Indy 500: Memorial Day Tradition No Trivial Event

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The first Indy 500 race was in 1911 and won by American Ray Harroun, thanks in part to his fancy new piece of equipment: the rear-view mirror. Host Scott Simon checks in with trivia expert A.J. Jacobs of Esquire magazine for more fun facts about Memorial Day and great race.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Just when you think you've gotten away from them, they pull you back in. Well, in this case it's Mr. Know-It-All; A.J. Jacobs of Esquire magazine pulling us back into his world of trivia. The man who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica is back to tell us everything we might want to know about Memorial Day and the Indianapolis 500 - of course occurs on this holiday weekend every year. He joins us from our studios in New York.

A.J., thanks for being with us.

Mr. A.J. JACOBS (Esquire Magazine): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The first Indy 500 was run in 1911 and won by…

Mr. JACOBS: Ray Harroun. And he won because he had a fancy new gadget called the rearview mirror, and that's what propelled him to victory. Because all the other drivers also had a rearview mirror but it was a human rearview mirror - they had another guy in the car whose job it was to look backwards. So his rearview mirror was about 200 pounds lighter than everyone else's.

SIMON: My God. Now, there are some superstitions surrounding the Indy 500 race.

Mr. JACOBS: Right. The first is no peanuts. So just like my son's kindergarten class, no peanuts. And no one's quite sure how this started. Some think it's because one of the pit crews was eating peanuts and some fell on the car and somehow that caused the car to crash. So it's not quite logical.

Maybe the other one is a little more - a little more understandable: no green cars. And this one people think might have started because the guy who won the Indy 500 in 1920, he was a Chevrolet, one of the original Chevrolets. And he was riding a green car. And then a couple of months later he was in another race, same car, and he crashed and died. So the rule is no green cars at the Indy 500.

SIMON: Could you tell us the story of how Memorial Day came to be?

Mr. JACOBS: Yeah. Well, there are several competing stories, but to me the most moving is the story of how it began in Charleston, South Carolina. And it was right after the Civil War. And the local horseracing track in Charleston had been a prisoner of war camp for Union soldiers during the war. And many of them had died.

And right after the war, the freed slaves of Charleston disinterred the bodies of the soldiers, which had been dumped into a mass grave. And they buried them in individual plots and then organized a parade where 10,000 people came to pay homage to the Union soldiers. And this was, of course, a very risky thing to do because tensions were still incredibly high. You know, this was May 1865.

SIMON: A.J., thank you so much.

Mr. JACOBS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: A.J. - oops, what was that?

Mr. JACOBS: That might have been my iced coffee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: A.J. Jacobs of Esquire, his latest book - out in September - will be called "The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment."

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