Yesterday, the whole world watched as rookies Alexander Rossi won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 race. It’s one of the most watched sporting events in the world. Even though it’s the 100th running of the famous race, the first Indianapolis 500 was run in 1911, not 1916.
In 1904, the automobile business was in its infancy. Carl G. Fisher, the co-founder of Prest-O-Lite, a company in Indianapolis that manufactured headlights for cars, believed that European car manufacturers were moving ahead of American manufacturers. Fisher felt that what American car manufacturers needed was a test track that could also double as a race track. This way, car companies could bring their prototypes to this test track to help them see what did and didn’t work.
Fisher also believed that racing would help build popularity for the automobile industry in both sales and development. He wanted to see American cars become faster and better than European cars and racing was one way to accomplish this goal.
Fisher laid out his idea to his Prest-O-Lite partner Jim Allison, Frank Wheeler, co-owner of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company and Art Newby with the National Motor Vehicle Company. Planning to name their test track the Indiana Motor Parkway Grounds, the four business men began searching for the right piece of property in 1906.
In 1908, they purchased 328 acres of land for $72,000. At the time, the land was five miles from Indianapolis. With the help a New York engineer, the test track design was laid out to be 2.5 miles with 4 major turns and straightaways. The turns were banked 9 degrees and 12 minutes.
In February, 1909, the four partners filed articles of Incorporation, but the name was changed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company.
In June 1909, the track held its first race while the track was under construction. The race was a gas balloon race in which Fisher was one of the 9 entrants. The race lasted more than a day, ending in Alabama, some 382 miles south.
In August 1909, the track hosts their first auto races, but the track conditions are so poor and quickly broke down, leading to numerous crashes, resulting in 5 deaths.
In December 1909, the track had been resurfaced with bricks, leading to the nickname of the Brick Yard. Fisher tried to get auto makers to bring their best cards to the track to try for speed records. With the no brick covered track, some of the test cars reached over 100 mph on the straightaways, renewing interesting in the track.
In May 1910, the Speedway holds a series of races over a three-day period. Some 60,000 people attended the races. The new brick surface proved successful as there was not a single fatal crash.
However, after the May race series, attendance fell off for subsequent races, causing concern among the 4 business partners. They wondered if having too many races was the cause, so they proposed to host one single major race with $25,000 in prize money.
The next question was how long to make the race. The partners agreed that they wanted to keep the crowd there most of the day with a race lasting around 7 hours. To accomplish this goal, they settled on a distance of 500 miles.
On this day, May 30, 1911, the very first Indianapolis 500 race was run. Prior to the race, 44 cars were entered. They had to qualify for the race by sustaining a speed of 75 mph down the front straightaway. Of the 44 entries, 40 qualified, representing 23 makes of cars. Most of the cars were two seaters, one for the driver and one for a mechanic to fix anything that might breakdown during the race. Over the years, only three of the car makers represented in the first Indy 500 are still in business today – Buick, Fiat and Mercedes.
The publicity prior to the race drew a crowd of 80,200, each paying $1 to sit in the grandstands. The crowd was treated to seeing honorary race judge Henry Ford.
The race started midmorning and ended 6 hours and 42 minutes later. Ray Harroun won the race in his Marmon Wasp. However, controversy erupted when other drivers protested that Harroun’s car was only a 1 seater and lacked a mechanic. They claimed that created a safety hazard. Some also complained that he had an unfair advantage by having rearview mirrors.
The racing judges decided not to disqualify Harroun, awarding him with $14,250 in prize money and contingency payoffs.
In 1912, all cars were required to have a mechanic in the car with the driver. They also raised the total prize money to $50,000.
The Indianapolis 500 became an instant success as one of the top Memorial Day weekend events. The only years the Indy 500 did not take place was in 1917 and 1918 due to World War I and 1942 to 1945 due to World War II.
Today, the Indy 500 draws around 350,000 fans and pays out prize money of around $13.4 million, with the winner earning about $2.5 million. The television audience also numbers in the many millions and it all started with Carl Fisher and his quest to improve the American auto industry over 100 years ago.
Sources for the above includes: One Hundred Years of the Indy 500; Indy 500 Traditions and FAQs; Celebrating the Indy 500’s 100th Anniversary: 100 Most Interesting Facts and Milestones; First Indianapolis 500 Held; Indy 500 Prize Money: How Much Will The Winner Get In 2016 And How Much Have Winners Received The Last 10 Years?