• Indianapolis 500 centenary

The birth of the Indy 500

John Oreovicz
May 7, 2011
Workmen lay the famous brick track at Indianapolis, a task which took only 63 days © Associated Press
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Say "Indianapolis" or "Indy" to anyone from Boston to Beijing and the word association is immediate and obvious: Racing.

Auto racing (in general) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (in particular) are what make the city of Indianapolis famous around the world. As the region's chief tourist attraction, the Speedway annually attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from across America and around the world - and that's not even taking into account attendance at the three mega-events the track hosts every year.

Indianapolis is the 14th largest city in the United States, yet it still isn't often thought of as a stand-alone destination. But when you mix in the glitz and the glamour of a world-class sporting event like the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 or the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix for Moto GP series motorcycles, the city that calls itself the Crossroads of America is suddenly a much more appealing place to visit.

Actually, Indianapolis has grown into a world-class city well known for athletics; it is now home to headquarters of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, hosts the NCAA men's college basketball "Final Four" on a rotating basis and is set to host the 2012 NFL Super Bowl. But all of that is the result of the foundation created by the Speedway and the Indianapolis 500.

Now, headed into the month of May 2011 and the build-up to the 95th Indianapolis 500, the Speedway is in the final stretch of a three-year celebration of the centennial of the famous venue. IMS opened in 1909 and staged a variety of competitions for the next two years until inaugurating what came to pass as its defining event: the Indianapolis 500, the first of which was contested on May 30, 1911.

The track itself has a fascinating history. In the early 20th century, Indianapolis and the state of Indiana were the heart of the fledgling automotive industry in America. One of Indianapolis' first car dealers was ex-racer Carl G. Fisher, who envisioned a large, circular track that could be used as a proving ground for the rapid development of the automobile.

Fisher was a man of grandiose vision; his later projects included the building of the Lincoln Highway (now US 30) and the Dixie Highway (US 41) and the development of Miami Beach in Florida and Montauk Point in New York. But in the first decade of the 20th century, his focus was on the embryonic motor transportation trade in America.

In late 1908, Fisher and his partners James Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby - all with strong connections to the burgeoning auto industry - purchased a 328-acre tract of farmland about five miles west of downtown Indianapolis for $72,000. Given the limitations of the land, Fisher's vision of a five-mile circular track changed to a three-mile rectangle with two miles of infield "road course" that could combine for a five-mile lap length. However, that left no room for grandstands on the outside of the course, so New York-based civil engineer P.T. Andrews convinced Fisher to reduce the length of the outer oval to 2.5 miles and drew up plans accordingly.

The start of the inaugural Indianapolis 500 © Associated Press

Construction commenced in March 1909 and though the track itself was not completed, the newly-christened Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted its first competition on June 5: a race for hot air balloons. The track surface of crushed stone and tar was ready for action by August, when a two-day motorcycle competition was held. The Speedway's first auto races were staged from August 18-20, 1909, featuring drivers including Barney Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet.

After just a couple of events, it was obvious that the stone and tar track surface was breaking up badly and a different solution was needed. Eventually, the decision was taken to rebuild the track using street-paving bricks - 3.2 million of them, separated by mortar. Remarkably, the job required just 63 days and by the time work was finished on Dec. 10, the track had already been nicknamed "The Brickyard."

The new brick surface worked well, and by the summer of 1910, Fisher and his partners conceived a plan to host one huge annual event at IMS rather than a series of minor competitions. In September 1910, the inaugural Indianapolis 500-mile race was announced, scheduled for Memorial Day 1911.

Forty-six cars were entered for the inaugural Indianapolis 500; 44 showed up, of which 40 exceeded the minimum requirement of a 75-mph average over a timed quarter-mile. Given the large field, one of Fisher's innovations was the use of a passenger car to lead the grid toward a rolling start. Thus was born the pace car.

Most of the cars in the first 500 featured a driver and a riding mechanic. In fact, 11 entries, including that of race winner Ray Harroun, utilised a co-driver for some portion of the race. Harroun, driving a Marmon Wasp designed and built less than five miles from the Speedway, required almost seven hours to complete the 500-mile distance at an average of 74.6 mph. Harroun's co-driver Cyrus Patschke drove approximately 35 of the 200 laps in the middle of the race.

Harroun's eschewing of a co-driver led to one significant technological development still utilised in road and racing cars today: The Marmon Wasp featured one of the first known uses of a rearview mirror, inspired by a creative solution to traffic management Harroun had seen on a horse-drawn taxi several years earlier when he served as a chauffeur in Chicago.

Harroun is Indy car racing's version of a one-hit wonder; although only 32 years old at the time of his Indy 500 win, the Pennsylvania native never again competed at Indianapolis. Harroun thought of himself mainly as an engineer and claimed that he raced only to observe his creations in action in battle conditions. The Marmon Motor Car Company was out of business by 1933, but the "Wasp" and its driver remain celebrated today as part of a century of IMS lore.

The first Indy500 nears its end © Associated Press

Outlandish stories of "gentlemen racers" were common from this era. In 1912, Ralph Mulford and his co-driver continued running for nearly nine hours because the 10th-place prize money of $1,200 would only be awarded to an entry if it finished all 500 miles. With about 17 laps to go, the Mulford team pitted for a dinner break but was sent back out - with a snack on board - due to the threat of darkness. A year later, Jules Goux - the first foreign winner of the "500" - reportedly drank champagne during several of his pit stops.

In fact, the Indianapolis 500 definitely lived up to its name as an "International Sweepstakes" in its early years. European-made cars (Peugeot, Delage and Mercedes) won at Indy from 1913 to 1919, and foreign-born drivers also dominated in the Speedway's formative years, with Ralph de Palma establishing himself as the top star of the era.

Born in Troia, Italy, de Palma became an American citizen in 1920 at age 38. Although he won the Indianapolis 500 only once (in 1915, driving a Mercedes), de Palma's other major triumphs included three Elgin National Trophy victories, two wins in the Vanderbilt Cup and he was considered the unofficial 1912 and 1914 National Driving Champion.

At Indianapolis, he qualified in the top four seven times in 10 starts and finished in the top seven on six occasions. He led 196 of 200 laps in 1912 (yet didn't win, foiled by an engine failure on the 199th lap) and his record tally of 612 laps led at IMS wasn't exceeded until 1987.

The race distance was cut to 300 miles in 1916 to support the war effort, and Indianapolis did not host a race in 1917 and '18 due to World War I. Fisher offered the Speedway facility to the U.S. government, which used it to house a pair of aviation battalions as IMS became a refueling station and a base for development of experimental aircraft.

With Fisher wrapped up in the development of Miami Beach and Wheeler strapped for cash, Allison took over Wheeler's shares in 1917, making him the majority partner of the track with a 56 percent stake. The Allison-Fisher-Newby ownership of the track continued until late 1927, when it was taken over by another one of Indy car racing's key players, and a man intimately familiar with "The Brickyard."

Before he became known as "Captain" through his conquests as a fighter pilot in World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker raced four times in the Indianapolis 500, with a best result of 10th place in 1914. Following the war, Rickenbacker entered the auto industry as a builder of luxury cars; in fact, a Rickenbacker sedan, with Captain Eddie at the wheel, served as the pace car for the 1925 Indianapolis 500.

But the Rickenbacker Motor Company ceased operations in 1926, prompting the popular war hero to search for his next opportunity. He paid a visit to his former employer, James Allison, to inquire whether he would be interested in selling the Allison Engineering firm.

The answer was no. But Allison did suggest to Rickenbacker that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be acquired, setting in motion the events that would lead to the next major era in the history of the now-famous racetrack.