As much temptation as there is for me to say that the sports season is over after the NCAA Basketball Tournament and for the most part it is because I’m not big into NASCAR and don’t really watch the NBA Playoffs on a consistent basis, but the month of May is bookended by two of the greatest sporting events on the planet whether you like the underlying sport or not. And, they both began with a one guy having a simple idea.
There is nothing bigger in Kentucky and Indiana than basketball. Likewise, a very close second in Kentucky is the Kentucky Derby and a very close second in Indiana – if not number one in the City of Indianapolis alone – is the Indianapolis 500.
This Saturday a field of 20 horses will head to the starting gate just a little after 6:30 p.m. for the 142nd running of the longest running sporting event in the country. Frankly it’s become more of an “event” than an actual sport. There are plenty of what are known as “railbirds” who hang around horse racing tracks year round, study the horses and have a passion for the sport. The Kentucky Derby, as well as the Preakness in two weeks and the Belmont Stakes next month attract plenty just looking to party.
Horse racing has long been dubbed the “Sport of Kings”, but it doesn’t take a King to own a piece of thoroughbred race horse any more. The owners come in all forms. Yes, some are rich like the owner of last year’s triple crown winner American Pharoah. Others are just ordinary guys like the owner of past winner “Mine That Bird” who hitched his horse trailer to the back of his pick-up truck and drove cross country from New Mexico to win the most prestigious prize in the sport.
Perhaps it was known as the sport of kings due to its start. The idea for the Kentucky Derby was hatched in 1872 when Louisville resident Meriweather Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark of the famous explorers Lewis and Clark traveled to England to watch the Epson Derby – a race that’s been run every year since 1780. Clark returned to the United States with the idea of his own derby. His uncles John and Henry Churchill donated him a piece of land and he formed the Louisville Jockey Club. Clark then built a race track on what is known as “Churchill Downs” named after his uncles and on May 17, 1875, the first Kentucky Derby was run with 15 horses in the field. The race was initially 1 1/2 miles, but was eventually shortened to its current 1 1/4 miles. The famous Twin Spires first appeared at Churchill Downs in 1895 and the Red Rose was introduced as the official “flower” of the Derby in 1904. The winner was first draped with the red roses in 1932. In 1931, the race took its now familiar place on the calendar on the First Saturday in May, which has become in Kentucky a bit of state holiday right along side the opening night of basketball practice at the University of Kentucky.
Clark, who committed suicide in 1899 wasn’t around to see the Derby take off as a national event mostly due to the media coverage. The race first appeared on national radio in 1925. The first “local” television broadcast came in 1949 and in 1952 CBS became the first National outlet to broadcast the Derby live. The Network held the rights until 1974 when ABC took over until 2001 with the great Jim McKay anchoring coverage from “winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.” Since 2001, the Derby has been a staple on NBC and it will remain there until at least 2025.
You cannot just take your horse and head to Churchill Downs looking to hit the jackpot however. Under the current structure, the horses must qualify by earning points in a series of prep races during the previous fall and the spring leading up to the Derby. Only 20 will earn enough points to qualify. The most important prep races are the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes at neighboring Keenland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, the Santa Anita Derby, the Arkansas Derby and the UAE Derby in the United Arab Emirates. The points earned for horses in those races are the biggest ones out there.
The Derby is also affectionately known as the greatest two minutes in sports because after all the hype and build-up, the race is over in approximately 2 minutes. In the 142 year history of the event only the great Secretariat in 1973 finished under two minutes with a time of 1 minute, 59 and 4-tenths seconds. Frankly the Derby is just one of three times per year that casual fans pay any attention to horse racing although the sport now has its own network on Cable and Satellite, but the Derby annually signals that spring is indeed here.
And while, the Derby and its pageantry opens the month, the Indianapolis 500 and its history and tradition close it on the Sunday prior to Memorial Day. Like most things – including the Kentucky Derby – this race was the idea of one man, an Indiana car dealer named Carl Fisher. In 1906 Fisher noticed that there was a lack of testing facilities for car manufacturers as the car industry was beginning to take off particularly in the Midwest. Fisher hatched an idea to build a testing facility where manufacturers could test out their new cars and I guess work out the bugs. The idea was to build a three to five mile track where car owners from different manufacturers could bring their cars together and see who had the best equipment. The original three to five mile track was eventually reduced to a 2.5 mile track and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was born at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road in Indianapolis on a 328 acre piece of farmland northwest of downtown Indianapolis. The original track was eventually repaved with 3.2 million bricks thus earning the facility the nickname “The Brickyard”. The bricks are long since gone but at the start finish line a row of bricks remains to this day.
