Like a lot of guys in the early years of the 20th century, Carl G. Fisher was smitten with the automobile. And like a lot of ?those guys, Fisher wanted automobiles to be faster and more reliable.
As co-founder of Indianapolis-based Prest-O-Lite (1904), Fisher was already a successful player in the growing automotive industry, supplying headlights to carmakers. He saw U.S. automakers trailing Europeans in development. What was needed to speed progress in America, he reasoned, was a dedicated test facility that could double as a racetrack.
The concept made sense to three of ?his Indianapolis pals, all successfully involved in the burgeoning auto industry: Jim Allison, Fisher’s Prest-O-Lite partner; ?Art Newby, an executive with the National Motor Vehicle Company; and Frank Wheeler, co-owner of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company. The initial plan was to call the facility the “Indiana Motor Parkway Grounds.” But when the partners filed articles of incorporation on February 8, 1909, it had become the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company, capitalized at $250,000 (more than $6 million in today’s dollars).
The rest, as they say, is history. In celebration of ?the Indy 500 centennial, we’ve culled 100 of the more intriguing historical tidbits for your amusement.1906: Fisher and partners begin searching for speedway-suitable property. They?focus first on the resort town of ?French Lick, in southern Indiana. The French Lick 500: It’s got a nice ring to it.
December 1908: The partners acquire 328 acres of farmland five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis for $72,000. The basic 2.5-mile track design—developed with New ?York construction engineer Park T. Andrews—endures to this day.
June 5, 1909: Indy stages its first race. As construction crews toil below, the racers soar high above the surface—in gas balloons. Fisher’s balloon race draws nine starters, including himself. The winner spends more than a day in the air, alighting 382 miles away, in Alabama.
August 13–15, 1909: Fisher lays on an ambitious slate of motorcycle racing. Bad weather limits the crowd, and most of the riders balk at track conditions. Newspapers call the track’s first show a “fiasco.”
August 19–21, 1909: Indy’s first automobile races are catastrophic. The original surface disintegrates, contributing to multiple crashes and five fatalities.
December 17–18, 1909: Fisher invites carmakers to run for speed records on a track repaved with bricks. Severe cold (9 degrees F) limits participation, but straightaway speeds top 100 mph, and there are no crashes.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway draws 60,000 fans for its first series of 1910 races (May 27–29), and there are no fatal crashes through the entire year. But attendance drops off. The partners decide to put their chips on one big event in 1911, with $25,000 in prize money. The 500 is born.
1911: Forty-six cars enter the first “500-mile Sweepstakes,” 44 show up, and 40 qualify. Qualifying consists of sustaining 75 mph for a quarter-mile down Indy’s front straight.
Paying $1 each for grandstand seats, 80,200 spectators turn out for the first 500.
Henry Ford is among the honorary judges for the 500-mile inaugural.
Of the 23 car makes represented in the inaugural 500, only ?three survive today: Buick, Fiat, and Mercedes.
Marmon engineer Ray Harroun comes out of retirement to enter the Indy 500. His car is a single-seat, six-cylinder Marmon Wasp.
Harroun’s competitors grumble that his car’s absence of a riding mechanic poses a safety hazard. Faced with possible disqualification, Harroun fabricates a rearview mirror, a first in racing. Indyphiles like to think it was an absolute automotive first, but a 1908 Popular Mechanics tip, illustrating the use of mirrors to help avoid police speed traps, suggests otherwise.
Harroun wins the first 500, with midrace relief at the wheel (about 100 miles) by ?Marmon team driver Cyrus Patschke. The Marmon covers the 500 miles in 6:42.1, averaging 74.6 mph. Harroun’s prize and contingency payoffs total $14,250.
Riding mechanics become mandatory for the 1912 race.
Indy raises 1912 prize money to $50,000.
The second 500 sees the first of ?four appearances by Eddie Rickenbacker. His Indy record is poor—one finish (10th, in 1914)—but he achieves glory elsewhere [see No. 37].
1913: Frenchman Jules Goux adds a unique chapter to pit routine, chugging champagne at each of six pit stops. Thus refreshed, he dominates the race in his Peugeot, averaging 75.9 mph. He’s the first European winner and the first to go 500 miles without a relief driver.
New rule for 1914: No alcohol consumption while racing.
World War I keeps European entries away in 1916. The grid is the smallest ever: 21 cars. The race distance is shortened to 300 miles. Attendance is slim.
The 1916 race is the first in which drivers—Pete Henderson and Eddie Rickenbacker—wear steel hard hats rather than cloth or leather aviator-style helmets.
April 6, 1917: ?America enters WWI, and racing is suspended for the duration. The Speedway becomes an aviation-repair facility and airport.
