Kentucky Derby vs. Indy 500: Which Race Is Best?

Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500
Kentucky Derby/Sam English and Indianapolis 500/Bret Kelley
In May, travelers in search of Americana, booze and racing have two iconic options: the Kentucky Derby (May 3) and the Indianapolis 500 (May 25). If you're overwhelmed by trying to pick one to attend, we've matched these two classic American races head-to-head in a contest for your time and money. And they're off!

Lap 1: Attire

Walking into the Kentucky Derby can feel like you're the first responder at a J. Crew factory explosion. You'll see more pastel here than you would watching the Easter bunny teach third grade art class. Couple that with hats big enough to cast shade on an entire zip code, and you're ready to watch some thoroughbreds.

At the Indy 500, on the other hand, it's as much about the articles of clothing that are missing as the ones that are there. You'll witness jeans cut off more abruptly than The Soprano's finale. And for every display of denim discontinuance you enjoy, there will be three others that you'll instantly regret seeing. Some thighs are better left unexposed.

Current Standings: Derby takes the lead.
Group of Young Women and Men Having Fun in the Grandstand at the 2011 Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky
Alamy/Daniel Dempster Photography

Lap 2: Event grounds

Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky and Indianapolis, Indiana's Indianapolis Motor Speedway are equally renowned in their respective sports. The IMS is more than 100 years old and its trademark, ever-evolving "pagoda" structure is a nine-story monument to spectating speed. Impressive as this feature is, though, it's hard to deny the charm of Churchill Downs. With its iconic spires, bright green grass and expertly manicured course, the biggest star on the track at the Derby is the track itself (which isn't meant as a reference to the size of the jockeys).

Current Standings: Derby leaving the 500 in its dust.
Churchill Downs
Flickr/Heather Moreton-Abounader Photography

Lap 3: Booze

Alcohol plays almost as big a role in attending these events as the ticket. And whether or not you're a fan of the mint julep, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Derby has its own signature drink.

But what the Indy 500 lacks in cocktail exclusivity, it makes up for in customization. That's because anybody attending the 500 can bring in his or her own 18'' by 14'' cooler with whatever devious concoctions they please. As you're sure to be reminded by the many signs on display in Indy, that kind of freedom is what America is all about.

Current Standings: The 500 working its way back.
IndyCar Indy 500 Security Auto Racing
Associated Press

Lap 4: Duration

Saying the Kentucky Derby is over in a flash is an insult to the word flash. Unless you're a glutton for anticlimax, the several hour, 200 lap, 500 mile Indy is the clear winner here.

Current Standings: It's getting interesting...
Indianapolis 500
Indianapolis 500/Jim Haines

Lap 5: Infield

Yes, we already went over the event grounds, but getting out of the bleachers and watching a race from its swirling epicenter is a horse of a different paint job. At Churchill's infield you're in for a bustling banquet of bourbon and betting.

But while gambling may be an entertaining x-factor, the Indy 500 takes infields to another level. More of a small town than an infield, the center of the IMS track is so massive most of the action is concentrated around one corner (the infamous Turn 3), and even then there is enough room for a sprawling tailgate, a long stretch of viewing mounds, and a huge party section called The Snakepit, which is complete with bouncy slide, mechanical bull, EDM concert stage, and zipline. Yes, a zipline. This is the infield of dreams.

Current Standings: The 500 jumps in front!
Indianapolis 500/Chris Owens

Lap 6: Local nightlife

Missing out on the parties these races bring to town would be a mistake on par with hitting the gas five seconds after hearing "Gentlemen start your...". While many tourists in Louisville flock to the flashy Fourth Street Live!, the pub-packed Bardstown Road offers a more down-to-earth alternative.

Indianapolis's Massachusetts Avenue offers its own line of lively watering holes, but Bardstown takes this lap thanks to its abundance of great outdoor patios. This is spring after all, and fresh air has always been bourbon's best mixer.

Current Standings: Derby regains the lead.
Facebook/Holy Grale

Lap 7: Value

General admission to the Derby will run you $50 (premium tickets can be close to 20 times that), but know that refreshments inside are priced like they were imported from Morocco and not the Early Times distillery down the highway.

You can always hope to get lucky enough with your winnings to cover it, but for bang-to-buck ratio the 500 is the real safe bet. General admission is $40 and food and drink is cheap, so you can spend your money on refilling your cooler several times throughout the day.

Standings: The 500 pulls within inches of the Derby.
Shotgunning Beer at the Indy 500 Race Day 2010
Flickr/John Pozadzides

Lap 8: Bathroom facilities

Disgusting. In both venues. Keep the seal intact as long as you can.

Standings: Pit stop ties it's a dead heat!
Getty Images/MCT

Final lap: Race vehicle

It's the enduring clash of man vs. nature. Technology vs. muscle. A fast car vs. a horse. With all due respect to the majestic galloping steeds of the Derby, the moment you feel the thunder of an Indy car rocketing past you at full speed, you'll realize it would be smarter to #*$@ with Wu Tang Clan than one of these missile-mobiles.

Winner: Indianapolis 500 by a nose!
Indianapolis 500
Getty Images

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