Tuesday, May 6, 2014

History of the Indianapolis 500

As the calendar turns to May, the thoughts of motor sports enthusiasts turn to the Indianapolis 500. The annual event, held on Memorial Day, has become synonymous with Indianapolis, Indiana.


Though not an avid motor sports fan, as a Hoosier, I can’t help feeling a certain amount of pride in the iconic race. This year, as always, I look forward to watching the 500 on TV come Memorial Day. But the modern Indianapolis 500, known worldwide as “the greatest spectacle in racing,” bears little resemblance to the early contests held more than a century ago at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.


 So how did it all start? The notion of building a automobile racing track in the middle of Indiana was the brainchild of Carl G. Fisher. An Indianapolis business man, Fisher wanted a better place to test the various makes of automobiles being produced in Indiana and other Midwestern states.

Carl G. Fisher, 1909


In 1908, Fisher, along with three business partners, purchased 328 acres of level farmland a few miles outside Indianapolis, and construction began on the track in March of 1909. The original track surface consisted of packed dirt, gravel, crushed limestone topped with an oil and tar mixture. Picture open, turn-of-the-last-century vehicles speeding over this rough, shifting, dirty surface. What could possibly go wrong?


Construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Actually, the first races held at the site didn’t even involve automobiles. In June of 1909, while the track was still under construction, the site hosted a helium gas balloon race followed a few months later by a motorcycle race.


The first automobile races were held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 19, 1909, with fifteen carmakers participating. A three-day event, the races were marred by accidents—some fatal—mostly caused by failures of the track surface. One driver was temporarily blinded when a stone from the track crashed into his goggles, shattering them. Another driver lost control of his car. It flipped end over end and hit a fence post, killing him and his mechanic riding with him. The second day saw no major incidents, but the third day a car’s tire blew, sending the car into dozens of spectators resulting in the deaths of two spectators and the driver’s mechanic.


These tragedies prompted Fisher to re-think the track’s surface. Ya think? After a series of traction tests, brick proved to be the most durable paving material. 3.2 million bricks, supplied by Indiana companies, were hand-laid to cover the 2.5 mile track. The last brick laid was made of gold and laid by the governor during a ceremony. The track soon earned the nickname “The Brickyard.”


 The first actual 500 mile race was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day, 1911. The winner was Ray Harroun, whose Marmon “Wasp” automobile reached an average speed of 74.602 miles per hour. By not riding with a mechanic like the other drivers and adding a rearview mirror to his car, Harroun changed both the sport of auto racing and the future of automobile driving in general.

Ray Harroun in his winning Marmon Wasp

Harroun's Marmon Wasp


                                          Video of first Indianapolis 500, May 30, 1911      

Hope you have time to check out this video, it's a hoot!
Over the past century, there have been many changes and improvements to both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the cars that race there. Modern repaving has obliterated the brick surface except for a strip one yard wide, left to pay homage to the track’s early days.


Later this month as I watch drivers in their fire-proof suits and slick, state-of-the-art racing cars zip around the pristine track at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, I’m sure I’ll be contrasting that sight with a vision of their brave predecessors a century ago.

What memories do you have of the Indianapolis 500? I'd love to hear them!

Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.

Check out her latest releases at www.ramonakcecil.com




  1. Very interesting post, Ramona. Loved the video and the music with it. I've never been a big race fan, unless you count horse racing, but I enjoyed your post.

  2. Hi, Vickie! Glad you enjoyed the video. I had seen little snippets of the very early races, but this video gives us a real peek into what car racing was in 1911. I enjoy horse racing, too. Hubby and I enjoyed watching to Kentucky Derby on TV last Saturday. We even guessed the winning horse. :-)

  3. I enjoyed the video. I also liked reading about the track being made of bricks and called the Brickyard. Thanks for your interesting post. sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com