On May 30, 1911, 40 gentlemen started their engines for the inaugural Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Indiana has never been the same.
No single event is as closely associated with Hoosiers as is the Indy 500, dubbed the Greatest Spectacle in Racing by a radio copywriter in 1955.
When an automotive entrepreneur, Carl G. Fisher, first conceived of a speedway in the early 1900s, he had no idea what a spectacle it would become. His goal was to have a testing facility for new cars that would occasionally pit manufacturers against each other to compare speed, gas mileage and the like. “He believed that success on the track would translate into showroom sales,” explained Indy 500 historian Donald Davidson.
Fisher and three partners formed a company, purchased farmland and opened a 2½ mile track in 1909. When the original surface of crushed rock and tar caused multiple accidents, they redid the surface with 3.2 million bricks.
At first, the track sponsored three-day meets with numerous races, but those events did not prove popular. In 1911, the owners announced a new format: an all-day race of 500 miles, to be conducted annually on Memorial Day weekend, with generous prize money.
That year Ray Harroun drove his No. 32 Marmon “Wasp” to victory before an estimated 90,000 spectators. His average speed was 74 mph. Notably, Harroun’s car was the only one-seater. The other drivers had riding mechanics in the passenger seat, who manually pumped oil and turned their heads constantly to check for oncoming traffic.
In response to complaints his car might pose a safety hazard, Harroun had installed a mirror above the steering area, an automotive accessory that would soon be deemed indispensable on consumer automobiles.
From the beginning the 500 “attracted immense crowds, and soon people were coming from everywhere,” wrote Jeanette C. Nolan in her 1943 history of Indianapolis, Hoosier City. “European visitors timed their tours to include the Memorial Day race in Indianapolis. The novelty of its appeal seemed never to wear off, for each year was different and more exciting; more spectators, more entrants, larger prizes, previous speed records shattered to bits.”
Indeed, change has been constant since the first race. To increase safety, the Board of the American Automobile Association, the first sanctioning body, mandated a formula limiting the size of the starting field based on track size. With a few exceptions, the lineup has been 33 ever since.
In 1927, Fisher and partners sold the track to an investor group headed by World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, himself a racecar driver. During World War II, the track deteriorated due to inactivity, and it was sold again in 1945 to Anton “Tony” Hulman who repaved most of the surface, built new and improved grandstands and increased the purse.
In 1977, the famous start-of-race command, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” was altered to “Lady and gentlemen” to reflect the entry of the first woman qualifier, Janet Guthrie.
Over 100 years, three drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 four times: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. The fastest official lap recorded was 237.498 mph by Arie Luyendyk during qualifying on May 12, 1996.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum was established in 1956 to preserve the Speedway’s history and honor IndyCar winners as well as leading figures from other motorsports, including NASCAR and Formula One. The museum features trophies, goggles, race memorabilia and dozens of historic race cars, including Harroun’s Wasp with its original body manufactured by the Marmon Motor Car Company of Indianapolis.
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The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hall of Fame Museum is at 4790 W. 16th Street in Indianapolis.
Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at [email protected].