The Frontstretch: Open-Wheel Wednesday: The History of the Indianapolis 500 by Huston Ladner -- Wednesday May 22, 2013

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Open-Wheel Wednesday: The History of the Indianapolis 500

Huston Ladner · Wednesday May 22, 2013


The Indianapolis 500 is one of the most heralded races in the world. It is still able to draw fans from over 200 countries. The race is one of the few in the IndyCar series that lures in the non-racing fans, showing that the word Indy still has appeal. This Sunday, May 26, will be the 97th running of the historic race, so consider this an opportunity to gaze back and remember what makes it special.

Early Days

Not long after the auto had been invented, engineers went to work in trying to figure out how to go faster. The lasting legacy of this quest for speed became the Indianapolis 500. While the the Milwaukee Mile, which opened in 1903, was America’s first formal track, it was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), which opened in 1909, that would captivate that nation. Oddly enough, the first event held at the track was a balloon competition.

Carl Fisher was the man behind the building of IMS, though he would need three partners to bring it to fruition. He had found that makeshift tracks were unsafe, and he wanted to build a track where automobiles could show off their true speed. Most tracks that were built at the time tended to be less than one mile in length. The speedway, a flat 2.5-mile circuit, was originally planned to be three miles in length, but Fisher later cut that back. The track emerged as the center of racing in the U.S. for a couple of reasons, with the main one being its proximity to the motor industry situated in the Midwest.

Once upon a time, the Brickyard was really paved with bricks, and a mechanic rode along with the driver. Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The first Indianapolis 500 was held on Memorial Day in 1911, with 40 cars and Ray Harroun declared the winner of what could only be considered an endurance race. One of the aspects that made the 500 special was its length, as most races during the time tended to feature 15 to 25 lap sprints or heats, with winners then facing off in a slightly longer race It is estimated that nearly 80,000 fans attended this first running. From that point forward, the 500 would be held on Memorial Day, and the purse continued to escalate, being doubled in 1912 to $50,000 – though the field became limited to 33 drivers. Though Harroun, an American, won the first race, it would not be the trend, as Europeans took the trophy from 1912-1916 and 1919. During the first World War, the government used the spacious track for aviation repairs.

The 1920s

Before that advent of television, spectator numbers determined the popularity of an event, and the 500 became one of the largest attended racing events in the world. During the decade, the track continued to host upwards of 100,000 spectators. The 500 was also the first race to feature a driver with a winning speed that averaged over 100 miles per hour, a tribute to Fisher’s original vision. The first driver to do so was Pete DePaolo, who drove a Duesenberg, an American car, to victory in 1925.

Accompanying the rise of auto racing was, of course, the growth and innovation of the auto industry. While car-makers like Ford, Buick, Oldsmobile and Chrysler were in existence, they did not put much interest in racing, leaving a company like Duesenberg and a man like Harry Miller an opening. The Duesenberg vehicles won three 500s (1924, 1925 and 1927), and their engineering was considered to be well ahead of their competitors. In much the same way, Harry Miller is considered a pioneer in the crafting of automobiles. His vehicles complemented the Duesenbergs, by winning the 500 in 1926, 1928, 1929 and a number more in the 1930s. One of the areas where Miller showed a particular acumen was in building engines that produced more horsepower and lasted longer than his rivals.

The 1930s

Though the purse for the race dropped precipitously in the 1930s due to the depression, the race was still a marquee event. In an effort to encourage more companies to participate in the 500, rules were changed – which allowed a greater number of cars, a record 42 in 1933. Dale Evans also ran the race in a diesel powered car in 1931, and finished the race without making a pit stop. So yes, the thirties was an interesting era of competition at the track. This aspect did not curtail Louis Meyer from becoming the track’s first 3-time winner.

However, one of the track’s biggest challenges was attempting to curb the number of fatalities, as fifteen drivers died there between 1931 and 1935, due to the increased speeds of the cars. As a result, in hopes of making the racing safer, the inside walls were removed and the track’s trademark bricks were paved over, though a strip of them, a yard in width, still comprises the start-finish line.

Louis Meyer was the first three-time Indianapolis 500 Champion. Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway


Much of the focus at the beginning of the decade was placed on sculpting the cars that raced at the track. The speeds now averaged roughly 115mph and the crowds still sat at 100,000. In 1940, Wilbur Shaw joined Louis Meyer as the second driver to win a third Indy 500. The following year featured an unusual circumstance as Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose won the race together. Davis left the car at lap 72 and Rose took over, driving the car to victory.

With the government suspending auto racing during the war years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway became a makeshift hangar for repairing airplanes. With no attention paid to maintaining the facility between 1942 and 1945, the track became a derelict piece of land. The wooden grandstands rotted and weeds overgrew the track. It seemed as though the racing at Indy was destined to become a part of history, as then-track owner, Eddie Rickenbacker, was looking to sell the racetrack and land to housing developers.

Credit Tony Hulman, Jr. as the man who saved racing at Indy. An Indiana native, Hulman bought the track in 1945, and put full efforts into restoring it to its former self. The following year his endeavor had succeeded and the Indy 500 was held again, with George Robson winning the race, and restoring the 500 to glory.

Tomorrow: The Indianapolis 500 grows in popularity.


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05/22/2013 07:10 AM

Thank you for the column; looking forward to Part 2.