start your engines!
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
1909 – 2009
are few things that define the Hoosier State more than
basketball and the Indianapolis 500. This year marks the 100-year
anniversary of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and I thought
it would be appropriate to look back at track history. As you
read through this article, notice how many “firsts’ there were
for racing at this facility.
young racing fan, it was my dream to become the first woman
driver to win the Indianapolis 500. That was before Janet
Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick. Of
course, I never made it, but the dream is still fresh. I
remember listening to the race on the radio when it took the
better part of an entire day from start to finish! Now, the
race is over in the time it usually takes to drive through
traffic and find your way to a seat! Here is how it all began:
Graham Fisher, an ex-bicycle racer and pioneer automobile dealer,
proposed a facility of long straight-aways and sweeping turns to
be used for both private testing and an occasional race pitting
the automobiles of different manufacturers against each other.
His original plan called for the facility to be built at French
Lick. Can you imagine the French Lick 500?
Fisher and his partners, Jim Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur
formed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation
February 9, 1909 when 328 acres of farmland northwest of
downtown Indianapolis was purchased for $72,000.
mile rectangular track was built and the first race, a two-lap,
five-mile standing start dash was held on Aug. 19, 1909 It was
a disaster as the track of crushed stone sprayed with tar broke
up causing the deaths of two drivers, two mechanics and two
spectators. Management immediately determined that a paved
surface would be necessary for the safety of the drivers.
1909 in a span of 63 days, 3.2 million paving bricks, each
weighing 9.5 pounds, were laid on top of the crushed rock and
tar surface to upgrade the Speedway. The job was completed in
time for another event on December 18, but sub-freezing
temperatures forced the cancellation.
after trying other “spectacles” including motorcycle and balloon
races, Carl Fisher decided on an auto race that would require
endurance as much as speed. The time the race would take, more
than the number of miles, was the decisive factor – with a
24-hour race considered as one of the options.
According to Indy 500 historian, Donald Davidson, Fisher decided
seven hours would be the right amount of time for fans to spend
at the Speedway and have time to go home. With the speeds of
the cars in those days, seven hours was in the neighborhood of
500 miles. Entry blanks for the 500-mile race were sent out
while Fisher and Company waited to see what sort of response
they would get. A few were returned and then more began to
arrive until a total of 46 were received.
stage was set for the first Indianapolis 500.
Two of the 46 entries were no-shows. Two of the remaining 44
were deemed too slow to qualify, one suffered mechanical failure
and another was damaged in an accident. Forty started the race
with positions determined by the order the entry was received in
the showman and salesman, Fisher decided to pace what would be
the first rolling start of an automobile race. The idea was he
would lead the starters around the track in a parade lap to
allow the spectators a better look at the cars since it would be
difficult to see them at the “blinding” 90-mph racing speeds.
He was a Stoddard-Dayton dealer, so naturally the pace car was a
Harroun won the first 500-mile race, initially named the
International Sweepstakes in a car called the Marmon “Wasp”.
The average speed was 74.602 mph in 6 hours 42 minutes, 8.3
seconds. It was the first use of a pace car to begin the race,
and the first to use Ray Harroun’s invention – the rear view
mirror. Until this time all racers had a mechanic riding with
them to keep a lookout for the other drivers and to tell the
driver they were coming up behind him. The Marmon was thought
to be a dangerous car because there was no one in the second
seat to keep watch. Seventy-five thousand attended the first
race from as far away as New York City.
laps into the race, a multi-car accident occurred on the main
straightaway, right in front of the scoring stand. Fisher’s
friends had volunteered to score the race, but many scurried out
of the way when the cars crashed near them. For several laps,
no one was scoring the action. It would be the Speedway’s first
scoring controversy. The eventual runner-up, Ralph Mulford went
to his grave believing he had been the first “500” winner.
the Indianapolis 500 became the highest paying sporting event in
the world when Carl Fisher increased the total purse to $50,000
and the first prize to $20,000. Today, the purse for the winner
is around $13.4 million!
was suspended at the track during the First World War – in both
1917 and 1918. In 1920, the four-lap qualification format was
introduced. Driver, Art Klein, was the first to post a “time
trial” under this format. 1923 was the first time (except for
Ray Harroun’s Wasp) that the entire field used the single seat
cars during the 500 and in 1925, the first driver to average
greater than 100 mph.
