The comprehensive guide to Indy 500: Huge prize money, big race traditions and formats explained

Elizabeth Blackstock
Josef Newgarden celebrates his Indy 500 win

The 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 takes place on Sunday, May 26

The Sunday before Memorial Day sees one of the greatest open-wheel racing events in American history: the Indianapolis 500.

Each year, 33 drivers will attempt to be immortalized on the Borg-Warner trophy by crossing the yard of bricks before their competitors on the 200th lap of the race. But if you’re new to the Indy 500, it can be quite intimidating to get up to speed. That’s why we’re here to help!

The Indy 500 is one of the oldest races – and often one of the largest single-day events – in the world. A maximum of 33 open-wheel cars hit the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the end of every May where they’ll go on to contest 200 laps, or 500 miles, of oval racing.

The race is the most prestigious on the IndyCar calendar thanks to its century of history, its large prize purse, and its ability to change the trajectory of a driver’s career.

It gains greater prestige by being a race that anyone can enter; many racers will compete in the 500 but no other IndyCar races thanks to the fact that it is such a high-profile event. It would be a little bit like if F1 teams could enter more drivers for Monaco, or drivers could compete in Monaco but no other race. Modern F1 rules restrict that kind of thing, but IndyCar welcomes it.

Indy 500 History In A Nutshell

The first-ever Indianapolis 500 was run all the way back in 1911 and has continued nearly every year since, with a few exceptions due to the World Wars. The event is run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track that derived from the brain of businessman and bicycle enthusiast Carl G. Fisher way back in 1909.

The original track surface was paved with crushed rock and tar, then was repaved with hand-laid bricks before being resurfaced in asphalt.

Back in its earliest days, the Indy 500 was sanctioned by the Contest Board of the American Automobile Association (AAA), and later sanctioning of the event resulted in conflicts between track owners and drivers that grew so serious that American open-wheel racing fractured as a result. As a result, the event serves as the lynchpin of the modern-day IndyCar calendar.

What Is The Month Of May?

The “Month of May” is a big thing in the IndyCar world, and it’s all part of the tradition of this iconic 500-mile race. Back in the early days, practice for the Indy 500 would open on May 1.

Not every team or driver would show up and hit the track on May 1, but the track was open to anyone who had entered the event and wanted to give it a shot.

This was necessary for several reasons. First, it was historically common for 50 or more cars to enter the Indy 500, so having plenty of track time for everyone was huge. Plus, for most of the 500’s long history, there was generally no way for a team to test a car without actually running it on a race track.

Many cars that aspired to run in the race would hit the track for the first time ever during practice. Many drivers would be trying out the event for the first time. All that practice time gave all entries a chance to really come to grips with any mechanical gremlins well before race day rolled around.

A full month of practice hasn’t been necessary for decades; now, we have about a week of practice time, plus two days of qualifying. The name has stuck, though, and has been further encouraged by the addition of the Indy Grand Prix two weeks before the Indy 500. The race takes place on the track’s infield road course and is designed to build hype for the 500.

Check out our full ‘Month of May’ Indy 500 schedule so you don’t miss a single session.

How Does Indy 500 Practice Work?

As we touched on above, the Indy 500 isn’t a “normal” race weekend: practice for the 2024 running has already started. Before qualifying, drivers will complete four days of practice each lasting for six hours. After qualifying, drivers will have four additional hours of practice spread out over two days.

How does Indy 500 qualifying work?

Qualifying for the Indy 500 lasts for two days and takes place the Saturday and Sunday before the race the following Sunday. We have a full Indy 500 qualifying guide, but here are some of the highlights to note:

  • Only 33 cars can start the Indy 500; with 34 entrants in 2024, someone will be bumped.
  • Qualifying is determined by speed. Speeds are determined by calculating the average of four fast laps.
  • Every car is guaranteed one attempt on Saturday. The fastest 12 drivers at the end of Saturday’s qualifying will compete for pole in an additional qualifying session on Sunday. The slowest four drivers will compete for the remaining three slots on the grid in an additional qualifying session on Sunday.
  • After every car qualifies on Saturday, drivers can continue to make additional attempts – either by forfeiting their initial qualifying speed and being granted priority access to the track, or by retaining their initial qualifying speed and waiting for the priority drivers to finish.
  • Sunday qualifying is split into three sessions: the Fast 12, the last-chance qualifiers, and then the Fast six.
  • The six fastest drivers from the Fast 12 session will move on to a second session on Sunday, where they will compete for pole position and set the first rows of the grid.
  • The slowest drivers from Saturday will take part in last-chance qualifying; each car will have an attempt to set a qualifying speed and may also make additional attempts. The driver with the slowest speed at the end of that session will be “bumped” and will not start the Indy 500.

More on the Indy 500

👉 Indianapolis 500: Who are the 13 F1 drivers that have won the Indy 500?

👉 Indy 500 schedule: How to watch the ‘greatest spectacle in racing’ throughout May

Let’s talk tradition

Thanks to its long history and the dedicated preservation of certain trends over several decades, the Indy 500 is packed with tradition. Drivers drink milk after their win because, back in 1933, winner Louis Meyer sipped a cold glass of buttermilk; the Indiana Dairy Association soon decided to sponsor the event, and that tradition stuck.

At the track, you’ll see plenty of bagpipers. Why? Because a volunteer group called the Gordon Pipers performed at the track in 1962, and they’ve turned up every year since.

Before every race dating back to 1946, someone has performed the song “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

The massive Borg-Warner trophy was introduced in 1936.

Drivers still receive laurel wreaths when they win.

The “yard of bricks” that serves as the finish line dates back to the hand-laid brick surface that first appeared on the track ahead of the first 500-mile race in 1911.

Everywhere you look, you’ll likely lay eyes on something that’s been around for decades – if not a century.

Because the race has meant so much to so many people, fans and track leaders have worked hard to preserve as many of them as possible.

What’s the prize money for entering and winning the Indy 500?

A race this big comes with an equally big prize purse. The total figure for 2024 hasn’t been released, but last year, Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden took home $3.666 million from a total purse that topped $17 million.

The average payout for drivers exceeded $500,000, but everyone in the field earns something for starting. Katherine Legge, whose race ended early and resulted in the first retirement of 2024, still earned $102,000 for competing.

The real prize for winning the 500, though, is the prestige. The winning driver will join over 100 years of history and some of the greatest drivers in the world by taking first place.

Drivers will have a relief of their face added to the Borg-Warner, the name for the massive trophy that celebrates the race, as a way to preserve their place in motorsport history.

Read next: Indy 500 qualifying explained: How starting grids are determined compared to F1