Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Birthplace of Speed

Don Sherman
IMS Photo

Construction began in March 1909, with ambitious plans to start racing by the Fourth of July. Then reality set in. Fisher's vision of a three-mile oval surrounding a two-mile road course became two 2.5-mile circuits in order to leave room for grandstands. The final Speedway consisted of four quarter-mile-long turns linked by two five-eighths-mile straights and two eighth-mile short chutes with the corners banked at 9.2 degrees. (Although the road course was dropped from the century-ago plans, construction of an inner circuit commenced in 1998 in preparation for Indy's first Formula 1 race.)

The Dry Run creek running across a corner of the property also posed problems. Construction superintendent P. T. Andrews feared that the sixty days allotted for grading might not be enough, so the summer 1909 schedule was revised to hold a balloon event in June and inaugural races in August.

Five hundred laborers, 300 mules, and a fleet of steam-powered machinery reshaped the landscape. The track surface consisted of graded and packed soil covered by two inches of gravel, two inches of limestone covered with taroid (a solution of tar and oil), one to two inches of crushed stone chips that were also drenched with taroid, and a final topping of crushed stone. Steamrollers compressed each layer.

Another army of workers constructed dozens of buildings, several bridges, grandstands with 12,000 seats, and an eight-foot perimeter fence. A white-with-green-trim paint scheme was used throughout the property.

On the evening of June 5, 1909, nine gas-filled balloons lifted off at Indy, "racing" for adulation and silver trophies. University City, the winner of the Speedway's first competitive event, landed 382 miles away in Alabama after spending more than a day aloft.

Motorcycle races, daringly scheduled to begin on Friday, August 13, were hampered by construction delays, rain, riders who wouldn't race, tire blowouts, and complaints about the track surface. Only 3500 spectators showed up, and contentious officials canceled more than half of the planned events. Erwin G. (later known as Cannonball) Baker won the final ten-mile race, averaging 52 mph on his Indian.

Fifteen carmakers' teams arrived for practice two days later. Bob Burman, Louis Chevrolet, and Barney Oldfield were the professional stars. Engineers and testers employed by participating manufacturers filled out the drivers' roster. Oldfield quickly set the bogey with a 76-mph lap in his Blitzen Benz.

According to D. Bruce Scott, author of Indy: Racing Before the 500, there were immediate problems with the track surface: "[Drivers] quickly became covered in dirt, oil, and tar from head to toe. Then ruts and chuckholes began to form . . . , particularly in the turns. . . . Driving on the track was like flying through a meteor shower [of gravel]."

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