After experimenting with several races in the first few years, Fisher and his partners eventually decided on just one race per year that would cover 500 miles to find the best driver and the best equipment and thus the Indianapolis 500 was born. 40 cars participated in the first race. 39 of those cars had both a driver and a ride along mechanic who served not only as a mechanic but also a “lookout” if you will for the other cars. Only one driver did not have a ride along mechanic and that was Ray Harroun, in a car known as the “Marmon Wasp”. Harroun instead used a little innovation to keep track of the other drivers we now know as the rear view mirror. The first 500 took a total of 6 hours and 42 minutes at an average speed of 74.59 miles per hour. That’s about twice what it takes to run the 500 these days. And, compare that with the first time a car averaged 200 miles per hour in qualifying which came in 1977, and with the fastest 500 ever recorded in 2014 at an average of 187 miles per hour. The fastest one lap speed recorded came at 237 miles per hour in qualifying in 1996.
It’s only fitting that the Indy 500 was the incubator for innovation in the first race. Indy has long been on the forefront of innovation with things like electronic timing and scoring and the new safer barriers which were first installed at the track. Still the race hasn’t been without its tragedies over the years. When you put a driver sailing into a corner at over 200 miles an hour without a roof over his head accidents and deaths are going to happen, but those who drive these cars know that going in and the frankly the sport is safer than before due to the way the cars are now designed. Watch one of these accidents and you’ll see the car immediately break apart dissipating the energy through the car instead of just on the driver. It is however still amazing to watch someone simply walk away from an accident at this race.
The 500 celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, however, this year’s 500 is the actually 100th race. Unlike the Kentucky Derby which survived through World War I and World War II, the Indianapolis 500 was not run during World War II from 1942 to 1945. Having sat idle for 4 years, the Speedway fell into disrepair until native son Tony Hulman stepped in a bought the track for $750,000.00. Hulman immediately repaired the facility and the race took hold as a national event known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Hulman Family continues to own the facility to this day.
Among the treasured 500 traditions are the fact that the race has never been tied to naming rights. You may hear it referred to as the “Indianapolis 500 telecast presented by Go Daddy” on television but unlike NASCAR which would sell naming rights to ISIS, the Indianapolis 500 is forever known as just that. The other neat tradition is the traditional bottle of milk presented to the winner in Victory Lane. The winner usually takes a sip of the milk and then pours the rest over his head which I’m sure makes him or her (if that ever happens) a smelly mess the rest of the day. The tradition was born in 1933 when Louis Meyer asked for a glass of buttermilk after the race. Is there anything in this world nastier than buttermilk? When he won for the 3rd time in 1936, he received a bottle of buttermilk so naturally an Indianapolis Dairy Farm began providing a bottle of milk (not that nasty buttermilk) to the winner every year thereafter. They continue to do so, but the winner hasn’t always been so hip to the idea. In 1993 winner Emerson Fittapaldi famously pushed aside the milk and instead drank orange juice since he owned several orange groves. Another tradition that has now passed is the annual signing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” by Gomer. They still sing the song, but Gomer retired from doing so in 2014.
While a leader in innovation, the Speedway has remained very secretive about attendance figures. They never release them but with grandstands that hold about 250,000 people and an infield to put spectators in, this race is still known as the largest single day sporting event in the country. The Speedway has also been slow to embrace television. IMS refused to allow a live broadcast of the race by ABC until 1986. Even now, the contract with the network and the track states that the race must be blacked out on the local Indianapolis ABC affiliate. Thus if you live in Indianapolis and you care about the 500 you’d better get a ticket or wait for the taped delayed broadcast on WRTV that evening. The race was first broadcast on local radio in 1922. Since 1953, it’s been broadcast on the in-house IMS Radio Network.
The 500 remains immensely popular in Indiana and the Midwest, but it’s popularity has dwindled outside that area with falling TV ratings in part due to the fact that Indy Car racing in general has struggled to gain a foothold in America. First of all, Indy Car has it right running about half of the events that NASCAR runs, and make no mistake NASCAR has too damn many races, but Indy Car’s are not consistent. There are some tracks that appear every year like Long Beach, but others show up one year and then disappear for a few years and then maybe come back. There are also too many road course and street races which wind up being nothing more than boring follow the leader events. A few years ago, Indy Car ran a Labor Day weekend event on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. That didn’t last and this year they’ll try the same thing in Boston. Hell traffic in Boston is a disaster anytime. I cannot imagine the locals embracing this thing and God help them if the Red Sox are in town. The other – and perhaps biggest problem – is a lack of American Indy Car racers. From 1967 to 1988 the 500 was won by an American driver like Unser, Foyt or Mears. But, from 1989 when Fittapaldi won his first race until 2015, 19 foreign drivers won 27 of the races. With NASCAR running its annual ridiculously too long 600 mile race that same day with mostly all American drivers, the television eyeballs go toward Charlotte and not Indy and that’s a sign of Indy not developing drivers at the grass roots and not having a vision. Simon Pagenaud may be a really nice guy, but he’s French and next to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., he’s not moving the meter.
Both of these events had humble local beginnings, but are now an integral part of the National Sports calendar and discussion. Just goes to show you what a little vision from one person can accomplish.