The Indianapolis 500 is steeped with traditions but only one kept Michael Andretti awake the night before a race: The start.
“It’s all you think about,” said Andretti, a former IndyCar driver and now team owner. “You run that start through your mind about a million times. There’s nothing like it.”
In a format as dangerous as it is unique, the 33 drivers in the Indy 500 start the race in 11 rows of cars lined up three wide, rather than the conventional two-wide starts elsewhere in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One racing.
The cars also are cramped as they rush down a front straightaway that’s only 50 feet wide at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and they’re approaching 200 mph when the green flag is waved.
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)
Then, within a couple of seconds, the drivers must funnel into the flatly banked first turn that can accommodate only single-file or two-wide racing – all the while trying not to clip another car and trigger a crash.
It’s a hair-raising moment and one that will be repeated Sunday in the 100th running of the legendary race. With so little room for error, some of the Indy 500’s worst accidents have occurred during the start.
“You hope every driver who starts that race has the right attitude that morning and the right knowledge to go along with it,” said Al Unser, one of only three drivers who has won the Indy 500 four times.
The right attitude?
“Not to crash,” Unser said.
There’s an old saying in racing that you can’t win a race on the first lap but you can lose one on the first lap by taking a risky chance that backfires.
Yet, race car drivers are aggressive by nature and, given the prestige of being an Indy 500 winner, some can’t help but try to immediately gain an extra position or two.
“You hear all that wisdom” about not crashing at the start “and all that wisdom goes right out of your brain,” said Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 winner and Michael’s father. “I always went for it.”
So does 2013 winner Tony Kanaan, who starts 18th on Sunday.
“If there’s a gap I’m going to go for it, that’s the way I’ve always done it at the start,” he said.
One of the ugliest starts was a multicar crash in 1973. David “Salt” Walther’s car catapulted into the catchfence, caught fire, spewed fuel and debris into the crowd and then spun like a pinwheel, upside down, as Walther’s exposed legs hung out in front of his mangled vehicle. He survived.
The starts since then have been less ghastly but several have seen accidents nonetheless.
Kevin Cogan spun and crashed in 1982 just as the field was taking the green flag. A multicar wreck occurred in Turn 1 in 1995. Marco Andretti (Michael’s son) and Mario Moraes tangled just past Turn 1 in 2009.
And last year, Sage Karam, driving for longtime team owner Chip Ganassi, hit the outside wall just past Turn 1.
“It was a tough thing for him to go out on the first lap, we thought we had a pretty good car that day,” Ganassi said. “If you give up a spot or two or three [at the start], it doesn’t matter. It’s better than being out of the race.”
The starting format is “one of the oldest traditions of the race,” said Donald Davidson, the speedway’s historian.
There were 40 cars in the first Indianapolis 500, in 1911, with rows of several cars each. Organizers narrowed the rows to three cars abreast in 1921 and that has been the format ever since, Davidson said.
Scott Dixon, a four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion who won the Indy 500 in 2008, said one reason the start is so tense is because qualifying occurs a week earlier.
“If I start over-analyzing things I try to think about something else or call somebody,” Dixon said.
Does Dixon ever wish they’d start only two-wide at Indy?
“No,” he said. “It’s tradition. It’s cool.”
But he always hopes to qualifying in the first or second row, where there is less traffic around him to cause trouble.
“You just go, and it’s everybody else’s problem to keep up,” he said.
That didn’t happen this year. Dixon starts 13th in the fifth row Sunday, a position fraught with danger.
Yet, no matter where a driver starts, what goes through their mind after they’ve made it cleanly through the perilous start and Turn 1 of the 2.5-mile, rectangular Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
Unser smiled at the question and replied, “That you’ve got three more corners you’ve got to worry about.”
MORE SPORTS NEWS