The Frontstretch: The Indianapolis 500 History Lesson, Part II by Huston Ladner -- Thursday May 23, 2013

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The Indianapolis 500 History Lesson, Part II

Huston Ladner · Thursday May 23, 2013


Did you miss Part I of Huston’s series on the Indianapolis 500? Click here to check out the early history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Indy has a rich and glorious history, building up to the 97th running of its 500-mile, open-wheel crown jewel race this Sunday.

With the war over, a booming economy and the advent of television, the Indianapolis 500 sat in a prime position to grow. The evolution and innovation of the cars each year at the speedway had as much to do with the 500’s popularity. During this decade, drivers were regularly able to achieve speeds near 150mph stratospheric compared to what the average passenger car of the day could muster. The car bodies became more sleek, adopting the roadster look. There was one funny competitive aspect that plagued the race and that was that the Offenhauser engines dominated, winning every 500 in the 1950s.

The race became so prominent that it even developed ties with Formula One – though in a weird twist, only one of the drivers in that series, Alberto Ascari, participated in any of the races. With the 500 being arguably the most notable event in motorsports, it was poised to become an even greater spectacle in the 1960s.

The sixties might be one of the more memorable times in the race’s history. A.J. Foyt made his mark by winning the 1961 running of the 500, followed by winning again in 1964 and 1967. Though two Brits, Jim Clark and Graham Hill won back-to-back in 1965 and 1966, the race once again became an American affair. The Unser name joined the winner’s list in 1968 as Bobby won his first of three career Indy 500 victories.

And then there was the race that staked a man’s greatness. In 1969, Mario Andretti won his first, and only, Indianapolis 500. The Italian-born, naturalized American, started his quest in 1964. He won his first IndyCar championship in 1965, and later won them in 1966, 1969, and 1984. But winning had eluded Andretti until that race in 1969 — a race won with an outdated backup car that he managed to qualify second, after suffering facial burns in a wreck that destroyed his primary car. Though he would later win the 1978 Formula One championship, he would never claim another Borg-Warner trophy, even though he continued to run the 500 through 1994. His failure to win just one of 29 attempts led to what some have called the Andretti curse. It’s unfair to call it a curse, as much as it is to say that he’s just had some bad luck.

1970s & 1980s
Throughout the 1970s, the 500 was one of the mainstays of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” programs. Though the race would often be tape-delayed, it still attracted large viewership. By the late sixties, foreign manufacturers had moved into the series and became mainstays through the seventies. In a twist, however, no foreign driver would win until Emerson Fittipaldi did so in 1989.

The drivers who won the races during these two decades reads like a who’s who in auto racing: Al and Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears. Foyt, Mears, and Al Unser, sit as the only 4-time winners of the event.

Throughout the 1980s, the 500 maintained its popularity and was able to fill its monstrous grandstands of over 250,000 – though attendance was well over 400,000 for some of the races. The one downside that occurred during this decade was the beginning of The Split – a relationship gone sour between the USAC and CART sanctioning bodies, as the two quibbled over minor rules regulations for the 500.

Ugh. This decade featured The Split. The proverbial powers-that-be apparently weren’t happy raking in all the money that they were and decided to form the CART series and the Indy Racing League as competitors. The split, which confused most racing fans, cheapened the Indy 500. Throw in the rise of NASCAR’s popularity and the event transformed almost overnight from being must-see into being somewhat of an afterthought. There’s all kinds of more stuff to write about this decade, with Al Unser Jr., winning two, and the emergence of foreign talent taking five of the races, but it’s problematic to go into more depth. The split is something that crippled the race, is worth its own book, and from which open-wheel racing in America is only now recovering. Let’s just move on.

Present Day
The aughts brought back with it some of the allure of the 500. It’s not that the race was completely marginalized in the 1990s, nor that its pageantry had been ignored, or that some of the racing was terrible, it just seemed like the 500 wasn’t what it once was. Since then, the 500 has been going through a rebuilding process and re-staking its claim as being the marquee event it should be.

Part of the reason for the success was that in 2000 the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team switched from CART to IRL. By 2003, the other mainstays had dropped their CART affiliation, and Indianapolis welcomed Penske and Andretti Green racing. The ill-fated split took its toll on the racing but the healing process could begin – and the racing would matter once again.

American racing fans now seem to have once again embraced the Indy 500. The American viewership was almost 7 million for the 2012 race and the highest since 2008, while attendance at the track was also strong, with well over 250,000 on hand. The fantastic finish between Dario Franchitti and Takuma Sato highlighted the race, as Sato spun and the Scotsman cruised home to his third trophy.

The 2012 race was also important because it featured the debut of the new car as well as the return of the ‘engine wars’ as Honda and Chevrolet battled — though Lotus did have two entries, but failed to be a factor, and has even at this point, removed themselves from the sport. From a competitive standpoint, the racing appears to be as good as it has ever been.

For over 100 years, the 500 has held a special place in motorsports. It has made it through two stoppages due to wars, seen its own share of casualties, felt its presence lessened, and yet here it is, on the rebound. The race will once again feature speeds not seen elsewhere. The winner will once again be cemented in a long legacy. And once again, the milk will flow, as it has since 1936.

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