Confession: of all professional sports, racing is one of the few that I’ve never gotten into. I haven’t been exposed to it very much and know little about it, so I never sought it out. It wasn’t even something I put on my bucket list to try, because I just didn’t care.

That all changed when I was offered the chance to go to the Indianapolis 500 with a client to see some of my company’s work displayed.

I had no idea what to expect. And that’s probably why it surpassed all of my expectations.

The Indianapolis 500 has earned its title as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. As a first-timer, I didn't know what to expect when I went. Here's what I learned for the next time I head to the track.

About the Indy 500

Deemed “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500 is the pre-eminent competition of the Verizon IndyCar series. IndyCar features open-wheel cars, which is different from NASCAR’s closed-wheel bodies. The series runs from March to September every year in the U.S., with the Indy 500 always taking place over Memorial Day weekend in May.

The Indy 500 began in 1911 with a victory by Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp on what used to be a brick track. (Fun fact: it took 3.2 million bricks to cover the full track!) The race has been run every year since, save for the wartime years of 1917-18 and 1942-45. It also holds the title of being the largest single-day sporting event in the world, with more than 300,000 people converging on the speedway on the last Sunday of May each year.

Being a first-time racing spectator, there were many things I didn’t know going in that would have made my experience smoother and richer. If you’re thinking about checking out a race, or even if you’re a seasoned fan, here are some tips to make the most of your Indy 500 experience. (And for the avid race fan, here are 10 lesser-known facts about the Indy 500.)

Today I got a preview of what’s in store tomorrow at the #indy500! I have to admit, motorsports have never been my thing. But it was cool to walk around Gasoline Alley and learn about all of the engineering and strategy that goes into racing. ================================== A wise man once said that racing is a testament to how sport and utility can be combined. Many of the technologies that are tested on the race track eventually make their way to the rest of us. ================================== Tomorrow we’ll find out if I’ll be converted into a fan. For now I’m enjoying the experience and am so glad to have my first ever race be the Indy 500! ================================== 📸 @dcpiette ================================== #loveindy #thisismay #indycar #followmytravel #sportsing #dametraveler #sheisnotlost #wanderful #womenwhotravel #femaletravelbloggers

A post shared by Life As Marissa (@life_as_marissa) on

Plan to spend the whole weekend at the track.

Like the Super Bowl and other major sporting events, the Indy 500 isn’t just contained to the race on Sunday. A full weekend of activities begins the Friday before and runs through the end of the race. It’s a festival atmosphere with everything from golf to concerts to speedway tours for spectators to enjoy.

Friday is Miller Lite Carb Day, which kicks off the weekend of activities. The major draw is an official Indy 500 practice run. An afternoon concert rounds out the day (Train was the featured act this year).

Saturday is Firestone Legends Day, which as the name implies, celebrates the legends of Indy. Autograph sessions with former drivers take place throughout the day at the Speedway, and visitors are free to roam the grounds. A special pass will net you access to Gasoline Alley where all the cars are garaged and prepared for race day. The afternoon features a concert headlined by major country music acts (this year was Sam Hunt).

If parades are more your thing, skip the Speedway on Saturday and head to the official Indy 500 parade downtown where you can watch all the drivers ride by at 5 miles per hour – about 220 mph slower than they’ll be going the next day.

Sunday is the big day! There are lots of activities in the morning leading up to the race (see below), and the action begins around noon. The race lasts about three hours, and trust me, it goes by pretty quickly.

Plan for an early morning on race day.

Unlike other major sporting events in the U.S., the Indy 500 begins at noon, making a morning departure to the track inevitable. And just because the race begins early doesn’t mean they skip all the pomp and circumstance leading up to the start. Festivities begin at 8:00 a.m. and go all the way until the race.

At a minimum, make sure to be in your seat before 11:30 a.m. when they begin the international broadcast and hold traditions including the singing of God Bless America, America the Beautiful, the National Anthem, Back Home Again in Indiana, and, of course, the famous declaration of “drivers, start your engines!” just before the race begins.

In addition to the pre-race traditions, traffic and parking are a nightmare (more on that below). You’ll want to give yourself plenty of extra time to get to the track, park, and get to your seats.

Give yourself lots of extra time to get to the track.

When was the last time you spent the day with 300,000 of your closest friends? The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is enormous, but it isn’t big enough to make 300,000 people feel insignificant. You will face considerable traffic and you will face crowds. Plan ahead for parking, or better yet, camp at the Speedway and avoid parking entirely.

Once all that’s taken care of, be sure to take a minute to marvel at the fact that you are witnessing the largest single sporting event in the world!

Pack sunscreen. It’s going to be hot.

Indy 500 weekend has a reputation for being sweltering. The early start means most spectators sit in the sun during the heat of the day from noon to 3:00 p.m. It was a record-setting 93 degrees fahrenheit when I went, and no amount of sunscreen could keep me from burning. Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen, drink water, and wear a hat to protect your face from the sun.

Be prepared for LOUD NOISES!

Indy cars are not built for a quiet ride. On the contrary, they are so loud that they can be heard all the way downtown on race day. If you have sensitive ears, bring earplugs or headphones to block some of the sound. The noise of the cars is impressive, but earplugs do help save your ears from ringing later.

Allow yourself to be amazed by the spectacle.

“Spectacle” really is the only appropriate word for the Indy 500. I can’t underscore how impressive it is to see stands full of people as far as the eye can see, all here to witness the most prestigious race in the U.S. I’ve never seen a car go more than 200 miles per hour before, and the sheer power that’s displayed on the track is impressive even for those of us who don’t know a thing about cars. I also have a newfound respect for the drivers who have to finesse their way around other drivers while traveling at blistering speeds.

Another thing I found myself appreciating was just what a feat of engineering it all is. From the tire, engine and  car technology to the ability to change tires and refuel a car in seven seconds or less, the team aspect of the sport is evident the whole time despite only one person being behind the wheel during the race.

Looking down the long straightaway through the infinite crowd.

Looking down the long straightaway through the infinite crowd.

I have to admit, I’ve gone from being completely indifferent about racing to seeking out another one to attend. Racing fan or not, the Indy 500 is a first-class experience that is well worth the heat, crowds and hassle.

Let me know if these tips were helpful in the comments below!