This is the 2nd in a series of 18 stories examining the best events an Indiana sports fan would want to see in a lifetime.
They call it the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for a reason, and that reason is the drive into Turn 1 when the green flag drops. Oh, and everything that follows.
There's nothing quite like the sight and sound of the start of the Indianapolis 500. Thirty-three cars accelerate to 225 mph, pushed to the limit by technology and the nerve of drivers who carry 100 years of tradition along for the ride. If you haven't felt the roar of that horsepower, you haven't felt Indy.
It's arguable – and you should win the argument – that the Indy 500 is the singular sports event that defines Indiana around the world.
What makes it so special? Any event with a century of tradition carries substantial weight. Some of the most famous names in auto racing history were forged at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, the Unsers and the Andrettis, to name a few. For all of his successes around the world, Mario Andretti is inexorably tied to the 500, even winning it just once.
The race extends beyond the track to the atmosphere around it, from the 300,000 fans to the pre-race flyover to Jim Nabors' “Back Home Again in Indiana,” to the winner's traditional milk drinking.
The race itself is a sprint and a marathon wrapped into one. Consider 500 miles in real time and then turn it in a harrowing high-speed chase. There are no guarantees at Indy, as Michael Andretti could attest from never tasting that victory milk. Marco Andretti was edged by the slimmest of margins by Sam Hornish Jr. JR Hildebrand found heartbreak in the wall coming out of Turn 4 in this year's race.
Indy took a dip in popularity during the Indy Racing League years when the best open-wheel drivers weren't always in the race. It survived that stretch and appears to be on the rise again. Attendance was notably up this year, and the race with multiple leaders and a last-lap sprint for Dan Wheldon's surprise win lived up to historic thrills.
Some will say Indiana's sports reputation was built on basketball. There's merit there. But no phrase rings truer worldwide in conjuring anticipation than “Gentlemen (and ladies), start your engines!”