Indy 500 marks its first century

The defining moment occurred September 4, 1910, the last day of the last racing weekend of what had become a losing year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s when Carl Fisher and his partners, Jim Allison, Art Newby, and Frank Wheeler, looked upon the 15,000 people scattered in the vast emptiness of their spacious palace and saw … unimaginable opportunity.

In the few months since the enormous track had been carved out of 320 acres of farmland just west of Indiana’s capital city, the Fisher group had offered a smorgasbord of speed contests.

There was something for almost everybody: motorcycles, airplanes, automobiles, and gas-filled balloons four stories high.

Fisher had declared again and again his objective in building the speedway was to provide Indianapolis carmakers, of which there were many in the first quarter of the 20th Century, a place to test and improve their products. But high board fences and huge grandstands going up, as the 2 1/2-mile rectangular strip of hardpack was going in, left no doubt there was another objective. Carl’s proving ground was actually an enormous theater. He was in the entertainment business.

Sixty thousand spectators had witnessed the gruesome first round of auto races in 1909. There had been wrecks, injuries, even death. Then followed an emergency $400,000 re-paving (3.2 million bricks at 13 cents apiece) that left the Fisher group’s start-up budget in tatters.

A three-day Memorial Day kick-off to the 1910 season brought another 60,000 people through the gates. The partners breathed easier. But as the summer of ’10 wore on, attendance dwindled.

One July race day found less than 5,000 in the stands, after which Fisher ordered the cancellation of a scheduled August meet.

Now, it was September 4, Labor Day, the season’s grand finale. And one more time, spectators stayed away in droves.

From what’s been said about how Fisher loved a challenge, the scene surely got his adrenaline pumping. The grade school dropout whose bicycle and automobile marketing stunts were legendary, who turned a mangrove swamp into Miami Beach, who would make millions and die poor, was likely brainstorming with his partners even before the Speedway’s gates were closed that night.

Motor racing history was about to be made.

Just three days later, September 7, 1910, the Speedway broke the news that there would be a 500-mile race on Memorial Day, 1911. Since that was twice the length of any previous Speedway race, it got quite a bit of attention.

But Fisher wasn’t done. Because of what else was announced, the Indianapolis 500 has been for 100 years the premier auto race in the world and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the planet’s most renowned auto racing institution.

First, competition at the Speedway would be limited to just this one event per year. No more smorgasbords. And second, the purse for 1911 would be $25,000, 10 times more than for any auto race before it. It would grow to $27,500 by race time, with $14,000 going to the winner.

The delicious combination of rarity and richness had the desired effect. The promise of a stupendous payday attracted big name drivers and carmakers from far and wide, which heightened public interest, which led to ticket sales.

As Memorial Day dawned Tuesday, May 30, 1911, Indianapolis was, indeed, the center of the motor racing universe. By train and car, by buggy, bicycle and on foot, pilgrims descended upon the city. Traffic gridlocked downtown. For miles around, hotels and rooming houses overflowed.

By mid-morning, the horde was encamped inside the Speedway five miles northwest of downtown. The newspapers said 80,000 people were on hand that day.

To the delight of many, a local boy named Ray Harroun, with relief from Cyrus Paschke, kept his sleek yellow Marmon racer out of trouble for almost seven hours on the way to winning the first 500. His average speed: 74.602 miles per hour.

For most of the next century, the formula remained the same. One race a year plus a pool of prize money that got bigger and bigger made the Indianapolis 500 more than just the unquestioned main event in motorsport. The “500” became the standard, the star by which auto racing set its course.

If the 1911 payout was impressive, the $50,000 purse in 1912 was unbelievable.

This was the year teammates Joe Dawson and Howdy Wilcox, both driving Nationals, figured Mercedes driver Ralph DePalma was the man to beat. So Wilcox became the rabbit, pushing DePalma to drive harder than he planned. When DePalma’s engine failed with two laps to go, Dawson made up a five-lap deficit to win the race and $35,000. Drivers working together to achieve a team objective is not a recent phenomenon.

The Europeans arrived in 1913, albeit reluctantly. They reasoned if the pot of gold seemed too big to be true, it probably was. Finally persuaded by Fisher agents C.W. Sedwick and W.F. Bradley, teams from Peugeot, Sunbeam, and Isotta Fraschini gave the ’13 race an international cachet. Mercedes was there, too, but the cars were privately owned.

The papers said 100,000 people watched Frenchman Jules Goux usher a Peugeot to a 13-minute victory, sipping champagne during pit stops along the way.

What was most intriguing about the Peugeot was its exquisite four-cylinder dual overhead camshaft engine. Copies began showing up quickly. Historians generally agree the venerable Offenhauser that would reign at Indianapolis for 40 years had its roots in the 1913 Peugeot.

Another big crowd watched the French run rampant in 1914, when the best an American team could do was fifth. That was Barney Oldfield in a Stutz.

Fred Wagner was the official starter at the Speedway from 1909 through ’12. He did free-lance writing on the side, and his article on the 1913 race for House Beautiful magazine was caustic. “The reason why the American cars made a poor showing was obvious to anyone who visited the racing camps a day or two before the race,” he said. “The foreigners were prepared and the Americans were not.

“Manufacturers who believe in exploiting their product by racing…must go to work and build out-and-out racers from the very start. All of the foreign racers were quite different from the stock models made by their respective manufacturers.

Soon, war clouds darkened Europe. The Americans would again have the “500” largely to themselves, but a looming shortage of competitive entries at Indianapolis bothered Fisher and his partners.

Theodore E. “Pop” Myers, who began working at the track in 1910 and would stay until his death more than 40 years later, was asked in 1952 what they did about it. He told an interviewer that Fisher and Jim Allison decided to stock up on some race cars. They formed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Team Co. and purchased two Peugeots.

Myers said track operators owning race cars was a dubious business practice, so the “situation” was not publicized.

“Arrangements were also made with the Maxwell Motor Car Co. for the lease of four special Maxwells. In addition, the IMS team procured three Premier specials with engines designed and manufactured almost identical and exactly the cubic inch displacement size of the Peugeots.”

To manage the team, they hired Eddie Rickenbacker, a young driver from Columbus. In 1927, he bought the track.

As America teetered on the edge of World War I, the Speedway partners decided an autumn day of racing in 1916 might provide a little financial cushion against the expected dry spell ahead. The day consisted of three races, with Johnny Aitken winning all three in one of the Speedway cars. Gate receipts barely covered expenses (only 10,000 people showed up) but since six of the 16 cars in the field were Speedway property, the track paid itself almost half the $12,000 purse.

There was no racing at the track in 1917 and ’18, as the facility was turned into a military airfield.

Rickenbacker, now a war hero, was what they called the “guest referee” when racing resumed in 1919. On a lark, he agreed to lend his name to a ghost-written account of the race. Ace publicist Christy Walsh did the write-up. Rickenbacker gave it a fast read, and off it went via Western Union; 37 newspapers picked it up. They paid Rickenbacker $874, which he split with Walsh.

For winning the “500” (in a Speedway-owned Peugeot) Howdy Wilcox’s cut of a $55,275 purse was $20,000.

Ralph Kramer grew up 50 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and saw his first race in 1950. Later, he covered the race for The Indianapolis News for more than 10 years. As a public relations executive for General Motors, he negotiated Chevrolet’s Indy 500 pace car and for years managed Chevy’s public relations at the track. After leaving GM, he was the director of the Speedway’s Hall of Fame museum from 1995 to 1998. Kramer and his wife, Carol, live in Shelbyville, Ind.


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