It was a new millennium and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was ready to welcome it and all the challenges that came with it. The year 2000 ushered in a new beginning, along with a new generation of drivers and fans of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
While many of the track favorites were still driving (Al Unser Jr., Eddie Cheever and Jimmy Vasser), newcomers like Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, and Dan Wheldon were IndyCar stars in the making. And some would soon become household names, Helio Castroneves in particular, for winning on the track and on the dance floor on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
In 2005 a rookie driver, Danica Patrick, took the “500” by storm. She came with a following from her days racing go-karts and became an instant fan favorite. Her debut was historic, becoming the first woman to ever lead the race and launching full scale “Danicamania” in the process.
The following year, the Andretti family would add another generation to their Indy 500 legacy when Marco Andretti (son of Michael and grandson of Mario) raced for the first time (and almost won).
By the 2000s, the look at the “500” was pretty much anything goes. From wild and wacky …
To conservative and classy …
You saw it all at the Indy 500. And sometimes, well, you saw a little more than you bargained for. But there’s one thing about the “500” crowd …
It’s always patriotic. ‘Merica.
But let’s call this decade what it really was: The Ashley Judd Era. With her movie star looks, flowing dresses, big sunglasses and floppy hats, she brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to the Indy 500 for a decade. And we were smitten. She may have also brought some luck to her husband at the time, Dario Franchitti, who won the “500” three times during that era.
Celebrity guests during the early 2000s ranged from actors and entertainers to politicians and high-ranking military members. Each came from a different walk of life. And each brought something unique to race day.
In 2010, the Snake Pit returned (Turn 3 infield, formerly located in Turn 1). And while it was still a party, the second coming of the Snake Pit was a little more organized form of chaos. What was once impromptu is now planned and marketed. Headlining performances attract young audiences and take on a life of their own, making the modern day Snake Pit an event in its own right.
By the end of the decade, the Indianapolis 500 was preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary. With both hands on the wheel, it was hitting the gas and steering toward the future, while glancing in the rear view mirror to appreciate just how far it had come.