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.
Harry A. Miller was arguably the single most influential individual in the history of American racing. Miller’s machines were finely crafted to an extraordinarily high standard and, even today, are sometimes referred to as ‘jewels’. Two Miller 122s traded to Ettore Bugatti by racer Leon Duray are reported to have provided the inspiration for Bugatti’s successful dohc engines.
Miller historian Mark Dees called the 122 front-drive Miller introduced in 1925 the apogee of Miller’s designs, but he continued to work with supercharging, intercooling, all-wheel drive and a V-16 engine for Indianapolis. The influence of Harry Miller carried on long after his lifetime, in the form of the Offenhauser and, later, Meyer-Drake engines that continued to win at the Speedway until 1976.
Duesenberg and Miller took turns trading Indianapolis 500 victories between 1922 and 1928 before Miller finally prevailed, winning two consecutive races in 1928 and 1929. Miller-powered and Miller-derived Offenhauser-powered cars in both rear-drive and front-drive designs then went on a tear, winning every 500 through the 1930s before Wilbur Shaw’s 1939 victory in a Maserati GP car.
There were other stories in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, of course, but nothing to stand up to the story of Duesenberg and Miller.
For one, several top European grand prix teams showed a brief, intense interest in the Indianapolis 500. The three-car French Ballot team found success at the Speedway, including second and third place finishes in 1920 and 1922. English manufacturer Sunbeam built three new cars for the 1921 race. Four Bugattis started the 1923 500 with European GP drivers including Pierre de Viscaya and Count Louis Zboroski. Mercedes also created a major presence at the 1923 race for European champions Max Sailer, Christian Werner and 1908 French GP winner Christian Lautenschlager.
A notable entry in 1924 was driver Alfred Moss, father of future world champion Sir Stirling Moss, who drove a Fronty-Ford. Moss was studying dentistry at Indiana University at the time.
IMS partners Fisher and Allison, together with real estate developer Lem Trotter—who located the Speedway property in 1909—continued to buy land in the area surrounding the Speedway—outside of the city of Indianapolis. Another of Fisher’s ambitions, according to Speedway historian Donald Davidson, was to build the “world’s first ‘horseless city’.” Whether Fisher accomplished this or not, the surrounding area quickly became known as Speedway City and was incorporated as the town of Speedway, Indiana in 1926.
Yet another account of this era was the story of Eddie Rickenbacker, who became the second owner of the Speedway in 1927. Following his first race at the Speedway with Duesenberg in 1914, Rickenbacker drove for Maxwell and, when Maxwell withdrew from racing, brought the availability of the former Maxwell assets to the attention of Carl Fisher and James Allison who formed the Prest-O-Light Racing Team as a second ‘house team’ in 1916.
Rickenbacker distinguished himself as a flyer in WWI and returned home as a national hero, America’s top ace and recipient of the Medal of Honor. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who would later become chairman of Eastern Airlines, took out a loan from friends in 1927 to purchase the Speedway. His presence enhanced the prestige of the Indianapolis 500 and his leadership carried the Speedway through the difficult years of the Depression.
The Junk Formula and the Beginning of Sponsorship
The so-called ‘junk formula’ began in 1930 as a way of luring automobile manufacturers back to the Speedway. The domination of Duesenberg and Miller had virtually driven manufacturers from the 500-mile race, and starting fields from 1920 to 1926 totaled as few as 22 cars. Eddie Rickenbacker led development of the new rules that—most importantly—increased engine size from 91 cu. in. of the supercharged Miller and Duesenberg thoroughbreds to 366 cu. in., and eliminated the use of supercharging. Development of the new rules was ongoing throughout 1928 and the rules were approved for the 1930 racing season.
It was the response to the new rules, not the intent, that gave the formula its disparaging name. Manufacturers Studebaker and Ford designed and built teams of cars for the new rules. Cummins built a well-engineered racer that placed a Cummins diesel engine in a Duesenberg chassis and finished the 1931 500-mile race without a single stop. A larger number of ‘specials’, however, were finished to widely differing levels of specification utilizing production chassis or engines.
