Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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.

Images

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, May 28, 1910

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, May 28, 1910

Enthusiastic crowds are on their feet as drivers and the mechanics start their engines at the beginning of the race on May 28, 1910. The three day event featured 42 races ranging from five to 200 miles on the new brick track. Photo Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Charles Bretzman View File Details Page

Ray Harroun at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, First Race, 1911

Ray Harroun at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, First Race, 1911

Nicknamed the "Little Professor," Ray Harroun is pictured here in his Marmon Wasp winning the first Indianpolis 500 on May 30, 1911. His car was named the Wasp because of its black and yellow color scheme. Photo Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Indiana Historical Society View File Details Page

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1929

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1929

View of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with cars on the track. The stands are filled with fans and people are standing along the infield fence. Two men are standing on a platform where the finish line has been strung across the track. Image Courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. | Creator: W.H. Bass Photo Company View File Details Page

Packard Pace Car Leading the Indianapolis 500, 1936

Packard Pace Car Leading the Indianapolis 500, 1936

The convertible Packard pace car is on the inside of the track, next to the front row of race cars at the beginning of the race. Image Courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. | Source: W.H. Bass Photography View File Details Page

Two Firestone Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, 1961

Two Firestone Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, 1961

Two Firestone tires, the first tire (on the left) from 1929 and attached to the #12 race car, and the second tire from 1960 (on the right) are stood side by side for comparison at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. Image Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Image Collection, from the IUPUI University Library | Creator: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum View File Details Page

Race Car Driver Janet Guthrie

Race Car Driver Janet Guthrie

Janet Guthrie was the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Guthrie poses for this portrait while wearing her driving suit in 1976. Image Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Image Collection from IUPUI University Library. | Creator: Indianapolis Motor Speedway View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Elena Rippel, Kaelynn Hayes, “Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Discover Indiana, accessed May 28, 2017, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/4.

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