Ray Harroun, 32, needed help climbing from his 6-cylinder Marmon Wasp in 1911 before the weary driver spit out a mouthful of dust and slumped against the racecar in sheer exhaustion. The designer-builder for Marmon Motor Car Co. had just won the inaugural 500-mile race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
None of the 80,000 spectators and local press who witnessed Harroun’s feat—driving an average of 74 mph for 6 hours and 42 minutes on the brick-paved oval with the help of a relief driver—could have imagined that his victory would spark a tradition that has evolved into the most prestigious auto race in America—the Indianapolis 500.
By comparison, Scottish-born driver Dario Franchitti, 37, last year sprang from his 8-cylinder, open-wheeled Dallara/Honda in the Indy 500 winner’s circle to the cheers of more than 250,000 trackside fans, plus a worldwide television audience. After three hours and five minutes of racing, Franchitti took his second checkered flag in the 100-year-old race with an average speed of 161.6 mph, hitting nearly 227 mph with his pole-winning qualifying run.
Setting the pace
Much has changed since Harroun set the pace in auto racing a century ago, yet much remains the same with both the Indy 500 and the fabled racetrack. “It is the same two and half miles, but it doesn’t look the same two years in a row,” says Donald Davidson, the speedway’s historian.
Gone is the slew of auto manufacturers—Amplex, Apperson, Case, Fiat, Lozier, Marmon, National, Pope-Hartford and Westcott among them—that competed in the 1911 race. Today, all Indy 500 entrants are part of the IZOD IndyCar Series and are mandated to drive the same kind of car: a Dallara chassis powered by a Honda engine. Today’s Indy racecars are rear-engine vehicles, a technological advancement introduced during the 1963 Indianapolis 500 by Jim “The Flying Scot” Clark, who raced his Lotus Ford on the same track that previously had known only front-engine roadsters since Harroun’s time.
One of the few constants in the race is the 33-driver field, a fixture since 1919, though an international contingent now flavors the Memorial Day weekend race. Drivers from 13 countries qualified for last year’s starting lineup, which also included four women racers for the first time. And you won’t see the vintage two-seaters that once placed a “riding mechanic” beside the driver to watch for rear-approaching competitors.
Interestingly, Harroun reduced the weight of his car during the inaugural Indy 500 with the aid of the first automotive rearview mirror rather than a sidekick mechanic, helping him win the $14,250 first-place purse, compared to the $2.7 million prize awarded last year to Franchitti.
When Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 as a privately owned test track for automakers, “the idea was to show the public how good and durable the cars were,” says Davidson, of Speedway, Ind. (pop. 12,594).
For reasons unknown, that first 500-mile race in 1911 was billed as the International Sweepstakes. Forty cars made the starting field, but rather than impose a limit, race organizers required entrants to average 75 mph—nearly what Harroun maintained to win—down the front straightaway.
“If you could do a quarter of a mile in 12 seconds, you were in the lineup,” Davidson says.
In that era, most drivers were employees of car manufacturers, usually staff engineers or mechanics. “They were test drivers,” Davidson says. “When they came to Indianapolis, because it required more speed, some realized this was more than they were ready for, so there were some ‘hired guns’ . . . to drive the race. But it did not start out as a sport of drivers.”
Originally paved with a mixture of crushed rock and tar, the racetrack soon became known as The Brickyard.
“The owners realized very quickly that they got it wrong,” says Davidson of the mushy track surface that never set properly due to inclement weather and hurried construction, “but they didn’t know about paving roads. I’m not sure there was another paved road in the state at that time.”
Surrounding states were surfacing streets with bricks by that time, and the original speedway owners decided that was the way to go, paving the racetrack with 3.2 million bricks during 63 days in late 1909. Today, only a modest yard-wide strip of 571 bricks remains across the start-finish line in tribute to the facility’s momentous past, the remainder of the track having been resurfaced several times over the last century with Kentucky rock asphalt.
“The original surface is still there,” Davidson says, “but it’s about a foot and a half down.”
A racing spectacle
While the Indianapolis 500 took two- and four-year hiatuses during World War I and World War II, respectively, the race resumed in 1946, and since has been an annual rite of spring.
In 1955, three years after the formation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, stations requested an introduction to commercial breaks, which had suffered from several seconds of “dead air.” A 22-year-old female copywriter for the network’s flagship station, WIBC-AM in Indianapolis, submitted the line “Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing.” The slogan was broadcast that year by network anchor Sid Collins, later known as “The Voice of the 500,” and “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” went on to become a landmark phrase associated with the event.
Traditions abound on race day at Indy. There’s the iconic opening call to action: “Gentlemen, start your engines,” originated by the beloved Tony Hulman, who purchased the derelict, run-down track in the fall of 1945 and breathed new life into the facility until his death in 1977. Actor-singer Jim Nabors has offered an impassioned rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the track for the last 38 years, and only Indy salutes its champion with a bottle of milk, first requested in Victory Lane in 1936 by three-time winner Louis Meyer.
In its first century, the Indianapolis 500 has crowned 94 champions, including 17 multiple winners, led by the trio of four-time victors A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
“That was probably the thrill of my life,” says Foyt, 76, of his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, achieved in 1977. “That’s something that will live with me the rest of my life.”
The Indy 500 has a glorious past, and track officials are predicting a spectacular—and fast-paced—future.
“We’re getting started on our second hundred years,” says Jeff Belskus, the speedway’s CEO. “It’s going to be about innovation, it’s going to be about excitement. We’ve always pushed the boundaries of speed, and I expect we’re going to continue to do so.”