Monday , 27 May 2024

The Indianapolis 500 Newbie Guide

It is almost 25 years since Nigel Mansell stunned the racing world by announcing that he would be ditching Formula 1 for Indy cars, despite taking a dominant championship. Mansell-mania spread to the United States as a result, and the global interest in Indycar racing, the championship and especially the crown jewel event – the Indianapolis 500 skyrocketed.

In a way, history is repeating itself with Fernando Alonso, as Alonso-mania is stealing all of the headlines in sport at the moment – both sides of the pond. Lots of fans from Europe and around the world have started to pay interest in this event solely because of the two-time world champion. Indy, however, is like nothing us Europeans are likely to see this side of the pond now. Therefore, this Indianapolis 500 Newbie Guide should hopefully be of use.

Introducing the Field of 33

Traditionally (a word which is going to be mentioned a lot here), Indy has featured a staggering 33 starters. In front of them will be four left-hand turns, across two and a half miles of tarmac, walls and the famous yard of bricks. The winner will be the driver who completes 200 laps of the famous speedway before anybody else does. 200 laps of a 2.5 mile oval is why it is called the Indianapolis 500, unsurprisingly.

The race will begin with a rolling start, with the drivers lined up in eleven rows of three. There are some familiar and unfamiliar names in the field, which has been elaborated on earlier. Seven previous winners will be in the field, as well as four rookies and a further three series champions without an Indy 500 victory to date. Alonso has some stiff competition.

The cars

All drivers will use a Dallara DW12 chassis, with an enhanced bodykit from their engine supplier (Honda or Chevrolet). The engines used are 2.2-litre twin-turbocharged V6 units, which are limited to 575bhp on the speedways. Drivers have a six-speed gearbox, and will run on Firestone tyres.


There is a lot of practice in preparation for the big race – two weeks of it in fact. Average Speeds are usually measured as opposed to time. Because fastest laps often occur in the slipstream, the charts are usually not particularly reliable when it comes to interpreting who is where. Different teams and drivers will also run different programmes through the month, and at different times too. Some teams will spend much of the first week focusing on getting the car up to speed before focusing on qualifying, before getting the car perfect for raceday. Managing traffic is something which is worth learning in practice, as this management is massively important.


This system is complicated. Qualifying takes place across two days. The first day determines which drivers will be locked into either positions one through to nine, or between positions 10 and 33. On the first day, each competitor is given up to three seven lap runs (of which laps three, four, five and six are timed). However, making a second or a third attempt will void your previous run. So there is a lot of strategy involved even as far as the first part of qualifying.

The top nine from Saturday advances to the pole position shootout. Each driver is given another run with what happened on the day previous wiped. Those locked into positions 10 and 33 can obviously not qualify higher than 10th, whilst the top nine from Saturday will be the ones fighting for the pole position, and cannot qualify any lower than ninth.


The build-up, and traditions

The traditions surrounding the 500, including a number of events which take place before the race begins, emphasise what this race means for the American people. This is their showpiece event, and a lot happens before the green flag flies. There is a real sense of patriotism during the pre-race ceremonies.

The traditions continue after the race as well. The winner traditionally gets to drink the famous milk. Europeans may be more familiar with podium finishers being given champagne to drink after the conclusion of a race, but drinking the milk is one of the longest traditions at Indianapolis. Refusing the milk is met with negativity, as two-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi found out in 1993.

The racing

Slipstreaming is everything. Forget DRS. Forget ERS. Forget even braking. It is all about slipstreaming at Indy. The racing is fast and is also incredibly dangerous. But at the same time, the race can never be won on the first lap. The first 150 laps or so is more of a chess match taking place at 240mph. It is a case of setting your car and your situation up right so you are still in the mix towards the end of the race.

The race will almost certainly feature full course cautions, and perhaps quite a few of them. These are equivalent to safety car periods over here, and therefore differ from full course yellows seen in the likes of Formula E. This means that there will be a lot of restarts, and getting those nailed can be the difference between winning and losing, as Mansell found out when he was a rookie.

Pitstops are very important in oval racing, and the 500 is no exception. A botched stop can put a driver an entire lap down, effectively ruling him or her out of the running for victory. A poorly timed stop can put a driver well down the order, seriously compromising their race. These races will feature refuelling, and fuel saving can win the race, as Alexander Rossi did last year, and the late Dan Wheldon did in 2011.

Speaking of fuel saving, the nature of the current generation of cars (this being the final year for the current regulations) prevents one dominant driver pulling away at the front. Therefore being at the front does mean that fuel consumption is higher, and with the slipstreaming effect being so important, leading only matters at the very end of the race. Leading at any other point may even compromise the race for a driver.

Changes can be made both inside the car and during the pitstops, and these little tweaks during the race can be very important. The track is unbelievably sensitive to both wind and temperature, and a change in one or both can turn a good car into a horrible one. Regardless of the talent of the driver, a bad car is almost certainly not going to be a winning car.

There will be terms unfamiliar to European audiences too. ‘Push’ and ‘loose’ are terms to get used to. These may sound more familiar as ‘understeer’ and ‘oversteer’ respectively. ‘SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction) barrier’ is another term to be familiar with, although these barriers have started to pop up on circuits all around the world.

Expect drivers to also not give way when shown a blue flag. Staying on the lead lap is absolutely critical, so drivers will race the leaders to try and remain in contention.

Ovals are a completely different kettle of fish to road and street courses. Alonso and his fellow rookies still have loads to learn before the big day. A lot of racing fans will be tuning in to give oval racing a chance, when perhaps some might have found the idea of racing on them not particularly appealing. Keeping up with strategies and the stop-start nature of this style of racing can be tricky, be it as a fan, a strategist or a driver, but it is guaranteed to be one of the most exciting racing events around.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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