Indy 500 for the Atari 2600: When giant racing blocks were almost fun

Published On February 25, 2016 » 3875 Views» By Jeff Vrabel » Blogs, IMS, Indy 500

We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 94 days to go, Jeff Vrabel continues his review of the race in pop culture with a foray into video-game legend.

More from Vrabel: Dave Letterman, ace pit reporter | More 100 days blogs

In the beginning, there was Pong. In the near-beginning, there was the Atari 2600. And in the dawn of the Atari 2600, there was Indy 500, the curious yet sort of-adorable grandfather of all racing games.

Hey, at least the box was really cool.

Hey, at least the box was really cool.

Indeed, Indy 500 was one of the nine original cartridges produced for the Atari 2600 video game system, for which your impressionable parents paid hundreds of dollars in the late ’70s to make your Christmas awesome. But it’s a weird ride, people. The game was crude, rudimentary and novel: It came with its very own set of modified paddle controllers, which made the box look pretty substantial on the Kmart shelf. And its cars didn’t resemble “race cars” so much as “Lego mistakes.”

And as racing games go, Indy 500 is an oddity by today’s standards. Instead of perspective from behind, you drive your car/clump of bricks around a jagged track that looks like … well, every other track in every Atari game ever. (I’m pretty sure they used these boards for Adventure, too.) And not to speak ill of the elderly, but paddling an angry-looking H with traction problems around the Combat track doesn’t command interest for very long. Even with the fancy paddles. Especially with the Maze Craze cartridge sitting right there.

Today’s racing games, of course, are slightly more caffeinated. The graphics are ridiculous, the locations exotic. My sons and I play an Apple TV in which we’ve raced everywhere from French Guiana to the Alps to Iceland. But that’s the problem: The game is murder on your nervous system. The controls are sensitive enough that the slightest flinch sends your Audi careening off a snow-covered mountain, and there’s a scene in which you can launch off a ramp and soar for 30 seconds through a launching rocket, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t happen in real races (even NASCAR). Indy 500 may be built from black blocks and, but at least it’s about, you know, racing. Which was good enough, at least for a few minutes until you gave it up to play Pitfall.

Buckle your seatbelt, this is going to be a wild race. OK, maybe not.

Buckle your seatbelt, this is going to be a wild race. OK, maybe not.


About The Author

Jeff Vrabel

I’m an Indiana native and former resident of Chicago and Hilton Head Island who’s written for for such outlets as GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post and my hometown Indianapolis Monthly. I spent decades listening to the 500 on the radio and have run two Mini-Marathons around the IMS track, but only dropped a packet of energy beans on Turn 3 during one of them. And I live near Indianapolis with my family; my oldest son just stole bacon off your plate and the youngest was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). Find me at the cleverly named or