Leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, IndyCar dug up some footage of the very first running of one of the world’s most famous races. An excerpt from an old news reel, this video condenses the first Indy 500 into just three and a half minutes, giving us just a glimpse of that fateful day in May, 1911. If you’re a silent film buff and vintage racing fan, you’ll likely enjoy this historic footage.
Completed in 1909, Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile long oval track is flatter than most banked ovals that exist today. In the video, you can see how simple the track looked in its original form. Built on a foundation of packed soil, gravel and two-inch thick limestone slabs, and paved with a mixture of tar and crushed stone, the surface of the original track was notorious for destroying tires and causing general mayhem. Although the inaugural running of the Indy 500 didn’t take place until 1911, the track hosted several races before then, including seven motorcycle races in 1909 and three auto races in 1910.
Watching the video, you’ll first notice that the cars each carry two people, a necessity in the early years of motor racing. This format allowed for a driver and a mechanic to race, as cars would inevitably require repair on the track and, in some cases, need two people to point it in the right direction after a crash. However, the eventual winner of the race, Ray Harroun is seen driving solo, possibly giving his number 32 Marmon “Wasp” a weight advantage. Harroun got around then-sanctioning body AAA’s rules by adding the first-ever rear-view mirror to his race car, which took on the mechanic’s secondary duties as rearward lookout. Back to the video, you can see the track surface taking its toll on the competitors’ tires, with one car seen with its back tire completely torn to shreds. In one scene, a mechanic actually falls out of a car and onto the track, causing several cars to swerve and crash. When you realize how commonplace crashes and deaths were in those early days, you get a deeper appreciation for the huge emphasis on safety found in modern racing series.
While you might think this was a dirt track with all the white dust being kicked up by the race cars, the film’s title cards make it clear that it’s only sand placed on the track to absorb spilt oil. Going into the final lap, Harroun leads two cars by only a few car lengths (assuming they’re on the same lap) and somehow manages to lose them by the time he crosses the finish line. The film closes with Harroun smiling as he sits in the cockpit of his Marmon, still wearing his leather racing helmet. Little could he have known that the race he just won would continue running for another 100 years. So, if you’re in the mood to travel back to racing’s early years and visit the birth of one of its most celebrated events, settle into a comfy chair, grab a cold beverage, and press play.