A Racetrack Like No Other

Dec 2, 2009

Part II | Part III

The Centennial Era of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is under way and rolling, as the crown jewel of motorsports expands its rich history.

We are all familiar with Indy and the recent running of the 93rd Indianapolis 500, along with NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 and the Red Bull motorcycle festival held in September. (How fitting it is that racing at the Speedway started with motorcycles and has come full circle with the launch of the Red Bull event in 2008.)

But not everyone knows the rich, storied history of IMS and the people who have made it great. The following is a quick rundown of Indy’s first 50 years, to be followed in a future issue with a look at more recent events at the place known as the “Racing Capital of the World.”

Two-Wheeled Beginning

Initially conceived by its founding fathers as an automobile test facility, the Speedway became a destination for the launching of motorsports as a domestic entertainment event in 1909.

The first motorsports event held at the track consisted of seven motorcycle races sanctioned by the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) on Aug. 14, 1909. It was originally planned as a two-day, 15-race program, but ended before the first day was completed due to concerns over suitability of the track surface for motorcycle use.

The first weekend of automobile races took place Aug. 19-21, 1909 and consisted of 16 races sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA). The celebration quickly went south, however, due to the surface of crushed stone and tar. There were several accidents, resulting in five fatalities, and the final race of the weekend was halted after 235 of its originally scheduled 300 miles.

Following an initiative by automotive parts and highway pioneer Carl G. Fisher, an Indiana native who was both a former racecar driver and one of the principal investors in the track, safety became a primary concern. Concern for the racers as well as spectators eventually led to a substantial additional expenditure to pave the track surface with 3.2 million paving bricks, thus giving the track its popular nickname, The Brickyard. (Today, three feet of the original bricks still remain at the start/finish line.)

The Speedway reopened in 1910 with a total of 66 automobile races held during three holiday weekends (Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day). Each weekend featured two or three races ranging from 100- to 200-mile distances, along with several shorter races. None of the short-race events served as a qualifying race, or heat race, for the longer events. Each race stood on its own merit and awarded its respective trophy. All races were sanctioned by AAA, as were the Indianapolis 500 races through 1955.

More than a Racetrack

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway houses memories of yesteryear in the minds and generational recall of enthusiasts internationally.

Some were actually fortunate enough to have experienced the roar of 33 Indy cars howling down the main straightaway, getting into Turn One on Lap One—a memory never to be forgotten. Meanwhile, some current-day enthusiasts mainly enjoy the historic value of the experience through their television, surrounded by friends, recalling races past and current heroes.

Was it the 500-mile race, the experience itself, or the sacred grounds from which American and foreign racers added to the mystique of piloting the iron giants, hammered the throttle and manhandled the beasts of their day, that bounces around within the heads of racecar fans? Or is it the family experience of planning for the event long in advance, securing the best vantage point seat and hoping for a glimpse of an ageless hero driver?

Certain are the facts that all endure 364 days for that one day called Race Day—the Indy 500. But where did it really come from, who were the real players who risked it all for the advancement of motorsports, recognition and their daredevil drive of being a racecar driver?

What about the passion of the pit crews, the unsung heroes who fielded the early era machines that have evolved into today’s sophisticated 230-mph-plus racecars, coupled with the business muster of today’s corporate America?

Let’s take a look at where it all came from—the first 50 years from Day One. In a short time capsule, we recall the memories of what has become the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A Marketing Focus in 1911

At an admission price of $1, an estimated 80,000 spectators attended the first 500-mile race on May 30, 1911. Entertainment, the vogue atmosphere of racing and the advent of the automobile as a milestone in travel all acted as a stimulating conduit for people and drivers seeking an epic experience.

“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was born when Ray Harroun, driving the Marmon Wasp and starting 28th on the grid, led 88 out of 200 laps, winning $14,250 at a brisk average speed of 74.602 mph. The Marmon Wasp is now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

1912-1929: The Golden Age

Classic racing was formalized in 1912 when Ralph DePalma lost a five-lap lead with five laps to go after his car had a mechanical failure. As his car was being pushed around the circuit, Joe Dawson made up the deficit to win the race.