Miller-powered cars continued their winning way with seven more victories between 1930-1938; two more 500s were won by engines created by former Miller draftsman Fred Offenhauser. The dominance was so complete that 28 of the 33 starters in the 1936 500 were behind Miller or Offy powerplants. Louie Meyer became the first three-time 500 winner in the same race.
The intended benefit of the new rules was to spur production-based entries. A large variety of engines were raced at the Speedway in the 1930s including Studebaker, Ford, Hudson, Reo, Chrysler, Buick, Hupmobile, Graham, Packard and others. These engines found their way into an equally varied number of chassis. More and more, however, Speedway cars were associated with the name of the mechanic who created or maintained them rather than with the names of manufacturers in earlier times.
Auto racing sponsorship also appeared during this time. While teams were previously associated with the names of manufacturers, by the mid-1930s the majority began to be identified with sponsors. Wonder Bread, Stokley’s Foods and Barbasol shaving cream were among early Indianapolis 500 sponsors, along with oil companies and other auto-related products. Similar sponsorship didn’t come into Formula 1 before the late 1960s.
In spite of the fact that the rules introduced in 1930 did not bring about the desired re-entry of automobile manufacturers to the Speedway, the rules did foster innovation. In addition to entries powered by diesel (Cummins), driven by front-wheel drive (Miller-Ford) or all-wheel drive (Four Wheel Drive Auto Company), other advances included aerodynamics, engine placement and engine configuration.
Harry Miller’s last creation for the Speedway was a tour de force, although it was never successful. The project began with funding from Gulf Oil Company. Miller created three highly sophisticated rear-engine, supercharged six-cylinder racers with four-wheel drive. The concept and workmanship were brilliant and predicted several successful Speedway designs by decades but the cars were never fully developed. One car qualified in 1939, and two in 1941. One car raced again in 1946 and 1947 entered as the Preston Tucker Special.
A further result of the rules was to see a return of European entries to the 500-mile race. These were no longer the manufacturers’ teams of earlier times, but privately entered cars that were often underperforming grand prix cars in the face of the 1930s GP dominance by the German Silver Arrows teams. Alfa Romeos entered in 1937 and 1938 led to Wilbur Shaw’s success with an Maserati 8CTF with which he won the 1939 and 1940 races handily and was leading the 1941 race before a wheel broke, costing Shaw a record third-straight 500 victory.
A New Dawn
In what is still only the second sale in the track’s history—now more than 100 years—ownership of the Speedway passed into the hands of Terre Haute, Indiana businessman Anton ‘Tony’ Hulman in late 1945. Preparations began immediately to restore the Speedway from four years of wartime neglect in time to stage a 500-mile race in May 1946. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway once more presented a metaphor for a world starting over. Rebuilding began in earnest and continued right up to race day. Once undergrowth that claimed the track and infield was cleared away and rotting infrastructure had been torn down, participants and fans were astonished to see the progress made in little more than six months. And the Speedway welcomed a rush of European refugees.
A total of 56 entries poured in for the renewed Memorial Day classic. Among them were a number of pre-war grand prix machines and drivers, some that had found themselves in the U.S. when fighting broke out in Europe in 1939. Tazio Nuvolari and Luigi Villoresi were entered in a pair of Maseratis. Rudi Carracciola was entered in one of the 1.5-liter Mercedes 165s built for the pre-war Tripoli GP. Achille Varzi was nominated to drive another Maserati, while Harry O’Reilly Schell entered three Maseratis and an Alfa Romeo. Zora Arkus-Duntov, who worked in New York throughout the war, was entered with a Talbot.
Of these only Villoresi qualified, although another seven Maseratis and Alfa Romeos qualified for the 1946 Indianapolis 500 driven by American drivers.
