Why does the Indy 500 run for 500 miles?

From the Marbles

It's almost time for the greatest day in racing, three races that run from dawn to well after dusk. The centerpiece of the day is the Indy 500, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and one of the most famous sporting events in the world. Here, we answer a few of your pressing Indy 500 questions. See you Sunday from the track!

The "500" in racing is a sacred number, as immutable as the 100 yards in football. In olden days, it was a test of drivers' nerve and cars' engineering; the odds were good that either man or machine couldn't go the distance. Now, though, both drivers and cars can sustain a 500-mile race. But how did we get to 500 miles in the first place?

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The number dates back to 1911, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway head Carl Fisher decided to have one major race, not a series of smaller ones. The idea was to have a race that would last the entire day. (Back in 1911, people hadn't had their attention spans demolished by their smartphones and video games, you know.) The race was slated to run from mid-morning to sundown. Cars averaged about 70 miles an hour back then, so with a projected seven-hour window, 500 miles was a nice round number. The track remains the same 2.5-mile, nine-degree-banked layout that it was the day it opened.

The first winner, Ray Harroun, completed the race in six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds, an average speed of just under 75 mph. For comparison's sake, last year's winner, Dario Franchitti, was more than twice as fast, finishing the race in 2:58:51, or 167.7 mph.

As for that famous tradition of drinking milk? That dates to the 1930s, when winner Louis Meyer regularly requested buttermilk. A local photographer captured the scene, the Indiana Dairy Council apparently spotted an opportunity, and a tradition was yanked into existence. Winners now get their choice of whole, two percent or skim ... well chilled.

-For coverage straight from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-

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