Three of the next four winners of the 500 were Europeans, with DePalma being the exception as an American national, though originally born in Italy. These races gave Indy a worldwide reputation and international drivers began to enter annually.

The 1916 race was shortened to 120 laps, marking 300 miles. This was for multiple reasons, including the lack of entries from Europe (WW-I era), a lack of oil, and out of respect for the war effort in Europe.

On Sept. 9, 1916, the Speedway hosted a day of short racing events termed the Harvest Classic that was composed of three races at distances of 20, 50 and 100 miles. The Harvest Classic contests were the last races other than the Indianapolis 500 to be held on the grounds for 78 years.

Racing was interrupted in 1917-’18 by World War I, and the facility served as a military hub for repairs. When racing resumed, speeds quickly increased. In 1925, Peter DePaolo became the first driver to average 100 mph for the entire race.

The 1930s: The Junkyard

With the Great Depression hitting the nation, the purse dropped from a winner’s share of $50,000 and a total of $98,250 in 1930 to $18,000 and $53,450 respectively.

It’s a common misconception that the rules were “dumbed down” to what was called the “junkyard formula,” allowing more entries during the Depression. The rules were indeed changed, but it was due to an effort by the Speedway to get more car manufacturers involved in the race by discouraging the entry of specialized racing machines that dominated the 500 during the mid-to-late 1920s. The rule changes in fact were already being laid out before the market crash.

A record 42 cars started the 1933 500. With one exception between 1934 until 1979, 33 drivers started the 500; 1947 saw 30 cars start due to a strike by certain teams affiliated with the ASPAR drivers, owners and sponsors association.

By the early 1930s, however, the increasing speeds began to make the track increasingly dangerous, and between 1931 and 1935 there were 15 fatalities. This forced another repavement, with tarmac replacing the bricks in parts of the track.

The danger, however, didn’t stop Louis Meyer or Wilbur Shaw from becoming the first three-time winners, with Shaw also being the first back-to-back winner in 1939 and 1940.

The 1940s: The Deal

At the beginning of the 1940s, the track required further improvements. In 1941, half of the garage area—known as Gasoline Alley—burned down before the race.

With U.S. involvement in World War II, the 1942 500-mile race was canceled in December, 1941. Late in 1942, a ban on all auto racing led to the cancellation of the 500 for the rest of the war, a total of four years (1942-’45). The track was more or less abandoned during this time and soon was in need of radical repair to its surface, grandstand and surrounding facilities.

Many of the locals conceded that the Speedway would be sold after the war and become a housing development within the city limits of Speedway, Ind.

With the end of the war in sight, on Nov. 29, 1944, Shaw returned to do a 500-mile tire test approved by the government for Firestone. He was shocked by the condition of the Speedway and contacted owner Eddie Rickenbacker, only to discover that it was for sale. Shaw then sent out letters to the automobile industry trying to find a buyer. All the responses indicated that the Speedway would be turned into a private facility for the buyer.

Shaw then looked around for an investor to buy the Speedway who would reopen the racetrack as a public venue and develop an ongoing enterprise for testing and entertainment. He found Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman.

Meetings were set up and the Speedway was purchased on Nov. 14, 1945. Though not officially acknowledged, the purchase price was reported by the Indianapolis Star News to be $750,000.

Major renovations and repairs were made at a quick pace to the frail Speedway and completed in time for the 1946 race. Since then, IMS has continued to grow and banner itself as the destination point for enthusiasts, as a premier test facility and as the benchmark racetrack hosting the Indianapolis 500.

The facility continues to undergo constant improvements for both fans and race teams. Stands have been built and remodeled many times over, suites and the Hall of Fame Museum have been added, and many other upgrades have enhanced Indy’s reputation.

On a personal note, my family has been involved at the Speedway since 1936 as car owners, crew members and sponsors, and I thank everyone who loves and honors the IMS, its staff and leadership in the field of motorsports as much as I do.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the last 60 years of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Read Part II | Part III