Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Indy 500 Primer

92nd Indy 500 Logo

It's that time of year again: You're laying out your plans for the long weekend, and someone invites you to an "Indy 500 party." You know it'll be fun, but you also don't know an Indy car from a train car. Read on for some helpful tips and answers to frequently asked questions.

What will I be watching?
The Indy 500 is an auto race, so you'll be watching 33 cars go over 200 mph around a big circle for a few hours.

Who should I root for?
Danica Patrick is a young, attractive, American woman, which is usually enough to get almost everyone's attention. You may have seen her recently on TV or in Sports Illustrated. She drives a black and blue car, sponsored by Motorola. She stands some chance of winning and the cameras will follow her progress closely.
Helio Castroneves was on Dancing with the Stars last season and is a happy, smiling, handsome guy with a great Brazilian accent, which is usually enough for anyone not watching Danica. He drives one of two red and white cars, sponsored by Marlboro. Helio has won the race twice before and has a good chance of winning, so the cameras will follow him closely as well.
Michael Andretti, Marco Andretti, Grahm Rahal, and A.J. Foyt IV are all the kids of famous racecar drivers from 20 - 30 years ago that you or your Dad may have heard of. Michael Andretti is Marco Andretti's dad, and looks like he's about 50 because he's about 50. The Andrettis always have a decent chance of winning, although if Rahal and Foyt even come close the TV cameras will pay them very close attention.

Is this like NASCAR?
Yes, it is a lot like NASCAR, except with very different-looking cars. NASCAR cars look like boxes, Indy cars look a little like weird airplanes with wheels. Those wheels are out there on the corners of the cars and aren't covered by anything. For this reason, this kind of racing is called "open-wheel." NASCAR is not open-wheel, but some other racing is.

Didn't Danica Patrick win Indy a few weeks ago?
No. Danica Patrick has not "won Indy" ever, including a few weeks ago. The word "Indy" comes from the word Indianapolis, the city in Indiana. "Indy" is used to describe a few different things:

The Racetrack - "Indy"
There is a racetrack in Indianapolis, IN. It opened in 1909, and is an oval shape that is 2.5 miles around. For more information, check out the track's website.
The Race - "The Indy 500"
The race on Sunday is a 500-mile race held at Indy and therefore called the Indy 500. This year will be the 92nd running of the race, which makes it one of the longest-running races in the world. For more on that history, check out the race's website.
The Series - "The Indy Racing League" or "The IRL"
A group of drivers and their cars travel around the world together to race at different tracks a few times per month. The drivers get points depending on how well they do, and at the end of the year a champion is crowned. The Indy 500 is the most famous and most prominent race in the series, and so the series is named after that race. NASCAR fans should think of the IRL like the Sprint Cup Series. Stick-and-ball sports fans should think of the IRL like MLB or NFL, but with "drivers" instead of "teams," and with only one "game" going on every weekend. You may hear someone mention that a particular driver is part of a particular team, but the "teams" in the IRL are completely different from the "teams" in MLB or the NFL. More on that later.
The Cars - "Indy Cars"
Like NASCAR, all of the drivers in the IRL use similar cars, called "Indy Cars." They are open-wheel cars with prominent wings on them, and they all use 3.5 liter V8 engines made by Honda which are not turbocharged.
The Races - "The Indy Japan 300" or "The Iowa Corn Indy 250"
Most races in the IRL have "Indy" in their name, even when they do not take place at Indy. This is simply to tie the name of the race to the series. Formula 1 fans can relate this to the inclusion of "Grand Prix" or "GP" in the names of their races.
So, Danica Patrick is a driver in the Indy Racing League, and she drove her Indy Car in the Indy Japan 300 a few weeks ago. She won that race, the Indy Japan 300, which takes place in Motegi, Japan. She has not yet won "Indy," or the Indy 500, which takes place in Indianapolis, IN, this coming Sunday.

The race is 500 miles? How long will that take?
Indy cars can go more than 230 mph under the right circumstances. The speeds during the Indy 500 will be closer to 220 mph for most of the race. If there is an accident, the rules say that all of the cars have to slow down to about 60 mph until the accident is cleaned up, which usually takes 5 - 10 minutes. Overall, the race will probably last about 3 hours.

Accidents? Do people get hurt or die?
The cars, and the race itself, is actually very safe. If there is an accident, the cars involved will stay on or very near the track, and there are lots of walls and fences to keep them away from the crowds, crews, TV cameras, etc. The walls around the outside of the track are metal guardrails attached to foam blocks, so while they are not squishy, they are not rock-hard either. The cars themselves are designed to basically explode into lots of pieces, except for the parts right around the driver. Think of those exploding pieces like a big crumple-zone. Drivers can get hurt, but usually the most serious injury is a sprain or bruise.

Can drivers keep racing even after they've been in an accident?
They can, but they usually don't. Indy Cars are fragile, and all of the parts are critical. NASCAR fans might expect to see sledgehammers and duct-tape come out after a crash, but usually if a piece on an Indy Car breaks, it takes literally all week to fix.

Someone just said "teams"
When the drivers and cars are on the track, they are all racing against each other. Race cars are expensive, and it turns out that there are only a few people with the money and interest to pay for them. Because of this, those people usually pay for more than one. All of the cars and drivers that get paid for by the same person are on a "team." Some of the "teams" have only one car and one driver, but some "teams" have several. Usually, all of the cars and drivers who are on the same team go back to the same research facility between the races, so if someone figures out how to make one of the cars a little faster, the other drivers and cars on that same team will probably hear about it first. Also, a driver is less likely to act like a jerk on the track towards another car on the same team. You will probably hear about how many cars and drivers each team has, how many times each team has won the race, and how "teammates" are helping each other out on the track. As much as you will hear those things, at the end of the race, every driver is racing every other driver.

Will this be fun?
Yes, it will probably be fun. Even beyond the fun people and good food you're likely to be surrounded by, the race itself is very exciting. The cars are going very fast, and they are very close to each other. Driving the cars is difficult, and it is exciting to watch the drivers try not to make any mistakes at all for three whole hours.

And maybe you'll get to see Danica actually "win Indy."

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