1919: Howdy Wilcox wins the race in a Peugeot, with 1913 winner Jules Goux third in another Peugeot. Both cars are owned by ?the track.
Indy adopts a four-lap qualifying system, beginning with the 1920 race.
1920: A Chevrolet appears in the Indy 500 winner’s circle for the first time—Gaston Chevrolet, driving a Monroe-Frontenac built by brother Louis.
1922: Jimmy Murphy leads a Duesenberg blitz (eight of the top 10). But his Duesey chassis, left over from his victory in the 1921 French Grand Prix, is propelled by a new 183-cubic-inch, DOHC 32-valve straight-eight engine designed by Harry Miller. Miller engines and cars will win nine of ?the next 12 races.
A bill outlawing “commercial sports” on Memorial Day passes in the Indiana General Assembly in 1923. It’s vetoed by Governor Warren McCray, but the four original Speedway partners begin to consider selling.
Indy cancels the riding-mechanic requirement for 1923.
In 1924, A.W. Kaney, of Chicago’s WGN radio, puts the Indy 500 on the airwaves with live reports from the Speedway.
1924: Spurred by Miller’s success, the Duesenberg brothers field Indy’s first supercharged cars, a trio of straight-eights. Murphy puts a Miller on the pole, but L.L. Corum and relief driver Joe Boyer come from deep in the field to win for Duesenberg.
1925: Pete DePaolo becomes the first driver to average more than 100 mph for 500 miles, winning at 101.1 mph in a supercharged Duesenberg.
The son of Swiss immigrants, Edward Rickenbacker was the personification of the all-American hero—race driver, World War I flying ace (Medal of Honor, Croix de Guerre, seven Distinguished Service Crosses), developer and eventual president of Eastern Air Lines, carmaker (Rickenbacker Motor Company, 1921–27), and Speedway president from 1927 to 1945.
Like Carl Fisher, Rickenbacker was a school dropout and self-made man. His status as America’s top World War I flying ace, magnified by a bigger-than-life persona, helped him in the quest for finances and in steering the Speedway through the depths of the Great Depression.
1926: The suburb of Speedway incorporates. Its boundaries encompass the track. Indy officials refrain from a name change, perhaps feeling that “Speedway Motor Speedway” might lack the cachet of the original.
Duesenberg’s success with boosted engines has not gone unnoticed. By 1926, with a new, 91.5-cubic-inch formula, every car in the field of 28 is supercharged. Harry Miller’s cars sweep the top four spots.
August 15, 1927: Backed by a group of Detroit investors, Eddie Rickenbacker buys the Speedway for $700,000.
1930: With Indy essentially a Miller-versus-Duesenberg affair, production carmakers abandoned the 500. To lure them back, Rickenbacker lobbies the AAA Contest Board for new rules: naturally aspirated stock-block engines up to 366 cubic inches—the so-called Junk Formula.
As part of the return-to-stock effort, Eddie Rickenbacker reinstates the riding-mechanic requirement.
1930: Although Harry Miller scores another win, the first for a front-drive car at Indy, the Junk Formula gets regular carmakers back in the game. The field includes Auburn, Buick, Chrysler, Ford, Maserati, Mercedes, Oakland, Studebaker, Stutz, and Whippet.
1931: Clessie Cummins obtains a diesel waiver from the organizers and fields a Duesenberg chassis with a 361-cubic-inch, 12-valve four-cylinder diesel. Its 86.1-mph race pace is so-so, but it runs 500 miles without refueling—an Indy first—using 31 gallons, for a 16-mpg average.
Harry Miller enters two four-wheel-drive cars for the 1932 race. He enters another in 1933, with a 302-cubic-inch Miller V-8. Miller four-wheel-drive cars appear again in ’35, ’36, ’37, ’39, and ’41. Their best finish is a fourth, in 1936, with Mauri Rose at the wheel.
Seeking to emphasize endurance rather than speed, Indy adopts a 10-lap qualifying system for 1933.
1933: Though he continues to be active in racing, Harry Miller is forced into bankruptcy. Plant manager Fred Offenhauser and Leo Goosen acquire patterns and machinery at auction and establish their own engine operation under Offenhauser’s name.
1934: Indy imposes a 45-gallon fuel limit for the 500, then tightens it to 42.5 in 1935 and 37.5 for 1936.
Preston Tucker sells Edsel Ford on an epic 10-car Indy assault in 1935, harnessing the design talents of Harry Miller and Ford’s flathead V-8. The project is well funded but gets under way ?just weeks before Memorial Day. Four cars make the grid, and none finishes, each succumbing to the same design problem: The steering box, positioned too close to the exhaust, fails due to overheating. Miller’s genius image is tarnished.
1937: Indy rescinds fuel-consumption limits, although pump gas is still required.