It took Ray Harroun 6 hours and 42 minutes to win the first Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. Speeding past the checkered flag in his bright yellow Marmon “Wasp,” Harroun had driven the five hundred miles at an average speed of 74.6 mph. Today’s racers—with average speeds surpassing 150 mph—would have left Harroun’s Wasp in the dust. Harroun’s car did more than race that day in 1911. It also sported a new feature: a rear-view mirror. Though the mirror ended up vibrating too much to be functional, it represents the spirit of invention that has also accompanied racing at the Speedway.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was opened in 1909 by businessmen Carl Fisher, Arthur Newby, James Allison, and Frank Wheeler. After several fatal accidents caused in part by its rock and tar surface, the 2.5-mile track was paved with bricks in late 1909, earning it the nickname, “the Brickyard.” Dismal attendance at three-day meets led track officials to hold the one-day racing “extravaganza” in May 1911, and the successful Memorial Day weekend Indianapolis 500 race was born.
While built for races, Fisher also envisioned Speedway as “the automobile laboratory of America.” Until the Great Depression, Indiana was one of the country’s leading car manufacturers. Eighty Indiana communities produced at least one automobile during this period. In Indianapolis, there were 29 car companies producing or assembling vehicles--including Stutz, Duesenberg, Marmon, and Cole--who used the Speedway both to test and prove the superiority of their vehicles. Tire makers also benefitted from Speedway’s rigorous conditions. The long and bumpy course offered a tough endurance test that led to better construction, design, and safety features for automobiles and auto racing. Improvements continued throughout the twentieth century, from the first use of four-wheel hydraulic brakes in 1921 to the first use of crash-data recorders in 1993.
The Indy 500 has been held every year since 1911 except during World Wars I and II, and continues to grow as an international event and local tradition. In 1945, Tony Hulman, a businessman from Terre Haute, Indiana, bought the track from Eddie Rickenbacker and renovated it after years of neglect during World War II. From the 1950s to 1970s, the Speedway gained an office building and museum, a new control tower, and a resurfaced track. The track had begun to be covered in asphalt in the 1930s, by 1961, only a stretch of bricks at the finish line remained. In 1994, the Speedway also became home to the Brickyard 400, a NASCAR race that broadens the Speedway’s appeal in the racing community and its profitability.