The story of the Indianapolis 500 is the story of America in a pivotal century—the beginning of the American Century. A rural nation rushing to embrace industrialization. Farm boys, fairgrounds and big city promoters. Seat of the pants courage and genuine genius. Foreign invasions—so to speak—and homeland traditions.
In 1910, the city of Indianapolis was home to 233,650 people and the 22nd largest city in America. The U.S. Center of Population in 1910 was in Bloomington, Indiana, just 52 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
Indiana was already one of the early centers of American automobile production.Indiana had one of the best railroad networks in the U.S., providing ready access to both raw materials and growing markets, and an established carriage and wagon-building industry. Over 400 different makes of automobiles were manufactured in Indiana at one time or another.
Some 217 Indiana automakers had already been at work by 1910, and another twenty would be added in 1911. One early Indiana automaker, Elwood Haynes of Elkhart who built his first automobile in 1893, advertised that his automobile was ‘America’s First Car’. A Haynes-Apperson was also among the automobiles entered in the first automobile race in America, the Chicago Times-Herald race between Chicago and Evanston, Illinois in 1895.
Many pioneer Indiana automakers built as few as a single automobile. But some, like Auburn, Marmon and Studebaker, would find ongoing success before the flame burned out. Other great Indiana automobiles—Stutz, Duesenberg and Cord—hadn’t been introduced yet. But the automobile industry was rapidly becoming a backbone of Indiana’s economy.
Indianapolis drew auto enthusiasts like a magnet. Carl G. Fisher was one of these men, but he was far from typical. Fisher has been called the father of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—and many other things, including ‘Crazy Carl Fisher’.
The Father of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Carl Fisher wasn’t crazy; he was filled with ideas.
Fisher was one of a breed who were called ‘go-getters’ in his day. In addition to forging the idea of a speedway to provide a testing facility for Indiana’s automakers, Carl Fisher was later credited with developing Miami Beach from Florida swampland and spearheading the Lincoln Highway to provide a stimulus for better highways across America that much later influenced the Interstate Highway System.
Coming from a modest background, Carl Fisher opened a bicycle shop in Indianapolis at the age of 17 and was an avid bicycle racer. By 24, he was the first automobile dealer in the United States after meeting Ransom E. Olds at the 1900 automobile show in New York—America’s first auto show, held in Madison Square Garden—and returning to Indianapolis with a contract as Oldsmobile’s first sales agent. Soon Fisher had taken on other lines of automobiles and quickly made a name for himself for the outrageous promotions he dreamed up for the automobiles he sold.
Fisher once hung a Stoddard-Dayton automobile below a hot air balloon and flew over the city of Indianapolis. When the balloon landed, the Stoddard-Dayton was supposedly driven to the center of Indianapolis and put on display in Fisher’s showroom. In fact, the automobile was too heavy for the balloon to lift and mechanical components had been removed. A second car, reportedly hidden in the bushes near the balloon landing, was actually driven into downtown Indianapolis where Fisher was greeted by a large and cheering crowd.
Carl Fisher partnered with James Allison in 1904 to buy an interest in the patent rights to manufacture acetylene headlights. In a day before electric headlights had been invented, the company—named Prest-O-Lite—made virtually every headlamp sold on automobiles in the United States. Fisher and Allison sold out to Union Carbide in 1913, but not before making themselves very wealthy. Union Carbide paid Fisher and Allison $9,000,000 in pre-WWI dollars.
Fisher and Allison were examples of an age when men—and women—with vision and courage could seemingly accomplish anything. With the building of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the race that came to be called ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’, they did.
The story of the Indianapolis 500 is the story of many individuals who made contributions—large and small—to the Speedway’s history. No one knows these stories better than Donald Davidson, the Speedway’s celebrated historian who co-authored The Official History of the Indianapolis 500 with Rick Shaffer.
Newby, Wheeler and Fletcher
The Speedway was the brainchild of Carl Fisher. Fisher raced briefly at the turn of the century as a ‘barnstormer’, racers who travelled from one country fairground to another staging match races between automobiles, airplanes and horses. The results were often preordained, but the excitement was authentic. One of Fisher’s colleagues was another former bicycle racer, Berna Eli Oldfield—‘Barney’ Oldfield.
