The Indy 500 – 100 Years of the Greatest Automotive Racing Spectacle In the World
Indy 500 History 1909 Through 1945
The Indianapolis 500 Motor Speedway opened its turnstiles for fans and unlocked its Gasoline Alley paddocks for racecars and the race teams that run ‘em all out in 1909 and hasn’t stopped thrilling spectators and participants alike with the drama of wide open oval racing on the Brickyard ever since. Indianapolis is known throughout the world for its annual 500-mile race held over Memorial weekend each May. Despite being known as ‘The Richest Prize In Racing’ the circuit where the race is held has far simpler origins.
Initially, the 2.5-mile circuit was built to permit a means of testing and developing new American car designs. It was the idea of Carl Fisher, an early car salesman. In collaboration with Jim Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby he pushed ahead with his plans and by 1909 the track was ready.
Sporadic races between manufacturers were envisaged by the group and, on August 19th, 1909, cars competed in anger for the first time. The damage exacted on the circuit by the heavy machines revealed grim flaws in the track surface, which contributed to several deaths during the meeting. The solution was found by paving the course with more than three million bricks, earning the track its nickname, ‘The Brickyard.’
After several unsuccessful car and motorcycle races it was decided that the speedway should hold just one annual race each year with a immense purse. The first Indianapolis 500 took place on Memorial Day, 1911. It was won by Ray Harroun in, for the time, a highly avant=garde car. His yellow Marmon Wasp was not only the first car to have a rear-view mirror; it was also the only car in the race without a riding mechanic.
European manufacturers fared well at the speedway in the early years. Peugeot, Delage and Mercedes all won there in the race’s first decade. Two American engineers were to change all that. Throughout the roaring twenties the race would be dominated by the elegant cars and engines of Harry Miller, the son of a German immigrant. His success brought with it the chance to indulge an extravagant lifestyle. In 1933 the company went bankrupt, but the engine designs were bought by Fred Offenhauser, an employee of Miller. Over the next 27 races Offenhauser engines would fail to win the 500 only three times.
The course had been sold in 1927 to World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker who made improvements, including the construction of a golf course on the site. Louis Meyer became the first three-time winner of the 500 in 1936 and, in an interview many years later for BBC TV’s ‘The Power and the Glory,’ recalled the risks of racing on the track in the early days. “The track was rough, and the bricks would buckle, on account of the heat.” There was also another unnecessary danger, which Meyer remembered:
“We had a concrete wall at the top of the course, which leaned the wrong way. It leaned outward instead of inward and when you hit it would just shoot you right over the top.”
Although tarmac started to be laid before the inception of World War Two it would take until 1961 to complete the resurfacing. As a reminder of the track’s past a yard of bricks was left uncovered at the start/finish line. 1936 also saw the first appearance of the glorious Borg-Warner trophy. Standing over five feet tall it is engraved in bas-relief with the likeness of every winner since Ray Harroun. Louis Meyer also became the first driver to drink a pint of milk after winning the 500 in 1936, a tradition which continues to this day.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is celebrating 100 years of worldwide leadership in motorsports entertainment from 2009-2011 through its Centennial Era, which features many special events and a new, retro corporate logo.
Plans for the Centennial Era celebration were unveiled during an event May 22, 2008 at Allison Mansion of Marian College in Indianapolis.
Indiana businessmen Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler pooled their investments to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 as an automobile testing ground to support Indiana’s growing automotive industry. The focus of the facility soon turned to racing, with Ray Harroun winning the inaugural Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911.
“No other motorsports facility in the world has the rich history and tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” IMS Chairman of the Board Mari Hulman George said. “The Centennial Era celebration pays homage to the heroes and events of our storied past while anticipating an even more glorious future.”
There are many intertwined components to the Centennial Era celebration:
• Centennial Gala. A Centennial Gala took place Feb. 27, 2009 at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis. Nineteen of the 27 living Indianapolis 500 winners – including four-time winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears – were among the featured guests at the black-tie event. Proceeds benefited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation, which operates the Hall of Fame Museum.
• Balloon Festival. The Centennial Era Balloon Festival presented by AT&T Yellow Pages took place May 1-3, 2009 at IMS with a full schedule of evening balloon “glows” and daytime ascensions. The event returned May 8, 2010. Both events commemorated the first competitive event ever at the Speedway, a gas-filled balloon race June 5, 1909.
• Centennial Era Logo. A new Centennial Era logo is being used at IMS from 2009-2011. The logo, designed by IMS Creative Services, draws elements from 1909, 1934 and 1961 IMS graphics in a historic motif.
Two video series, Centennial Era Moments and Centennial Era Gala, highlight the legends of the Speedway through interviews, historical footage and footage from the Centennial Era Gala. Click here to visit the IMS YouTube channel and watch these videos.
The Indy 500 Centennial Era celebration encapsulates all that is wonderful about Indy Racing throughout its illustrious history. In the present day and into the future, the Indy Racing League looks poised to be ever more prosperous and exciting for IRL Racing fans, with dynamic and talented drivers like Danica Patrick, Will Power and Dario Francitti behind the wheel and professional race teams like Penske Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing providing the expertise to field competitive racecars.
At IZOD Racing, there is a smart crew of dedicated employees formulating an innovative and progressive Indy Racing Schedule year after year. There are certain racetracks that will be part of the Indy Schedule every season and some venues that will run several years and then take a hiatus. The goal is to have an IndyCar Schedule that assures there are challenging ovals, road courses and street tracks for the talented racecar drivers, and that these venues are appealing to IRL Racing fans. Having IZOD Racing as the title sponsor for IndyCar for so many years has provided a strong foundation indeed for Indy Racing League to build upon. We can’t wait to cover the next Indy Car action and bet you can’t wait for the next race to begin.