History Monday #66

Let’s get it started!

I’m back from my continuing education program, and glad to be back to writing for pleasure rather than for classwork. So, without any further ado, I’m revved up for writing again. Speaking of being revved up, today’s #HistoryMonday is all about how folks in Indiana have gotten revved up for over a century.

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On this day in 1909, the first race is held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—home of the world’s most famous motor racing competition, the Indianapolis 500.

The construction of a racetrack and races to be featured at the venue were conceived by Indianapolis businessman Carl G. Fisher. Fisher saw the appeal of a racing speedway in 1905 after attending a race event in Europe.

Fisher realized that automobile racing was a means of testing cars before consumers took delivery of them. He also argued that race spectators were only able to perceive a glimpse of the cars on a linear track. Fisher believed that a 3 to 5-mile oval track would allow many more to view the abilities of the automobiles featured.

With dozens of automakers located in Indiana, Fisher proclaimed, “Indianapolis is going to be the world’s greatest center of horseless carriage manufacturer, what could be more logical than building the world’s greatest racetrack right here?”

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Construction of the track began in March 1909. Built on 328 acres of farmland five miles northwest of Indianapolis, Indiana. Laid out in a rectangle configuration measuring two-and-a-half-miles with four turns with two long and two short straight sections. The track’s surface was originally comprised of crushed rock and tar, a decision that would soon be regretted.

Fifteen  teams arrived on the first day of racing on August 19 for a three-day event. Fifteen to twenty thousand spectators showed up, paying at the most $1 for a ticket. In that first five-mile race Austrian engineer Louis Schwitzer won with an average speed of 57.4 miles per hour. But the track surface broke up in a number of places and caused the deaths of two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators.

Eventually, the surface was soon replaced with 3.2 million paving bricks, laid in a bed of sand and fixed with mortar. The new paving brick surface led to the speedway being dubbed “The Brickyard,” after it reopened in December 1909.

fast forward

Since 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has been held every year, with the exception of 1917-18 and 1942-45, when the United States World Wars 1 & 2. The decision to host the Indianapolis 500 proved to be more successful after the speedway owners realized an annual long-distance event rather than multiple short-distance races throughout the year.

With an average crowd of 400,000, the Indy 500 is the best-attended event in U.S. sports. An asphalt paved surface would eventually replace the original brick surface by 1961. Speedway owners chose at that time to preserve a one-yard line of bricks left exposed at the start-finish line as a nostalgic reminder of the track’s history.

The proliferation of races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway also led to other automobile racing organizations using the track to feature their cars. In 1994, NASCAR began their annual event at the Speedway originally termed the Brickyard 400. IROC, an all-star event featuring drivers from all automobile racing also partnered with the Brickyard 400 event similar to their companion race to the Dayton 500.

Motorcycle racing predated automobile racing at the speedway by less than a week. Motorcycle GP racing returned to that tradition almost a century later and continued racing at the track until 2015 using a road course configuration during the run.

Open wheel racing was also featured with Formula One using the track for Grand Prix events beginning in 1998 and ending in 2012. The F1 race featured a road course configuration similar to the Moto GP configuration.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s ownership by the Hulman family continued to grow the speedway and its fame. With the Hulman connection to the track, the family also earned enough money to fund colleges in their native Terre Haute.

The speedway and the Indy 500 have also continued to connect young viewers to Jim Nabors. Supported by Purdue University’s marching band, Nabors sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” prior to the start of the event. As Nabors health declined before his death, a capella group Straight No Chaser and Chicago Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison performed the song.