Fisher also entered or attended early automobile races in both Europe and the U.S., including the Vanderbilt Cup Races on Long Island in New York. He designed and built a special race car with the Indianapolis-based Premier Motor Manufacturing Company that he planned to drive in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race, but the automobile failed to meet weight restrictions and did not race.
As early as 1903—four years before the Brooklands circuit opened in England—Fisher envisioned high-speed closed circuits of 1, 3 and 5-miles, with straights 100 to 150 feet wide. Such a track took into consideration the inherent dangers to automobilists on narrow fairgrounds tracks created for horse racing, and the ongoing need to accommodate ever-increasing speeds for testing and auto racing. Fisher wrote to the editor of Motor Age magazine in 1906 to share his ideas on the “Advantages of a Big Circular Track”, as rediscovered by Donald Davidson.
Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler were two other Indianapolis businessmen who would figure prominently in the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Newby is credited with creating the popular six-day bicycle races that briefly seized the American public’s attention at the turning of the new century. In 1898 Newby built a 15,000-seat velodrome for bicycle racing in Indianapolis. Newby had also risen to a position of responsibility with Nordyke & Marmon, one of Indianapolis’s leading manufacturing firms and, since 1902, manufacturer of the Marmon automobile. Newby then became president of the National Motor Vehicle Company founded in Indianapolis in 1904.
Frank Wheeler was the partner of George Schebler in the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company in Indianapolis, which had also benefitted hugely from the exploding popularity of the automobile.
A fifth partner—for no more than a matter of days—was Stoughton Fletcher whose family controlled one of Indiana’s most venerable banks, founded in 1839. A venture involving automobile racing was deemed by Fletcher’s family to be inappropriate to family interests, and the chagrined young Fletcher was forced to withdraw.
Constructing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Property for construction of a speedway was selected outside of the city limits of Indianapolis, five miles to the northwest at Crawfordsville Road. Four adjoining 80-acre tracts of flat farmland were for sale. Successful negotiations led to purchase of the property for a total of $72,000.
Railroad tracks running past the property toward Crawfordsville conveniently ran—in the opposite direction—directly to Union Station in downtown Indianapolis, providing a ready transportation link for planned spectators.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company was incorporated in March 1909 and construction of the track was already underway before April. P.T. Andrews, a New York civil engineer, was retained to design the track. Andrews initially laid out the configuration for a 3-mile speedway with a 2-mile road course running through the infield. But as Andrews pointed out to the partners, the track would fit on the property but would leave no room for grandstands. The solution was to reduce the length of the speedway to 2.5 miles, as it has remained for over 100 years. Plans for the infield road course were quietly forgotten.
The confident Speedway management announced four major events for the opening season in 1909, including balloon, motorcycle and automobile races. A model of the track, made of cement, was displayed to the public on the southeast corner of the site. The track surface was graded and then built up with layers of gravel coated with asphaltum oil. The surface would quickly prove to be woefully inadequate, and lead to a more famous resurfacing.
Initial events at the Speedway included 1909 national championship hot air balloon races in June and motorcycle races in August. Crowds for both events failed to meet expectations, and the loose track surface proved to be a disaster for motorcyclists. Violent crashes and serious injuries led to the event being cancelled even before the final scheduled day of races.
The first automobile races, announced for July, had already been cancelled until the track could be completed. The initial automobile race on the Speedway took place in August 1909 just one week after the motorcycle event. Crowds swelled to 15,000-20,000 spectators, according to D. Bruce Scott in Indy-Racing Before the 500. They descended upon the Speedway on special trains, automobiles and horse-drawn wagons. Three days of racing were scheduled including special races for trophies presented by Prest-O-Lite, Wheeler-Schebler, Remy and others.
