500 On (The Indy) 500
Tales, Facts and Figures on “The Greatest Race in the World”
by Rick Shaffer
“The purpose of this book is to offer stories, facts and figures that are familiar only to that small band of fanatics who believe they know everything there is to know about IMS and the 500. In fact, some might even feel they possess enough knowledge to joust with the ultimate Indianapolis 500 expert, IMS Historian Donald Davidson. Now that might be a stretch. Anyway, my hope for this book is that I might even surprise a few of them with something new or different.”
Invoking the name of The Donald right on page one isn’t an empty gesture: Davidson, who just a few months ago retired from his IMS gig (1998–12/2020) and motorsports journalist Shaffer coauthored the very respectable Autocourse Official Illustrated History of the Indianapolis 500 (2006 and updated in 2013) and, judging by the stacks of publications each has put out over the decades, they apply a similar level of magnification. There is a reason for pointing this out . . .
If you are not merely a reader of books but someone who follows internet fora (a decidedly mixed blessing, this) you may recall that, in 2017, Shaffer, on the occasion of the 101st running of the Indy 500, circulated a series of posts of “101 Facts and Figures.” Inevitably, learned commentary from the sidelines ensued, challenging this and poking at that, often citing contemporary sources such as snippets from The Indianapolis News that begged to differ. Let us also read into the record that Shaffer was, among other things, a sportswriter for The Indianapolis Star and worked for NBC Sports, meaning he is no stranger to journalistic craft. If in light of this you reread the introductory quote above, you will probably now detect in that phrase “fanatics who believe they know everything” a certain exasperation on his part. It is not our place to adjudicate such matters but for the benefit of those who do recall the 2017 posts we will point out while that old list of 101 is obviously now worked into this larger framework of the 500, those (few) entries that had irked some are here, mostly, rephrased.  (They are, needless to say, no longer numbered the way they were.)
So, to the book.
The saying “You can make a first impression only once” applies to books, too. Sometimes, not at all often, you pick up a book and you can tell within minutes that it is a cut above. This is one of those.
Let’s start with the end, literally: the book has an Index—if a small publisher like Coastal 181 can do that, on a $40 book, with the type of contents that is brimming with myriad facts and factlets that drives indexers to drink, what’s everybody else’s excuse?? Moreover, this Index was done by a sentinent being. What’s one key thing even laypeople associate with the Indy 500? The winner drinks (almost always) milk. Wouldn’t you know, there’s an index entry “Milk Tradition Started – p. 65”. Genius.
Books like this usually defy rigorous analysis because they are compilations of stand-alone snippets rather than an overarching thesis. There is simply not enough exposition or point of view for an author to get too far into the weeds. Also, when it comes to the “hard” facts & figures part, it is surely plausible to acknowledge that not all sources are created equal so that, if a reader’s recollection of something were to differ from that of the author, the first order of business ought to be further inquiry instead of crying foul/malfeasance/off with his head.
The book doesn’t spell it out and the phrasing of the Table of Contents entries doesn’t give much of a clue but the 500 entries are in basically chronological order, divided into 10 chapters. This does yield an evolutionary picture of the Indy 500 but is neither a seamless soup-to-nuts history nor a highlight reel since the point of the book is to touch upon lesser known aspects of history.
The story begins with the 5-man brain trust who hatched the Speedway idea (if you know the topography, it boggles the mind to think that hilly, make that mountainous French Lick, Indiana was put forward as a possible site—by a former mayor of Indianapolis who happened to own property there!), presents some interesting tidbits about the track’s physical layout and racing methodology, and then switches to race by race coverage in the form of a dozen or so numbered facts, ending with the 104th running in 2020 under Covid rules.
That the book’s Foreword is by Brazilian driver Hélio Castroneves is not just because he is a 3-times Indy winner but because he and Shaffer have known each other since 1998, Hélio’s rookie season with Bettenhausen Motorsports—where Shaffer was the PR man.
This is probably a good time to mention that Shaffer, an Indianapolis native, went to his first Indy 500 as a teenager, in 1964, after two years of lobbying his dad. That particular race could easily have put an impressionable youngster off racing: a fiery accident on Lap 2 would claim two lives. Shaffer actually has experienced Indy from the wheel of a race car: during the Valvoline One Lap Around Indy promotion in 1988 he piloted an open-wheel Formula 440. Ok, so it only has a snowmobile engine, but it still counts.
This is an ideal book to pick up in idle moments, and, once you’ve read it all you’ll actually be able to find things again thanks to that nifty Index.
 An example: the old entry #35 used to say “… Thanks to their dispute with William Durant, the Chevrolet brothers never raced Chevrolet automobiles at IMS (or anywhere else for that matter). However, Chevrolet did appear as a car name …” But, the bit in parens conflicts with an oddball 1914 road race in which Louis C. is recorded as driving a car of his so the new entry, now #54, says “It is interesting to note here that the Chevrolet brothers never raced a Chevrolet automobile at IMS. ….”
Copyright 2021, Sabu Advani (speedreaders.info).