By 1923, Fisher no longer wanted to be in the racing business
and a buyer was sought for
track. In 1927, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker bought the track for
$750,000. The Speedway struggled to survive the Great
Depression with 1933 a particularly disastrous year for racing.
Five men were killed, one seriously injured, the purse had to be
reduced and there was a short-lived driver’s strike.
Nevertheless 1935 was a year of firsts in auto racing as the
track was the first in the world to install safety-warning
lights, and helmet use became mandatory – the first for motor
racing worldwide. In 1936, the race winner, Louie Meyer asked
for a drink of buttermilk at the finish line and a tradition was
Once again the track fell silent during World War II –
1942-1945. By 1945, the Speedway was a ghost town – an
assortment of dilapidated grandstands and a track overgrown with
weeds. Rickenbacker was ready to get out of the business.
Anton (Tony) Hulman, Jr., a
third generation grocer and Yale University athlete, purchased
the Speedway for $750,000. He pumped millions into the track
and elevated the Indy 500 and the month of May to a new level.
Wilbur Shaw was named President and General Manager and
popularized the tradition of announcing “Gentlemen Start Your
first occurred with the 1949 race, when it was first televised
on WFMB, Channel 6. It marked the first ever television
broadcast in the city of Indianapolis.
Over the years turns and other portions of the track were paved
with asphalt, until in October 1961 the remaining track was
covered with asphalt. A 36-inch strip of the original bricks
(“yard of bricks”) was kept intact at the start/finish line,
where it remains today.
In 1977, the face of the Indy 500 changed forever when, on the
final day of qualifying, Janet
became the first woman race driver to qualify for the race. She
started 26th and finished 29th. Tony
Hulman also began the race by saying, “In company with the first
woman ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen start your
engines”. Other women drivers include Desire Wilson, Lyn St.
James, Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick. In 2008, Danica Patrick
becomes the first woman to win an Indy-car race by capturing the
title at the Indy Japan 300.
Over the years there were many tragedies and loss of life among
the drivers, crewmembers and spectators. However, none seemed
as tragic as the death of Bill Vukovich, Sr. In 1955, on lap 57,
he was leading the race. A chain reaction crash began and it
ultimately ended with his
going airborne, about 20 – 25 feet over the wall and into the
backstretch bridge. Hardly anyone can tell you who won the
race, but everyone can remember the year this popular driver was
killed. In all 15 drivers have been killed during a race, with
Swede Savage the last in 1973, 24 were killed during practice.
16 crewmembers lost their
lives in incidents and 8 spectators
died, including Wilbur Brink, who was outside the track in 1931
and was struck by a wheel that flew over the fence.
NASCAR came to Indy with the inaugural Allstate 400 race, won by
Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart, a native and resident of Columbus,
IN scored an emotional win at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard
in August 2005, becoming the first Indiana-born driver to win
the Allstate 400 and the first driver from Indiana to win a race
at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since Shelbyville native
Wilbur Shaw won the Indy 500 in 1940.
The original Indianapolis 500 race was won at an average speed
of 74.604 miles per hour and at a time of 6 hours, 42 minutes
and 08.3 seconds and the 2008 race had an average speed of
143.567 and lasted just a little over half the time of the
original at 3 hours, 28 minutes and 57 seconds.
On May 24, 2009, when you hear Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again
In Indiana” and the roar of 400,000 fans as the familiar phrase
is announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” – the 100th
Anniversary Indy 500 is underway! It’s great to be a Hoosier!
If you would like to know more, such as history, race month
events, who's in, who's out,
last minute ticket sales, watch videos on a number of track
subjects, or listen to webcasts, click on the Indianapolis 500
Centennial icon at the right to go to the Indianapolis Motor
Classmate, Randy Crist, has been at the track this month taking
event photos for his business, 3rd Turn Photos. He has
submitted a few he thought you might like. Randy does
Pit Stop Practice
(Note Air Gun)
Scott Dixon and
remember our service men and women, both past and present, and
have a fun and safe holiday weekend!