Arena: Legends built in the Brickyard: 7 Indianapolis: Richard Williams explains the unique attractions of an historic racetrack designed for speed

SLAP. Vroom. Slap. Vroom. Slap. Vroom. A blur of white, a flash of red, a smear of lime green. The cars of Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Eddie Cheever, flashing across the finishing line of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in final practice for today's 78th running of the annual 500-mile race.

The vroom we know about. It's the regular sound of a turbocharged racing engine producing something not far off a thousand horsepower and running at close to 240mph. But the slap that precedes it is something else, something unique, one of the most evocative sounds in all of sport.

To hear it, you need to stand a hundred yards or so south of the finishing line, on the way to Turn One, in the vicinity of the tall tower that displays the number and position of all 33 starters throughout the race and is the Speedway's principal landmark. From there, the slap reaches you before the car and its accompanying vroom.

It's caused by slick tyres passing at speed over a line of bricks laid in a pattern a yard wide across the finishing line. These bricks are a symbolic presence: a reference to the early days of the Speedway, when its entire surface was covered with bricks - 3,200,000 of them - and it became known, colloquially, as the Brickyard.

All but a few dozen of those 10lb bricks were covered over in the years between 1937 and 1939, when satin-smooth asphalt was laid on the surface of the oval track, first on the four banked turns and then on the straights. But the retention of the yard of bricks on the surface opposite Victory Lane is a sign of Indianapolis's obsessive and endearing pride in its own rich history.

When the track was first mooted, before the First World War, Indianapolis was the centre of the American motor industry. Three of its leading figures bought the 230-acre site north-west of the city centre in 1909, with the intention of building a combined test and race track. Once laid down, the basic configuration was to remain unaltered until the present day: two straights measuring five- eighths of a mile and two of half a mile, linked by four constant-radius turns, each a quarter-mile long. Perfectly symmetrical, the two- and-a-half-mile track was 50ft wide in the straight and 60ft in the turns, which were banked at an angle of just more than nine degrees.

Originally, there were large wooden grandstands and a picturesque pagoda-like structure housing the stewards and the timekeepers. Today, the permanent grandstands are imposing structures made of concrete and steel, providing seating for more than 250,000 people. Even riding the pale grey asphalt carpet at a sedate 20mph in a sightseeing bus, the impression is of a series of tunnels that seem to suck the vehicle forward into the turns, each of which appears to rise up like a ramp until the final approach suddenly reveals its curvature. Speedway is the right appelation for this phenomenon: speed is its only reason for being, and not much is allowed to interfere with the perfect projection of that sole purpose.

Ray Harroun won the first 500-mile race in 1911 at an average speed of 75mph, which meant that it took his eight-litre Marmon Wasp more than six and a half hours to cover the distance. The record for the fastest race is held by Arie Luyendyk, an expatriate Dutchman who averaged 185mph in 1990. Given decent weather - preferably on the cool side, to benefit the turbochargers - and an absence of yellow-flag incidents, that may be broken today, if Al Unser Jr's qualifying average of 228mph is a guide.

The unpremeditated effects of these speeds are contained by a concrete wall, 12 inches thick and betwen 39 and 42 inches high, and by debris fencing almost 20ft high. All of these were revised and rebuilt last year, as part of a programme of safety-minded improvements. Most significantly, the warm-up lanes forming the entry to, and exit from, the pits were separated from the main track by grass verges and rumble strips, which prevented the racers from using the lanes as an extra bit of racetrack. This softened the angle at which out-of-control cars hit the wall.

It also made the track tamer, by discouraging the drivers from taking the turns two and three abreast at 200 mph - a sight that used to be the Indy 500's glory. Now, conscious of the reduced track width, they tend to go through in line astern, leaving enough space to avoid a damaging aerodynamic backwash from the car ahead. Those of us who long admired the 500 from afar but only arrived here with Nigel Mansell have a suspicion that we missed out on something irreplaceable.

Even so, as the half-million gathering to witness today's event will agree, there's nothing else remotely like it. And whatever superficial changes may be made, the presence of those three million bricks just a foot beneath the surface somehow guarantees the lasting integrity of a magnificent sporting ritual, in a setting fit for New World heroes.

(Photograph omitted)

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits