May 23, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,
start your engines!

Indianapolis Motor Speedway
1909 – 2009

There 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.

As a 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:

Carl 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 Newby,
formed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation February 9, 1909 when 328 acres of farmland northwest of downtown Indianapolis was purchased for $72,000.

A 2-1/2 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.

In late 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. 

By 1911, 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.

The 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 mail.

Ever 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 Stoddard-Dayton.

Ray 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.

Thirteen 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. 

In 1912, 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!

Racing 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 the 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 born.

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 Engines”.

Another 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 Guthrie 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 car 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.


In 1994, 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 Speedway website.

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 excellent work!

Helio Castroneves

Pit Stop Practice
(Note Air Gun)

Danica Patrick

Helio Castroneves

Graham Rahal

The Andrettis

Scott Dixon and
Helio Castroneves

Danica Patrick

Please remember our service men and women, both past and present, and have a fun and safe holiday weekend!