Indy 500 parade queens, fluttering balloons, fried-chicken feasts, and shrieking engines are so indelibly embedded in the American psyche that it’s difficult to visualize the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as anything but today’s steel, concrete, and asphalt temple of speed. But, like other inventions that evolved into institutions, this one began as a zany idea.
In 1905, while assisting friends racing in France, Indiana sportsman and entrepreneur Carl Fisher observed that Europeans held the upper hand in automobile design and craftsmanship. What America needed to catch up, Fisher reckoned, was a better means of testing cars before delivering them to customers.
American racing was just getting started on horse tracks and, occasionally, on public roads. But such venues were ill-suited to either racing or car testing, Fisher reasoned in a November 1906 letter to Motor Age Magazine: “The average horse track is narrow, has fences that are dangerous, and is always dusty or muddy.
[W]ith high speed cars, where wide skids are necessary, . . . the fastest car, from a slow start or other temporary delay, gets [stuck] in the rear without chances of ever gaining the front on account of continuous seas of dust and skidding cars.” Fisher also argued that spectators didn’t receive their money’s worth from an infrequent glance of a hell-bent competitor racing past during a fifty-mile open-road race.
Fisher proposed building a circular track three to five miles long with smooth, 100– to 150-foot-wide racing surfaces. Such a facility would provide manufacturers an opportunity to test cars at sustained speeds and give drivers a place to learn how to maintain control at the limit. Fisher predicted that speeds would rise beyond the 69 mph achieved on a one-mile horse track to more than 100 mph on a three-mile circle and at least 120 mph on a five-mile circuit. As Speedway historian Donald Davidson points out, 120 mph was practically the land speed record of the day.
Fisher knew he was literally on the right track after visiting the Brooklands circuit that opened near London in 1907. Seeing that steeply banked, 2.75-mile, pear-shaped course cemented his determination to develop his dream. With dozens of carmakers and suppliers in Indiana, a dual-purpose track would be ideal for testing, and it would also be the perfect venue for demonstrating a car’s strengths to the buying public through racing.
Fisher rejected two potential sites before his real-estate agent found four adjoining tracts of level farmland totaling 328 acres five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis. In December 1908, Fisher convinced three partners to join in purchasing the property for $72,000. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company’s incorporation papers listed capitalization of $250,000, with Fisher and James Allison in for $75,000 apiece and Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby onboard for $50,000 each.
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, 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].”
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.
Fisher and his partners agreed that motorsports wouldn’t thrive without major track improvements. Construction engineer Andrews suggested paving the entire racing surface with either bricks or concrete. Bricks were twice as expensive, but they’d last longer and provide superior traction, in his opinion.
Since the first mile of paved public road was also under construction in 1909, Speedway owners had no experience on which to base their decision. Traction tests were conducted, proving the brick approach to be clearly superior. Funds were authorized to begin the repaving project less than a month after the pioneering racers left the track.
Five Indiana manufacturers supplied 3.2 million ten-pound bricks, which were each hand laid over a two-inch sand cushion. After the surface was leveled with a steamroller, gaps were filled with mortar. To safeguard spectators, a 33-inch-high concrete wall was also constructed in front of the main grandstand and around all four turns.
Although it was too late in the season to resume racing, eleven drivers and a few motorcycles returned in December for speed trials. Hardy spectators braved winds and 10-degree temperatures to witness Walter Christie top 100 mph in his purpose-built, front-wheel-drive racer and his nephew, Lewis Strang, achieve 112 mph in a Fiat. Race starter Wagner issued two proclamations: that the Speedway was now “a wonderful track and will allow for the speed that any car today has stored away in it” and that “100 mph is as fast as the American public will care for.”
Give the man half credit. During the next seven years, no drivers and only one riding mechanic died racing at the Brickyard. However, Wagner underestimated the typical fan’s zest for speed. No tears were shed in 1919 when René Thomas was the first pole-winner to qualify over 100 mph or when Tom Sneva cracked the -mph barrier in 1978.
INDY’S FOUNDING FATHERS
Troubled by poor eyesight and a short attention span, Carl Fisher dropped out of school at age twelve. After racing, repairing, and selling bicycles, he became one of America’s first car dealers, in affiliation with racer Barney Oldfield. In 1904, Fisher and fellow bike racer James Allison each invested a reported $2500 to manufacture Prest-O-Lite automobile headlamps; Union Carbide bought control years later for $9 million. At a dinner party for auto manufacturers in 1912, the intrepid Fisher proposed building America’s first transcontinental road, which became the Lincoln Highway. The Dixie Highway, a road system connecting Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with Miami, was his next bold stroke. Fisher’s hot streak continued with real-estate developments in Miami Beach and Montauk Point, New York. A devastating hurricane and the 1929 stock-market crash wiped out Fisher’s fortune, but his legacy, as described by Will Rogers, was having achieved “more unique things . . . than any man I ever met.”
Allison, Fisher’s longtime ally, brought stability to their ventures. Coincidentally, he also left school at age twelve. Allison, Fisher, and a third Speedway founder, Arthur Newby, met at the Zig-Zag Cycling Club. It was allegedly Allison’s idea to shift the Speedway’s focus from several short events to one spectacular endurance race per year, beginning in 1911. His precision machine shop located near the track manufactured tanks, trucks, and Liberty V-12 aircraft engines during World War I. Following Allison’s death in 1928, General Motors acquired Allison Engineering, which built aircraft V-12s for World War II and jet engines thereafter. More recently, Allison engineers also conceived GM’s two-mode hybrid system.
The Newby Oval, a quarter-mile, steeply banked velodrome, was the magnet that drew together three of Indy’s founders. Under Newby’s leadership, the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis progressed from building electric runabouts to gasoline-powered cars.
The fourth founder was Frank Wheeler, who claimed to have lost two fortunes before arriving in Indianapolis in 1904 and joining with George Schebler to manufacture carburetors. Their firm sponsored Indy’s first trophy, a towering Tiffany cup. Wheeler tried to spread Indy magic to a grandiose Minnesota track; after that venture failed, he sold his Speedway interests to Allison in 1917.
Louis Schwitzer, who had no hand in the Speedway’s creation, deserves honorable mention for winning Indy’s first race in a Stoddard-Dayton. Competing against four other stock-chassis cars in a five-mile sprint, Schwitzer averaged 57 mph, led both laps, and won by a 150-foot margin. Schwitzer had earlier emigrated from Austria with two engineering degrees and $18 in his pocket. Following stints at Pierce-Arrow and a Canadian car company, he helped design the engine that powered Ray Harroun’s Marmon to victory at the first Indy 500 race in 1911. Schwitzer headed the Speedway’s technical committee from 1912 through 1940. Also, an Indianapolis company he established manufactured superchargers and turbochargers. In 1952, a Kurtis Kraft roadster powered by a Schwitzer-turbocharged Cummins diesel qualified on the pole at Indy.