But it was clear from the first day of 1946 qualifications that the balance of power had shifted across the Atlantic. While Mauri Rose sat on the pole for the 1941 500 in a Maserati, the 1946 pole sitter was Ralph Hepburn with a supercharged American Novi V-8 in a front-drive (fwd) chassis built by Californian Frank Kurtis. Hepburn’s qualifying speed broke the Speedway track record by nearly four miles per hour, after a layoff of five years!
The next period in Indianapolis 500 history would last twenty years and would be characterized by an era American ingenuity, bravery and record-breaking speeds.
The Offy Roadsters
Frank Kurtis was one of a number of enormously talented fabricators who learned their craft in Southern California. Kurtis was already building successful midget racing cars when he got his first taste of the Indianapolis 500 in 1939. In the years immediately following WWII, Frank Kurtis changed the history of the Indianapolis 500.
The proliferation of new chassis designs fostered by the 1930 rules came from a wide range of individual thought. Frank Kurtis changed that almost single-handedly, and ushered in the era of the Indy Roadster.
The Ross Page Kurtis first raced at the Speedway in 1946 has been called “the proto roadster” by historian Mark Dees. The chassis was built from high-strength aircraft-quality tubing in place of earlier channel-section frames. Other Kurtis ideas, including an offset driveline that allowed the driver to be seated lower in the car, also improved the car’s handling. Kurtis designed and constructed a similar chassis for the 1946 track record-breaking Novi driven by Ralph Hepburn. The car Kurtis built for car owner Howard Keck and that was driven by Bill Vukovich beginning in 1952 is acknowledged as the first Indianapolis-type Roadster, incorporating all of the elements of the design.
Other highly original designs were also created in the early post-war years. The Fageol Twin Coach Special powered by two Offy midget engines—front and rear—was the second fastest qualifier in 1946. The fwd Blue Crown Specials built by Emil Deidt became the first team in Indianapolis 500 history to win three consecutive races in 1947-1949, and carried Mauri Rose to his record-tying 3rd Indianapolis 500 victory in 1948. But none equaled the elan of the rear-engine Rounds Rocket from 1949, one of the most beautifully finished cars ever not to qualify at the Speedway.
Kurtis chassis were built in series production, and in short order Kurtis cars dominated Indianapolis 500 starting lineups like no one had done in decades. Two Kurtis chassis started the 1946 race. Kurtis cars won six-straight 500s from 1950 to 1955 and 23 Kurtis cars started the 1956 500, but their influence was even greater. Talented mechanics like A.J. Watson, George Silah, Ernie Trevis and George Bignotti adapted their own ideas to Kurtis’ innovation. Roadsters built by these men and others won every Indianapolis 500 through 1964.
The first 4-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt won his first two Speedway victories in Roadsters, including the 1964 race that was the last Indianapolis 500 to be won by a Roadster.
Engine choices in this era were equally narrowly focused. The four-cylinder dohc engine originally designed by Harry Miller and later refined by Fred Offenhauser was the only sure thing. An ‘Offy’ won for the first time in 1935, and again in 1937 and 1941. Beginning in 1947, the Offenhauser engine powered every Indianapolis 500-winning car for 18 consecutive years prior to 1965.
The so-called ‘foreign invasion’ began coincidentally with the much-anticipated 50th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 in 1961. World Champion Jack Brabham brought a Cooper-Climax grand prix car to the Speedway in 1961, qualified easily and finished 9th. Although Brabham’s race speed was nearly 5 mph slower than A.J. Foyt’s winning speed, the Cooper’s light weight and lower consumption of fuel and tires showed that the anvil-strong, but heavy Roadsters could be beaten.
Dan Gurney, Colin Chapman and Jim Clark deserve much of the credit for exploiting the opportunity. Gurney drove a Buick-powered rear-engine car designed by Mickey Thompson at the Speedway in 1962. Little-known today, Chapman and Clark also practiced at the Speedway in 1962 with a Lotus-Climax GP car although no attempt was made to qualify. Gurney, Chapman and Clark returned together in 1963 with support from the Ford Motor Company and a pair of purpose-built Lotus Indy cars powered by Ford V-8s.
