Indianapolis 500: Remembering some of the greats from the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing'

The Indianapolis 500 race, which celebrates its centennial this year, is scheduled for Sunday at noon Eastern time. The 'greatest spectacle in racing' has been a part of the writer's Memorial Day weekend for over 40 years.

Dave Gansert/Reuters
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver Paul Tracy (L) and James Hinchcliffe, both of Canada, race on the track during Carb Day, the last day of practice for the Indianapolis 500, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis May 27. The Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for May 29.

My first memories of the Indianapolis 500 were shaped by my parents.

The first six years of my life were spent in Indiana and my parents attended the Indy 500 in the mid 1960s. My mother told me about the smell of rubber and fuel and tiny bits of tire that landed on them in the stands.

I grew up doing chores in the backyard with my dad, listening to the race on the radio on Memorial Day weekend.

Even today, I get a chill when Jim Nabors sings "Back home again in Indiana" and the Purdue University marching band plays "Taps" before the race. It's appropriate to pay tribute to Hoosiers who helped make the annual event what it is – and to honor all the men and women of our armed forces who paid the ultimate price for us to enjoy the freedoms we hold so dear.

2011 is the centennial year for the Indy 500, first won by Ray Harroun in six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds, back in 1911. After taking time off for both world wars, the race has been run annually since 1946.

As for the race, like sports itself, it's the personalities – more than the cars – that have made me fan. On television, in the late 1960s and into the next two decades, drivers like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, brothers Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, and Rick Mears were men of derring-do. Car owners and mechanics like Andy Granatelli, Roger Penske, Parnelli Jones, and George Bignotti growled, cajoled, and led their teams to Victory Lane. These were household names.

Since then, men like Al Unser, Jr., Helio Castroneves, Arie Luyendyk, and Dario Franchitti have driven to victory more than once in the 500-mile endurance test. The cars have evolved, too, from the open-wheeled vehicles to elaborate winged spoilers and onboard television cameras, so the fans can experience the ride.

This year's race will feature four women among the 33 drivers on Sunday, including Simona de Silvestro, who was injured during a qualifying run. Danica Patrick, who finished fourth in 2005, is back again. There has been speculation she may move to NASCAR full-time next year, but Patrick says nothing's been decided. A quartet of former Indy 500 winners are also in the field.

Yes, another Memorial Day is upon us. Remember our soldiers and sailors and those who have gone before us. And ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

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