work so hard to get there. I woke up early the next morning and looked in the mirror to make sure I wasnít dreaming. The Indy 500 makes you.”(Associated Press)
Mario Andretti takes the checkered flag as he wins the 53rd running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race on May 30, 1969.(Associated Press)
Andy Granatelli, center left, kisses Mario Andretti after Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1969.(Associated Press)
Tony Hulman, left, and A.J. Foyt wave to fans during a victory lap after Foyt won his fourth Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 1977.(Associated Press)
Danny Sullivan, left, spins in front of Mario Andretti during the 69th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 1977. When asked for their most memorable moment, several recalled their earliest memories, “The biggest thing I really remember was sitting up in the grandstands of Turn 1, and you are just enjoying the time with my mom and dad and the beautiful weather and watching cars,” said 2006 champion Sam Hornish Jr. “One of those was [Danny] Sullivan spinning and winning it [in 1985]. So that wasn’t bad.”(Associated Press)
Al Unser raises four fingers after winning his fourth Indy 500 on May 24, 1987. Long before he won the Indianapolis 500, Unser was an up-and-coming 25-year-old sprint car driver who had showed up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch his older brother try to qualify. Unser still remembers the feeling of awe when he drove through the tunnel beneath the track.(Mike Conroy / Associated Press)
IndyCar driver JR Hildebrand reacts next to track safety personnel after crashing on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011.Dan Wheldon of England won the race. In a survey of the 27 living winners of the Indy 500, The Associated Press found the 1992 race won by Al Unser Jr. to be the greatest in history. Other memorable races included Little Al’s loss to Emerson Fittipaldi in ’89, Sam Hornish Jr.'s victory in 2006 and the second win for the late Wheldon in 2011.(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)
Marco Andretti, left, his father and car owner, Michael Andretti, right, and his grandfather Mario Andretti talk in the pit area on the first day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 on May 10, 2008. Amazingly, the Andrettis have not driven into Indyís victory lane for more than 45 years.(Tom Strattman / Associated Press)
IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon of England, douses himself with milk after winning the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011. The unusual beverage choice, after a race that lasted hours, was embraced by dairy farmers and has become one of the most unique traditions in sports.(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
Hinchcliffe won the pole with a four-lap average of 230.760 mph, and at some spots on the speedway the cars surpass 235 mph, traveling the length of a football field in about one second.
There have been 38 drivers who died from crashes during the race or in accidents in practice and qualifying during May, according to the speedway historian.
But owing to advancing safety improvements in the cars, drivers’ gear and at the track, including so-called SAFER barrier soft walls, there hasn’t been an Indy 500-related fatality in 20 years.
The last was Scott Brayton, who was killed during a practice crash in 1996. The last driver to die from injuries sustained in the race itself was Swede Savage in 1973.
Roger Penske, who by far holds the record for the most Indy 500 victories for a team owner, with 16, is hoping one of his drivers wins the 100th edition of the race in the same year Penske is celebrating his 50th anniversary in racing.
Penske, who will drive the pace car for this year’s start, is “still the one that sets the bar,” said rival team owner Chip Ganassi.
The betting public is on Penske’s side as well. His four drivers -- Will Power, defending Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud and three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves -- have the best odds to win Sunday, according to the gambling website Bovada.
Castroneves is trying to become only the fourth driver in history to win the race four times. The others are A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
The drivers have one final practice Friday on so-called Carb Day, a throwback term to the days when mechanics would make final adjustments to carburetors on the cars’ engines. The Indy 500 is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT/noon EDT on Sunday.
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