The history of the Indianapolis 500 was rewritten in just three years—as Clark’s Lotus-Ford threatened in 1963, led convincingly in 1964 and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965. Extraordinarily, the 500 field included only one front-engine roadster by just the following year. The 1966 500-mile race also included three World Champions—Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, who all led the race.
American-built chassis—particularly Dan Gurney’s Eagles—soon supplanted European competitors, but the introduction of the first McLaren-Offy to the Speedway in 1970 led to a long rivalry between the two top car builders.
An engine war raged, as well. After racing a stock-block 260 cu. in. V-8 in 1963, Ford introduced a sophisticated dohc V-8 in 1964 that quickly replaced the venerable Offenhauser just as quickly as the Roadsters had been dispatched. After giving away three races to Ford, Offenhauser—now built by Meyer-Drake—came back with a turbocharged engine that beat all comers. Offys finished in eight of the Top Ten positions in 1968. Ford answered with the same, and took back the next three races with a turbocharged four-cam Ford. Then beginning with Mark Donohue’s victory in 1972, the re-born turbo-Offy won five-straight 500s before introduction of an Indy version of the Cosworth V-8, originally designed for Formula 1, made the competition academic.
No team in history has been as successful at the Speedway as Penske Racing. Mark Donohue’s victory in the 1972 Indianapolis 500 marked Roger Penske’s first victory at the Speedway as a car owner. Nearly 40 years later—prior to the 2011 500—Penske Racing has won a record 15 Indianapolis 500s and won the pole position another 15 times. Penske Racing is only the second team in Speedway history to win three consecutive 500s, in 2001-2002-2003, tying a record set by Lou Moore’s Blue Crown Spark Plug team more than 50 years earlier.
An invitation to drive for Penske Racing is as close as a driver will ever come to a guaranteed victory at Indianapolis. Penske Racing’s Indianapolis 500-winners have included Donohue, Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Sr, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr and Helio Castroneves. Rick Mears became a four-time 500 winner, all with Penske. And Al Unser Sr. won his record-tying 4th 500 victory with Penske Racing. Helio Castroneves became the latest 3-time winner in 500 history with Penske, and the only driver with an active chance to become a four-time winner.
In 1978, Penske revealed a shrewd strategy—one, again, that reflected the course of a changing nation where industries once dominated by America were increasingly giving way to foreign competition.
Penske Racing converted its PC4-Cosworth Formula 1 car, built in the team’s Poole, England facility, into the PC6 Indy car in 1978. The car was an immediate success, finishing 2nd in 1978 and giving Rick Mears his first 500 victory in 1979. The success of the Penske-Cosworth led the way for British manufacturers March and Lola at the Speedway. The last American-built car to win the Indianapolis 500 was the Patrick Wildcat—an Eagle copy—driven by Gordon Johncock in 1982.
Penske Racing won two more 500s with the Penske chassis before adopting the March car to win four-out-of-five 500s in the mid-80s. Then, as the competition caught up, Penske revealed another surprise. Roger Penske formed a partnership with Chevrolet and former Cosworth engineers Mario Illian and Paul Morgan to create the Ilmore V-8 that raced at Indianapolis as the Chevrolet Indy engine in a new Penske chassis.
Another three-out-of-four victories for Penske Racing came between 1988-1991. And then Roger Penske’s bombshell: Penske Racing arrived at the Speedway in May 1994 with a Mercedes-Benz stock-block engine developed in secrecy with Ilmore. Al Unser Jr absolutely shattered the competition, starting on the pole and winning the race easily.
In more recent years, Helio Castroneves led the Penske Racing three-race sweep from 2001-2003, driving to two victories and creating a new Speedway tradition of climbing the main straight catch fence, then won again in 2009. No team in Indianapolis 500 history has been more successful, or for a longer period of time.