How the Indy 500 Came About

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Sunday, the annual Indianapolis 500 race will be held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The speedway is celebrating its "centennial era" from 2009-2011, so this race is not officially referred to as "the 94th", even though that is the number of the event. Some races were skipped during wartime. The three-race, two-year celebration commemorates the opening of the speedway in 1909 and the first 500-mile race in 1911.

With a seating capacity of 257,325 people, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest stadium in the world. In its 100-year history, only Brooklands in England was ever bigger (and it closed in 1939). Germany tried to build a bigger stadium for Nazi party rallies, but the construction of the 400,000-seat Deutsches Stadion was interrupted by World War II and it was never completed. The chariot racing venue Circus Maximus in ancient Rome could hold as many people, but hasn't been used in quite a long time. Image by Rick Dikeman.

Carl G. Fisher caught the first wave of the automobile industry. He owned a bicycle shop, but went on to open what many consider the first automobile dealership in the US. He and his partners bought 328 acres to open a vehicle testing facility near Indianapolis. Fisher is pictured second from the right; Henry Ford is on the left.

The 2.5 mile track was first paved with crushed stone and tar. This proved to be a mistake as soon as racing began.

The first day of car races at the new speedway in August 1909 ended with two deaths during one five-mile race. By the end of the weekend, one driver, two mechanics, and two spectators were killed. Fisher had to replace the crushed stone surface to make the track safer, so 3.2 million paving bricks were installed. The speedway therefore earned the nickname "the Brickyard". A few of these stones are still on the track.

The Indy 500 was born to accommodate the spectators. Fisher and his partners calculated the maximum amount of time people would be willing to spend at the track to arrive at the 500 standard. They figured seven hours would be the most they could ask for, and that meant 500 miles at the speeds of the day. The first 500-mile race held at Indianapolis was on Memorial Day in 1911. It was officially called the "International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race", a name kept until 1919.  Forty cars participated in the race. Thirteen laps in, a multi-car pileup occurred, and for a time no one was keeping track of who was ahead! The eventual runner-up Ralph Mulford crossed the finish line first, according to some accounts, but was directed to take three "safety laps" to ensure he completed the requisite 500 miles. In the confusion of the race, little attention was paid to the number of laps each car completed in what order.

The declared winner of that first 500-mile race was Ray Harroun, driving a car he designed, the 6-cylinder Marmon Wasp. His car engendered even more controversy, as Harroun drove without a passenger. Yes, race car drivers at the time normally had a mechanic with them, to monitor the vehicle performance and keep tabs on the other drivers.  But Harroun, a 29-year-old automotive designer, used a newfangled gadget he invented called a "rear view mirror", and his car didn't even have a passenger seat!

Speedway founder Carl Fisher went on to other big projects. He spurred the construction of America's first transcontinental road, the Lincoln Highway, in order to bring people to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. The road was dedicated in 1913. Fisher then turned his attention to building the Dixie Highway from Indianapolis to Florida. But why would anyone want to go to Florida? Fisher worked to make the state a tourist destination by buying swampland and developing it into Miami Beach. Fisher sold his share of the Indianapolis track to Captain Eddie Rickenbacker in 1927.

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May 27, 2010 - 6:06am
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