Over the coming months in RACER magazine and on RACER.com, we'll be counting down to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 with a series of fascinating insights on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
In conjunction with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its incredible collection of photography and race records, we'll be presenting a Centenary Countdown story in every RACER magazine leading up to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011. Plus, every week until then, we'll bring you a story or gallery on RACER.com.
We'll be exploring the stories behind the traditions and showcasing the heroes, the groundbreaking machines and the epic races that made the Indianapolis 500 the most important race in history.
This week, we go back to when it all began and discover that a 500-mile race on the Memorial Day weekend was an inspired decision born from necessity…
…AND HOME IN TIME FOR DINNER
Carl G. Fisher and his principal partner in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, James A. Allison, were young men with big dreams, but they weren't fools.
Along with fellow investors Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler (BELOW photo shows, left to right, Newby, Wheeler, Fisher and Allison), they'd built the 2.5-mile Speedway to be a proving ground for the burgeoning Indiana automobile industry and, for additional revenue, to hold occasional auto races.
When the track opened for competition in August 1909, the original crushed rock and tar surface proved lethally unsuited to racing, so 3.2 million bricks were laid over the winter in readiness for an ambitious 1910 schedule.
Three-day meetings were planned for the Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day holiday weekends. Each would include upward of 20 races, none longer than 200 miles – surely the perfect, quick-fire fare for a thrill-hungry crowd?
The new surface held up well enough, but attendances tumbled. The Labor Day event was cut to two days and the partners knew they needed to act quickly to stem the dwindling interest in their magnificent new facility.
Deciding the problem was one of too much racing, they opted to run just one event in 1911 – a race, they hoped, that would capture the public's imagination like no other. For men and machines, this would be the ultimate test of endurance, as well as speed. And, if the glory wasn't enough, a huge purse of $30,000 should help secure an international field.
So, when to hold it?
Lem Trotter, the man who'd convinced Fisher to buy the 320 acres of farmland the Speedway was built on, suggested Memorial Day, but purely for pragmatic reasons. “Haying,” gathering in the spring crop of feed grass, was completed by late May, and the sizable Indiana farming community then took a two-week furlough. What better way to spend their well-earned break than a visit to the futuristic sights of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
And how long should it be?
Fisher toyed with the idea of a 24-hour race, or maybe 1,000 miles, but pragmatism won again. It should start late enough that the expected large crowd would have time to get there and get in, but end early enough for them to see the finish and still be home in time for dinner. If it began at 10 a.m. and ran for no more than six or seven hours, a race of 500 miles – 200 laps – fitted the slot and still had a certain grandeur to it.
In mid September, Fisher confirmed both the date – May 30, 1911 – and the format, and the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race was born.
A little over eight months later, in an era of riding mechanics, Ray Harroun single-handedly cajoled his Marmon Wasp to victory (RIGHT, Harroun is pictured completing the 500 miles).
As the quiet, methodical Pennsylvanian pocketed $14,250 for his six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds of labor, an estimated 80,000 paying spectators – farm workers and city dwellers alike – filed out of the Speedway and home for dinner.
For Fisher and his partners, a plan born of necessity had worked. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was truly on the map.
• Next week: Pace cars, rear-view mirrors and a scoring controversy. Looking back at the 1911 Indianapolis 500.
For tickets to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, CLICK HERE.
For more insight on the history and heritage of the Indianapolis 500, check out legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson's blog HERE on Indianapolismotorspeedway.com.
To get up close to racing history, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. Find out more HERE
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