Prep begins on centennial edition of Indianapolis 500, honoring past and looking to future

As much as the Indianapolis 500 strives to move forward, to go faster and push the limits just a little bit further, the Memorial Day weekend race remains steeped in its traditions.

The bottle of milk. The Borg-Warner Trophy. The yard of bricks.

The history is what drew A.J. Foyt to the track for the first time as a spectator in 1955, and drew him back as a driver a few years later. Foyt won the Indy 500 for the first time in 1961, then took it three more times, his name rapidly becoming another part of speedway lore.

"You have a lot of great race tracks," he said this week, "but there's only one Indy 500."

There is only one centennial race, too.

With the 100th running of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" on deck, preparations are already underway. The official gray and gold logo was revealed Thursday, and IndyCar has planned a year-round marketing rollout that will begin as soon as the checkered flag waves on Sunday.

While no details were announced, officials said events will focus on Indianapolis but extend nationally and even globally leading up to next year's running of the iconic race.

"The Indianapolis community has shown time and time again that we rise to the occasion and get behind historical opportunities to generate results that surprise even ourselves," said Allison Melangton, senior vice president of events for Hulman Motorsports Corp.

The speedway first opened in 1909, and the first 500-mile race was held two years later. It quickly became a springtime staple, testing the endurance of man and machine.

The race took a brief hiatus during both World Wars. But every year since 1946, it has been run — despite lousy weather, sobering fatalities, a split in the IndyCar Series itself and countless other problems that have threatened the event while also burnishing its legend.

"Back Home Again in Indiana" became a pre-race staple, thanks in no small part to Jim Nabors, who retired from signing it last year. The same with "God Bless America," performed by Florence Henderson. Gasoline Alley is still the place to see and be seen, and the Hall of Fame between turns one and two beckons fans young and old to learn about all of it under one roof.

"This is about racing, but it's also about people — how it affects so many people's lives," said Mark Miles, chief executive of Hulman and Co., which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"Their families have so many rituals on race day, whether it's listening to the radio as these drivers do incredible things, or tuning into the television or getting to see it in person," Miles said. "It touches people, and that's a big part of what we're talking about."

It certainly touched Foyt when he arrived six decades ago.

He had grown up listening to the race on the radio in Texas, and hitched a ride with some friends to see it for the first time. He was immediately captured by the pageantry, the spectacle and the speed. Bob Sweikert was the winner that year, but it will forever be remembered for the multi-car pileup that killed two-time champion Bill Vukovich.

"I sat in turn two and watched the race," Foyt recalled, "and I thought, 'Maybe someday I'll be fortunate enough to have a car and come up here.'"

He didn't have to wait long. Foyt returned three years later and finished 16th, then won for the first time in '61. He would make 35 consecutive starts in the race, his name joining those of Unser, Andretti and Rutherford as icons of the sport.

"To be lucky enough to win it the first time, I just couldn't believe it. My long-life dream was to qualify for the Indianapolis 500," Foyt said. "You have a lot of great race tracks, but there's only one 500. It's like horse racing. You have a lot of great race tracks, but you only have one Kentucky Derby. That had always been my dream."

It's a dream that has been shared by hundreds of other drivers over the years, one that will no doubt be celebrated next year during the 100th edition of the race.

"It's a place I love to come to," Foyt said, "and will continue to come to as long as I live."