The Indy 500.

The Indianapolis 500 has always been on my bucket list as a thing I’d like to do someday. But like most items on my list, I knew next to nothing about it. I figured it was in Indianapolis, but I had no idea that the “500” referred to the number of miles that the racers must drive to win the race. As luck would have it, I attended the 102nd annual race this year, and it was nothing short of spectacular. You’ve got to see it—and hear it!—to believe it.

The race is typically held the Sunday before Memorial Day, and it's the largest one day event in the world. It's considered one third of the Triple Crown, which includes the Monte Carlo and Le Mans races, too. Although it started with humble beginnings over 100 years ago, it's evolved into an event with nearly 350,000 fans attending in person and millions more who watch it on TV. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

The race itself is the main spectacle, but events precede it and even go on during it—concerts, celebrity appearances, marching bands, auto displays—so there’s not much chance to be bored if you’re worried that it's all just cars driving around in a circle. Wherever you are at the 500, you’re guaranteed a grand old time, but I was lucky enough to have magic tag around my neck, a press pit pass, that got me up close and personal with the movers and shakers of the race. Plus, I got a selfie with Thor—actor Chris Hemsworth.

Chris Hemsworth and Miss America. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Diplo, Deadmau5, Kelly Clarkson, Miss America, and some other notables were also attending. After watching Hemsworth for a few moments, I realized that it’s not easy being famous—hundreds of women were trying to get a selfie with him. There's a price to being a mega-star. He must have left his hammer in Asgard because the officials gave him the task of waving the green flag with Deadmau5 in tow. Of course, tons of other things were going on too.

I headed to Gasoline Alley, where one can view the race cars up close as mechanics check them one last time before the race. Some of the drivers were hanging around to take pictures with fans. 

There's always live music at the Snakepit.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

The “Snake Pit” concert venue on the opposite side of the track had one music act on stage after another. Its reputation has calmed a little from its torrid past—as a debaucherous party hub—but you probably still want to think twice before you bring your kids into the arena. Diplo, Deadmau5, and Gris were the headliners, but there was live music playing the day before the race even started.

Around noon, everything started to happen almost at once. The cars were brought onto the track and drivers were  introduced. Jim Cornelison sang “Back Home Again in Indiana," planes dropped confetti from the sky and the audience cheered for the start. Kelly Clarkson sang the national anthem. Jon McLaughlin sang “God Bless America, ” and at 12:19 p.m. (always, 12:19 p.m.) the race began.

There was something magical about the cheering of the crowd mixed with the deafening sound of race cars starting their 200-lap journey around the 2.5-mile oval course. The race track has come a long way since it was originally created from bricks in 1909 (hence its nickname “brickyard.") The current track has one, three-foot strip of original brick work remaining as a tribute to its past. Race devotees have a tradition of bending down and kissing the bricks for good luck before the event begins. It’s sort of like an Indiana Blarney stone. Even still, there were quite a few accidents that day.

Watching a live broadcast of the Indy 500.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

The race is exciting enough, but it’s fun to walk around and see the cars speed by from different vantage points. You can people watch and have a local bratwurst, the official junk food of the race. I cooled down in the press building too, watching Fox and ABC reporters broadcast live. I knew very little about the drivers, but one name stood out. Maybe because it seemed like the perfect name for a winner: Will Power. 

Image: Bill Wiatrak

As suddenly as the race began, it ended when Will Power, an Aussie, passed the finish line first. The crowd went wild. The stands cheered, the media hurried out of the building to film the driver getting out of his car. I chased after their heels so I could capture the golden moment on my phone. As Will got out of his car, he had a wreath put around his neck, a Firestone cap stuck on his head, and the 150-pound Borg-Warner trophy placed clearly in sight. He was handed a bottle of milk, took a drink and poured the rest over his head. Does that make any sense? Not really, but it's a tradition here that goes back to 1936. 

Then it was over. The biggest and most exciting race in the world was finished and the biggest traffic jam in the world was just starting. I remembered a little too late that sometimes it’s best to just have a seat, grab a cold drink (did I mention the race has a BYOB policy?) and wait. Watching traffic in Indiana is actually “a thing.” There were literally hundreds of people sitting in lawn chairs watching the cars sit motionless in front of their homes. They seemed to enjoy it as much as the race. And I left happy, too. In spite of my lack of driver stats and knowledge, I had accidentally picked the winner.  

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