The 2012 Indianapolis 500 will be run on Sunday for the 96th time, 101 years after the first running in 1911 -- and the roar of the engines at the Brickyard is just as thrilling now as it ever was.
The Indy 500 is entering its 16th year as an IndyCar race, and exiting a three-year "Centennial Celebration" that marked the first 100 years of the race from 2009 to 2011. It's unlikely that any racer will make history this year, but Helio Castroneves, the 2012 Indy 500 field's only three-time winner, could tie A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears for the most career Indy victories.
But the history of the thing is not nearly as important as the atmosphere. The track doesn't release attendance numbers, but estimates say more than 250,000 people pack the stands for the race on a yearly basis. When they head to the Brickyard, they are treated to one of the greatest thrills in sports, as Pop Off Valve explained last year:
Then you hear it.
It's a noise peculiar to the Indianapolis 500 - the sound of thirty-three cars going flat-out at 220mph through a sounding chamber of a quarter-million people on both sides. Nobody has headphones or earplugs in - for the first few laps, everyone is listening to the music of thirty-three racing engines. The Doppler effect elevates the engine pitch as the cars approach you. The cars flash past so fast that you strain your neck to follow them. Before you know it, they are flying down the frontstretch, leaving only echoes. Echoes, and the now-weak-sounding cheers from the crowd.
And that's when you realize it. You are present at something you won't ever forget. That sound has seared into your brain like a cattle brand melted it in there. You are shaking with the adrenaline rush. You are yelling as loud as you can but you're not saying any words - just letting out a wordless howl of amazement and excitement. And just about forty seconds later, as the cars come by for the second lap, you are doing it all over again.
The drivers will compete for one of the greatest prizes in motorsports — the Indy 500 remains part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, despite losing ground in popularity domestically to NASCAR — and for the right to kiss the bricks and drink cold milk (drivers can choose whole, 2%, or skim) as the winner.
For more on the Indy 500, watch Jon Bois' informative Indy 500 FAQ. and check out Jeff Gluck's Indy 500 preview.