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Each Indy turn has its own culture ... and it all starts in Turn 1

Among the many things that add to the lore of the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is how little the track has changed since the circuit was built in 1909.

The first Indianapolis 500 was raced on a 2½-mile oval. While the surface of the track has changed, part of the consistency of the circuit lies in its turns. All four of them are geometrically identical at a ¼-mile with identical 9.2-degree banking.

The turns and the track itself stand sentinel to the myriad changes that have taken place all around them. The track physical plant, the habits of fans, and of course, the cars themselves are radically different from what they were in 1911 when the first Indianapolis 500 was run.

We revel in the identical familiarity of Indy’s turns, but the similarity ends with their consistent dimensions.

Over time, the turns and how we view them has evolved into their own culture, if you will. Generations of race-goers become loyal to the turn their family has sat in for years. You get to know the people in your turn and they became once-annual (or more) friends over time.

“I do think there is a different culture in each of the corners,” IMS president J. Douglas Boles said.

The turns are the backdrop of countless iconic Indianapolis 500 moments – good and bad ones.

Everyone knows Rick Mears passed Michael Andretti in 1991 in Turn 1 to earn his famous fourth Indy 500 triumph. Everyone knows one of the worst moments in IMS history occurred in 1964 in Turn 4, when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald lost their lives in a fiery wreck that engulfed a large part of that turn.

Similar though they are? Racers will tell you those four turns can act quite differently given the conditions of the day.

These turns have taken on a life of their own. In this series of stories, we’ll try to capture what these turns are all about, on and off track. This story is devoted to Turn 1.

On-track

The most obvious on-track characteristic of Turn 1? It’s the first turn of the race and of the subsequent 199 laps.

Races have been lost on Lap 1 in Turn 1 for over-zealous drivers or unlucky ones caught up in accidents. Moreover, races can be won in Turn 1 if you’re bold enough to make the right move. Witness Mears in 1991.

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In this May 27, 2012, file photo, Takuma Sato, right, of Japan, spins in the first turn under Dario Franchitti, of Scotland, on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500 It’s part of the glory and the agony of negotiating Turn 1 on a restart, especially late in the race.

Also, witness Takuma Sato in 2012, who famously went for it and crashed in Turn 1 trying to pass Dario Franchitti. The Indy gods would later compensate when Sato won the 2017 and 2020 500s.

It’s a place of drama, but it’s also a turn that stands as unique to the drivers too.

Because of the extension of the paddock grandstands, Turn 1 sits in shade for part of the race, particularly the latter half of it depending on weather conditions. The track temperature is more prone to change here than any other turn.

“Turn 1 is usually the most shaded and thus the coolest throughout the race so from a track temperature standpoint it should be the easiest,” 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi said.

“That being said, your approach speed for Turn 1 is usually higher than Turn 3 so that extra little bit of load on the car does add to the challenge of it,” said the Arrow McLaren driver, who start fourth in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Those differing conditions add to the degree of difficulty whether a driver is negotiating a restart or traffic later in the race.

“Some days you have to get really low to get clean air behind cars. It’s always changing and it keeps you on your toes,” 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power said.

Of course, the start of the race and restarts are not only what capture the imagination of fans, but also requires a major degree of concentration from the divers.

Nothing is quite like Lap 1 when the field is at its maximum size and when cars can be more scrambled in terms of race speed vs. qualifying speed that set the grid.

“It depends on where you start. Often I’ll roll the outside if I’m way back in the pack. It’s a tightrope you have to walk,” said Power, who will start in the middle of Row 1 for Sunday’s race.

Rossi noted that grid position plays a major role in the approach to the turn.

“You do race practice and simulation all week in packs of cars, but this is usually in the 3-12 car range,” Rossi said.

“I’ve started in the front, middle, and back and each place requires it’s own unique way of looking at things because of the difference in turbulent (dirty) air around you,” Rossi added.

If a driver gets it right? The rewards can be significant. Rossi pulled off a memorable Turn 1 move when he passed three cars on the outside of the turn during a 2018 restart, a rare feat.

Turn 1 spotters

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The top of Turn 1 (as well as Turn 3) also includes an important off-track spot that directly affects the on-track product – it’s where the spotters’ stand is located. Spotters serve as the eyes of the drivers from above.

Off-track

Turn 1 is, far-and-away, the most imposing of the four turns in terms of the super-structure built around it.

It’s the only turn with double-deck seating as the paddock extends into the radius of the turn. One of the things that leaves fans in awe is seeing the multitudes of fans piled into these stands overlooking the track surface.

Turn 1 is also the most expensive and highly-sought after places to sit at the track. The reasons are obvious – not only does the double-deck seating offer the best vistas of the track, but, it’s also where the race begins and where the always harrowing restarts occur after yellow flag periods.

For 2025, Stands E ($285), B ($280), A ($265) and the Southwest Vista ($250) are the priciest place in which to renew deck seats. All are located or within sight of Turn 1.

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Takuma Sato, of Japan, drives through the first turn during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 on May 18, 2024.

Most who have seats in those stands renew because they feel they have the pick of the litter.

“I don’t want to say it’s stuffier, but it’s more generational,” Boles said.

He pointed out another obvious benefit of sitting in Turn 1.

“The benefit of that place is when it rains, you’re mostly covered and when the day gets to 11:30 to noon, you’re covered from the sunshine, so it does give a completely different view,” Boles noted.

The seats in the turn also bear the hallmarks of races past.

Many seats near the track coming out of the frontstretch and into Turn 1 in the grandstand are left unsold. That’s a legacy of the 1973 accident involving Salt Walther and many others. On the first lap, just ahead of Turn 1, Walther’s car sprayed gasoline into the crowd and burned several spectators. Those seats haven’t been sold since.

The inside of the turn has changed a lot over the years. It was once where the original Snake Pit was located in the 1960s and 1970s.

When the road course was added to the track in 2000, the inside of the turn lost all its seating. Today, the inside of the turn consists of the road course and parking for team haulers and hospitality.