Marmom Wasp at 1911 Indy 500

History of the Indianapolis 500 – Part One

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.

Original Speedway Layout
Original Speedway Layout

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.

Speedway Model being inspected by driver Lewis Strang
Speedway Model being inspected by driver Lewis Strang
Grading the Indianapolis Speedway
Grading the Speedway
Carl Fisher inspecting the Indianapolis Speedway in 1909
Carl Fisher inspecting the Speedway in 1909

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.

Balloon Races, June 1909
Balloon Races, June 1909
National Motorcycle Race Meet, August 1909
National Motorcycle Race Meet, August 1909

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.

Louis Schwitzer (center)
Louis Schwitzer (center)

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.

Louis Chevrolet on Buick
Louis Chevrolet on Buick
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.

1911 Indianapolis 500 Program
1911 Indianapolis 500 Program
1911 Indianapolis 500 Ticket
1911 Indianapolis 500 Ticket
1911 Indianapolis 500 Credential
1911 Indianapolis 500 Credential

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Show Comments (5)

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  1. Excellent history, including both the significant and the (supposedly) trivial. The later makes even better reading than the former. For me, anyway.
    I had to check.
    Carl Fisher was not one of the Fisher Body brothers.
    But James Allison’s original hot rod firm, after his death, was bought by those Fisher brothers. The Fishers soon sold it to GM, where the Allison Division built and designed the V-1710 12-cyl. engine used in the WWII P-38, P-39, P-40, and P-51A. After WWII, their turbojet and turboprop engines were widely used, many still.
    GM sold Allison Gas Turbine Division to Rolls-Royce in 1995. They sold Allison Transmission Division in 2007.

  2. Are there any period automobile experts out there?

    That photo above of “Carl Fisher racing in Chicago” gives me a problem about the caption … there’s traffic in the road behind him going the other way and Fisher’s car has no visible brakes; there’s something a bit incomplete about that engine, too, or did they have air cooled straight eights in those days? With zero exhaust stubs? To me, the picture is not a a racing photo but a pose taken while the car was being built up.

    This is a really interesting history, and gives an insight into all the ideas and the work that go into the launch of such a project.

    1. The car is on a racetrack.It shares it with a 1904 expensive auto and another race car.There are
      enough levers on the car to support brakes(probably acting on the driveline).The picture is proof that
      such a race car existed(though we can question at what level). Premier of Indianapolis(1902-1925),
      raced air-cooled cars during the picture’s time frame.Could this be one?I can’t imagine what more would
      be needed to fire this one up.Minimal was the creed of the day.Premier was big on driveshafts and this
      car has one(most racers had chain-drive at the time).

  3. Carl Fisher’s Prest-O-Lite company did not manufacture acetylene headlamps.Many companies
    such as Gray & Davis,Solar,E % J, Castle,Rushmore,and others,competed for manufacturers
    business. The Prest-O-Lite Co. had a corner on tanks containing compressed acetylene.They
    were commonly mounted on running boards,but could be placed elsewhere.Most of the applications
    were after-market.They were not commonly found on inexpensive autos.I’m a little fuzzy about
    which autos offered them for standard equipment(not too many items were,as tops and windshields
    were extras on most to 1912).It’s rare to see an acetylene generator on a luxury car after 1908.Cars
    switched to electric headlamps the year he sold his company.Anybody who had to clean the caked
    carbide out of their acetylene generator(like a miner’s lamp he attached to his helmet generated its own
    gas and had to be cleaned),would have been thankful to Carl Fisher for his easy to use,trade it in for
    a filled one,acetylene tank!

  4. Text refers to “hot air balloons”, but photograph is of sealed gasbags filled with gas less dense than air at same temperature, I.e. of lower average molecular weight, e.g. H & He. Thanks for excellent magazine from a humble Alfa, MG, Triumph & Jag owner.