Louis Schwitzer, an Austrian immigrant, won the first automobile race at the Speedway on August 19, 1909 driving a Stoddard-Dayton in a five-lap event open to stock chassis with engines of 161-230 cu in. Schwitzer also became an important figure in Speedway history in other ways—helping to design the engine of the Marmon Wasp that would win the first 500 in 1911, heading the Speedway’s Technical Committee from 1912-1940, and establishing an Indianapolis company to manufacture superchargers and turbochargers that were later used on race-winning cars in the 500.
Other entrants included already well-known names like Marmon engineer Ray Harroun, Louis Chevrolet, Bob Burman and Lewis Strang—on Buicks—Charlie Merz (National) and Barney Oldfield who won a 25-mile race on a German Benz. Tragically, the track surface again proved deadly, taking the lives of one driver, two riding mechanics and spectators.
Race starter ‘Pop’ Wagner, representing the sanctioning American Automobile Association, declared that there would be no more races sanctioned by the AAA at the Speedway until problems with the track surface had been fixed. The Detroit News went further, publishing a scathing editorial challenging the future of track racing altogether.
Becoming The Brickyard
Carl Fisher immediately announced that all future races at the Speedway would be cancelled until the racing surface could be improved and additional safety features installed, regardless of cost. Various surfaces were considered and tested before approval was given on September 16, 1909 to resurface the entire track with paving bricks.
The work was completed in a remarkable 63 days according to historian Scott. A total of roughly 3,200,000 bricks were utilized in resurfacing the full 2.5 miles of the Speedway, giving rise to the name that still sets the track apart from every other in the world—The Brickyard.
The management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway planned a full schedule of events for 1910. These included auto races on Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holidays, as well as a 24-hour race in August and hot air balloon races again in August and September.
The three-day May 1910 event was scheduled to include a total of 31 separate races! All of the events were designed for stock chassis. Indianapolis-built Nationals won ten of the events in the hands of multiple drivers.
Both Louis Chevrolet and Bob Burman won again on Buicks. But Ray Harroun and his Marmon was the big winner, taking races of 10 and 50 miles and the featured 200-mile race for the 7-foot high Wheeler-Schebler trophy, which was commissioned from New York jeweler Tiffany at a reported cost of $10,000.
The July 1910 event, also scheduled over three days, included 28 events. Marmon repeated their May victory in the all-important 200 mile race with Joe Dawson in 1st and Ray Harroun in 3rd place. Harroun again led the 200 mile highlight race of the two-day, 20-event September 1910 auto races before both he and team mate Dawson fell out with motor failures, allowing the National team to finish 1-2.
While racing on the new surface proved to be highly successful, crowds for the events dwindled rapidly after the Memorial Day event. From a high of 50,000 spectators on the peak day of the Memorial Day event, attendance fell to 20,000 on July 4th and even fewer for the Labor Day races. The proposed 24-hour race was cancelled during the July 4th meet and the September event was shortened to two days. Was it too much racing, the partners wondered?
Just one day after the Labor Day 1910 event, Carl Fisher announced that racing at the Speedway in 1911 would be limited to one race—at a distance of 500 miles on Memorial Day, for a total purse of $30,000.
The First Indianapolis 500
The distance of the 1911 Memorial Day race was proposed for as long as 1,000 miles, or a duration as long as 24-hours. Both found early favor with manufacturers as a true test and demonstration of their automobiles.
The partners chose the distance of 500 miles, however. A 500-mile race would still provide a significant test of machines and drivers, and would allow spectators to return home in time to enjoy their dinners. The race would take more than six hours to complete.
The first entry for the 1911 Indianapolis Motor Speedway International Sweepstakes 500-Mile Race—as the event was to be called—was received in October 1910 from the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company of Racine, Wisconsin. Case also produced automobiles from 1911-1925, and earned the coveted first starting position for the 1911 500 by virtue of posting the first entry received by the Speedway.
Entries were received from U.S. and prominent European auto manufacturers giving the race a legitimate claim to the ‘International Sweepstakes’ title. Indianapolis automakers were well represented by Marmon, National, Cole and the Ideal Motor Car Company, which was soon to be re-named after the firm’s founder—Harry Stutz. Entries from other Indiana-based manufacturers included Amplex, Apperson, McFarlan and Westcott.
