The first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, won by Ray Harroun on the Indianapolis-built Marmon ‘Wasp’, began one of the longest sporting traditions in the world. And soon the whole world was watching. The history of the race reflects a century—The American Century—that defined a nation growing into its potential.
“The Speedway’, as it simply came to be known, was built on farmland near Crawfordsville Road five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. The property the Speedway was constructed on was connected to the city by a rail line that ran directly to Union Station in the center of Indianapolis. Reports of the first 500-mile race declared that 80,000 spectators attended, and estimated that 75,000 of those arrived by rail—this in a time when many people never travelled farther than ten miles from their homes in a lifetime.
The Midwestern state of Indiana was already a leader in automobile production and Indianapolis was its hub. With the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the success of the first ‘500’, the city found its pride.
The story of the Speedway and of the Indianapolis 500 is also the story of the individuals who made their mark—coming from backgrounds as varied as the nation itself to create the history.
The results of the races have been well documented. This is the story.
The Pre-War Years
Founders Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. ‘Pop’ Wagner, the Starter for the first 500, was hired as the Speedway’s first general manager. Together they polished the stone that became known as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
While the first 500 in 1911 established the race, many famous traditions didn’t come about until later, including four-lap qualifying, the starting line-up of eleven rows of three cars and the traditional drink of milk in Victory Lane. Even the Borg-Warner Trophy that has become a worldwide symbol of the Indianapolis 500 wasn’t presented before 1936.
Ray Harroun, winner of the first 500 in 1911 for Marmon, continued to work as an engineer at Marmon and then with the Maxwell race team. Harroun briefly became an automobile manufacturer himself, with the Harroun Motor Company that built automobiles between 1917-1922.
An American car and driver—the Indianapolis-built National driven by Joe Dawson—won the 500 in 1912, but only after Italian-born Ralph De Palma’s Mercedes failed with just one lap to go after leading 197 laps of the 200-lap race. That scene neatly summed up the order of the automobile industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. Europeans were innovators and Americans were imitators. But that would change.
Along with the German Mercedes and Benz (separate manufacturers before combining in 1926), the earliest development of the automobile came from France. Peugeot is credited with successfully developing the first double overhead camshaft (dohc) engine for their 1912 Grand Prix racer—still the design standard a century later. French Peugeot and Delage entries, with Mercedes, dominated every Indianapolis 500 between 1913-1920.
The most successful American entries in the face of this first ‘foreign invasion’ were Stutz and Mercer. Stutz, in particular, enjoyed Top Five finishes in four of the next five 500s with a crack team that became known as the White Squadron as they raced around the country.
Dwindling entries for the 500 lead Speedway management to take the unusual step of creating a ‘house team’ in 1916. The Indianapolis Speedway Team Company was formed by Fisher and Allison and bought two of the conquering Peugeots. The Speedway Team also commissioned three Peugeot copies built by the Indianapolis-based Premier Motor Company.
In spite of these efforts, however, the 1916 Indianapolis 500 started only 21 cars, the fewest in race history—and was limited to 300 miles, the shortest in race history.
Chevrolet, Duesenberg and Miller
The aftermath of WWI saw the establishment of a new order. America for the first time found itself on the world stage, and proved it was ready.
An American, Howdy Wilcox, won the first post-war race in 1919—patriotically called the Liberty Sweep Stakes—driving one of the Speedway Team’s Peugeots. He was followed by 1913-winner Jules Goux on another team Peugeot, this one with an Indianapolis-built motor to replace the worn-out Peugeot engine. Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson seized on this moment in his Official History of the Indianapolis 500 written with Rick Shaffer, pointing out that the Speedway Team’s well-equipped race shop soon began taking engineering assignments and government contracts, eventually becoming Allison Engineering and a major defense contractor, later a division of General Motors.
Twenty-three of the 33 starters in the 1919 race were American built, plus the Premier-engined Peugeot finishing second and an American-built Mercedes copy. No fewer than seven Duesenbergs started the race and a Miller, entered by Barney Oldfield and driven by Roscoe Sarles, finished inauspiciously in 33rd place.
Duesenberg and Miller became names that would dominate the Indianapolis 500 for the first half century of the race. But not before a French-named car driven by Swiss-born brothers whose Americanized name would become even more famous than the Indianapolis 500 itself.
Louis Chevrolet founded the car company bearing his name in 1911 with backing from William C. Durant, the founder of General Motors. After falling out with Durant, Chevrolet founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation with his brothers Arthur and Gaston in 1916. In addition to his work with Frontenac, Louis Chevrolet was working by 1918 as a consulting engineer for the Monroe automobile built in Indianapolis. This led to a commission to build seven cars for the 500-mile race to promote both Frontenac and Monroe.
Four Frontenacs raced in the 1919 Liberty Sweep Stakes, led by Louis Chevrolet who finished 7th. Gaston Chevrolet won the 1920 Indianapolis 500 driving an identical Monroe. When Tommy Milton won the 1921 500 with a Frontenac, Louis Chevrolet became the first designer to win two Indianapolis 500s.
Brothers Fred and August Duesenberg were German-born but raised in Iowa. The first Duesenberg-built car to race in the 500 was entered as a Mason in 1913, and finished 9th. Eddie Rickenbaker drove the first car entered in the Indianapolis 500 with the Duesenberg name to a 10th place finish in 1914. Duesenbergs began to swell Indianapolis 500 entries, including a second place finish in 1916.
Duesenberg returned to the Speedway in 1919 with seven entries—nearly a third of the American cars—and won the 500 for the first time in 1922. The winning driver was Jimmy Murphy, already famous as the winner of the 1921 French GP with an American-built Duesenberg. The Indianapolis-winning car was the same automobile, but with a newly designed Miller engine commissioned by Murphy.