Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Birthplace of Speed

Don Sherman
IMS Photo

Speedway workers oiled and rolled the track surface until the gates opened to the public. Fifteen to twenty thousand spectators poured in, each paying $1 for a grandstand seat or 50 cents to sit in the first- and second-turn bleachers.

Impatient drivers broke formation during the first three rolling starts, forcing flagman Fred Wagner to halt the field and begin all races from a standing start. Five- and ten-mile event victors were Louis Schwitzer in a Stoddard-Dayton, Louis Chevrolet in a Buick, Wilfred Bourque in a Knox, and Ray Harroun in a Marmon.

Halfway through the first day's 250-mile main event, race leader Chevrolet was temporarily blinded when a stone smashed his goggles. Then Bourque suffered a (suspected) rear-axle failure. His Knox flipped end-for-end on the front straight before crashing into a fence post. Bourque and riding mechanic Harry Holcomb both died at the scene. Burman's Buick led the remaining field to the finish.

In spite of the four safe finishes and two world speed records achieved on Indy's first day of car racing, AAA sanctioning officials debated canceling the remainder of the schedule. Only after Fisher promised that workers would repair the ravaged track overnight were officials convinced that the show should go on.

More than 20,000 spectators enjoyed the second day's eight events, which were completed without incident. Drivers behaved, records were broken, and the track surface held up reasonably well.

Thirty-five thousand spectators showed up for Indy's third day of speed trials and races in spite of hot, humid weather. Oldfield wowed the fans by boosting the world kilometer record to 85 mph in his Benz. The cigar-chomping celebrity also won the day's fourth event with ease.

Nineteen racers took the flag in the grand finale, a 300-mile run for the $10,000 Wheeler-Schebler trophy. During the first 100 miles of dusty competition, six cars dropped out. At 175 miles, the right front tire blew on Charlie Merz's car. His out-of-control National mowed down five south-end fence posts, toppled spectators like bowling pins, and achieved a reported 50-foot altitude. The lucky Merz sustained only minor injuries, but two spectators and his mechanic, Claude Kellum, perished.

Ten laps later, a Marmon driven by Bruce Keen spun into a bridge support after hitting a pothole. Flagman Wagner promptly halted the race with 94 of the planned 120 laps completed. Since the event ended early, the remaining cars received engraved certificates instead of trophies.

The following day, newspapers railed against the carnage. A Detroit News editorial deemed racing "more brutal than bull fighting, gladiatorial combats, or prize fighting." The AAA moved to boycott future Indianapolis events unless Speedway management addressed safety shortcomings.

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