Entries of European-built automobiles were received with nominations for top American drivers who were more familiar with American-style circle track racing. A Benz was entered for 1909 IMS Prest-O-Lite trophy-winner and 1911 Land Speed Record-holder Bob Burman, and a Mercedes for Philadelphia native Spencer Wishart. A trio of Grand Prix Fiats was entered for Americans David Bruce-Brown, Eddie Hearne and Caleb Bragg.
Marmon entered two cars in the 1911 500-mile race, for Ray Harroun and teammate Joe Dawson. While Dawson’s 4-cylinder car had previously raced at the Speedway, Harroun’s was a new 6-cylinder car designed and built by Harroun working with chief engineer Howard Marmon. The car’s narrow, single seat bodywork ended in a pointed tail; with its yellow paint, the car was quickly dubbed the ‘Marmon Wasp’.
The Speedway opened for practice on May 1, which became a Brickyard tradition that lasted for generations. Activities filled the entire month of May.
A total of 46 entries were received. Two of those were not completed in time, and four failed to meet the rudimentary qualifying requirement to hold a speed of 75mph for a quarter mile from a flying start. Trial runs requiring one full lap of the Speedway at over 75mph did not begin until the following year and later evolved into a four lap qualifying procedure.
During practice, competitors soon complained that Harroun would not be able to see other cars overtaking without a riding mechanic and would present a hazard on the track. Although he often denied that he deserved credit for ‘inventing’ the rear view mirror, Harroun did mount a 3” x 8” mirror to metal rods affixed to the cowl of the Marmon Wasp. He later admitted, according to Donald Davidson, “It shook so badly at speed on the bricked surface that (I) was unable to see anything anyway.”
With the large field of 40 cars remaining, Fisher created another innovation for the first 500—the first use of a pace car. Races in the day typically began from a standing start. Recognizing the need to keep 40 cars in line, Fisher and Allison lined up a Stoddard-Dayton touring car on the ‘pole’ position, with the first row of starters lined up beside the pace car.
The race would be 200 laps of the 2.5-mile Speedway—500 miles. The forty starters were lined up in four cars abreast in ten rows.
Finally, at 10:00am on May 30, 1911 an aerial bomb announced to all who were present that it was time to start of the race. The Stoddard-Dayton pace car led the field away from the starting grid and toward—a red flag! In another interesting part of Speedway lore, a red flag was used to start the race presumably because it was thought to be more easily seen by the swarm of speeding cars. Use of a green flag to start the race was not adopted until the 1930s.
As soon as the race started, the partners’ expectations were met. Five different drivers had led the race by lap 20. Johnny Aitken on his National became the first driver to lead the Indianapolis 500, starting from the outside of the front row and leading the first ten miles. Spencer Wishart led the next five laps on the Grand Prix Mercedes, only to be passed by the relatively unknown Fred Belcher on a Knox, who gave up the lead to David Bruce-Brown on one of the Grand Prix Fiats just four laps later. On lap 20, popular Ralph de Palma took over the lead on his New York-built Simplex.
But it was Ray Harroun’s race to lose. Harroun is unfortunately often thought to be a ‘one-time wonder’ as the winner of the first 500. But, as we have seen, he was in fact a wizened veteran sometimes called ‘The Little Professor’, who was as interested in developing racing cars as in driving them. Harroun’s multiple starts and victories in 1909-1910 Speedway races of lengths from five miles to 200 miles gave him a wealth of experience, which he put to good use.
Donald Davidson, again, explained how in previous races at the Speedway and practice throughout May 1911, “Harroun was literally running tire tests in order to determine the best compromise between speed and wear.” By reducing his lap speeds to the minimum qualifying speed of 75mph, Harroun found he could double the distance between tire changes. A relief driver, Cyrus Patschke, was provided to give Harroun a rest during the punishing 500-mile race. But after Harroun returned to the Marmon, he led all but ten laps in the second half of the race.
At the finish, it was Indianapolis’ own Ray Harroun who won the first 500, finishing the 200 laps in six hours and forty-two minutes and averaging 74.60mph for the distance while faster competitors fell by the wayside.