1911 Benz 150HP Grand Prix at Indy 500 Museum

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum – Profile

By Leigh Dorrington

The history of the Indianapolis 500 fills one of the most remarkable galleries in all of racing.

Dan Weldon‘s 2011 race-winning car soon will join this collection—the most exclusive in racing—a collection of Indianapolis 500-winning automobiles. Other significant automobiles are displayed separately.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum is located in the Speedway infield between Turns One and Two and attracts visitors from around the world throughout the year. Exhibits change and a special exhibition was staged during the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500. But a visit to the museum shortly before the 2011 500 revealed the extraordinary attraction of this very special place.

Visitors enter the museum and turn left—of course—entering a room comparable to a Crown Room, where the jewel-like creations of Harry Miller are displayed. Miller-designed cars and engines traded 500 victories with Duesenberg in the 1920s, but absolutely dominated the race in the 1930s. Historian Griffith Borgeson described Miller’s ‘preoccupation’ with esthetics, which are displayed in the extraordinary machines created by Miller and built by long-time Miller superintendent Fred Offenhauser.

A.J. Foyt’s 1967 and 1977 Indianapolis 500-winning Coyote-Fords share this gallery against a backdrop of original Gasoline Alley garages, saved when new concrete garages were built. Inside one of the original garages is the George Silah’s ‘lay-down’ Offy Roadster with its engine placed on its side to cheat the wind with a lower profile, driven to back-to-back 500 victories in 1956 and 1957 by Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan. Nearby are the Kuzma and Watson Offy Roadsters driven to victory by Bryan and Jim Rathmann in the 1957-58 “Race of Two Worlds” at Monza.

Rear-drive and Front-drive Millers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
Rear-drive and Front-drive Millers

Turning around, visitors stand face-to-face with a legendary supercharged Novi V-8 powered racer—the loudest, fastest in its day and arguably most popular car in Speedway history. Early Novi V-8s were mounted in chassis created by Frank Kurtis, who is credited with designing the first Indy Roadster driven by Bill Vukovich in 1953. Beside the Novi is a Cummins diesel; also in a Kurtis chassis and looking not a little like a Ferrari 500, one of four successful Cummins-powered entries in 1931, 1934, 1950 and in 1952 when the Cummins diesel entry was the fastest car in the 500.

The little-known history of the inconspicuous looking yellow car nearby is hidden under its seldom-opened hood. The Sampson ‘16’ Special was built by Myron Stevens to be driven by Bob Swanson in 1939-40. The car’s true significance is that it was built around the unique 183 cu. in. 16-cylinder Miller engine designed and built by Frank Lockhart for the Stutz Blackhawk Special and his fatal attempt on the Land Speed Record at Daytona Beach in 1927.

Front-Engine Champions

Stepping through a doorway, a glance to the right reveals both the 1961 and 1964 Watson-Offy Roadsters that carried A. J. Foyt to the first two of his record four Indianapolis 500 victories. But a glance in the other direction is heart stopping. There, a line of early race cars illustrates every era in front-engine history at the Speedway.

Front-engine Indianapolis 500 Champions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
Front-engine Indianapolis 500 Champions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum

Ray Harroun’s 1911 race-winning Marmon Wasp, built in Indianapolis just a few miles away from the Speedway, typically enjoys pride of place. The National driven to victory by Joe Dawson in 1912 remained the last American-built car to win the 500 until 1920, and the last stock-chassis car ever to win at the Speedway.

Advances at the Speedway are traced through the silent line. A 1914 Delage driven to victory by René Thomas represents an era bracketing WWI when French-built cars dominated the Speedway. Duesenberg and Miller traded victories throughout the 1920s, including Jimmy Murphy’s 1922-winning Duesenberg powered by a Miller 8-cylinder engine. The front-drive 1932 Miller-Hartz is typical of a decade when Miller-engine cars continued to dominate but a proliferation of new chassis emerged from builders like Harry Hartz, Myron Stevens, ‘Curley’ Wetroth and others.

Marmon Wasp - 1911 Indianapolis 500 Winner
Marmon Wasp, Winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500 Winner

American-built cars won the 500 for nineteen-straight years from 1920-1938 before Wilbur Shaw won back-to-back victories in the Mike Boyle-entered Maserati 8CTF in 1939-40. Shaw was also leading the race convincingly in 1941 when a wheel broke. Shaw’s success drew a large number of pre-war grand prix cars to the first post-war 500 in 1946, but none were remotely as successful.

The Novi, front-drive Blue Crown Specials and Cummins diesels were typical of new thinking that dominated the 500 from 1946-1964. The Belanger #99 that won the 1951 500 also represents the old-style ‘dirt cars’ from a time when the Speedway was the only paved track on the Championship Trail. Following Lee Wallard’s victory in the 500, Tony Bettenhausen drove the car to eight wins in the remaining twelve races of 1951. But it was the newer Kurtis-Kraft, Watson and other Roadster chassis powered by the venerable Offenhauser engine—descended from Harry Miller’s original design—that won the 500 year after year.

The Speedway collection includes the Kurtis-Offy Fuel Injection Special driven by Bill Vukovich to 500 victories in 1953-54. Other race-winning Roadsters on display include the 1955 John Zink Special Kurtis-Offy driven by Bob Sweikert for crew chief A.J. Watson, whose own cars won six of the next nine Indianapolis 500s. Parnelli Jones’ #98, ‘Old Calhoun’, set the first 150mph lap in Speedway history in 1962 and won the 1963 500 by beating Jim Clark’s Lotus-Ford.

Parnelli Jones Willard Battery Special was the first 150 mph qualifier and 1963 Indy 500 winner
Parnelli Jones' #98 was the first 150 mph qualifier and 1963 Indy 500 winner

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  1. Great write-up.  Why have I not toured the Museum in all the years I’ve gone to the 500?  This article makes me feel like I just visited.  I’ll go next time I’m in Indianapolis!

  2. When I visited in July, 2012, the only cars on display were Indy racers. However, my primary interest was with the European cars(Ferrari, Mercedes, etc.)and the Corvette. Therefor, my visit was largely a waste of time as many cars claimed to be on permanent exhibit were missing. I would strongly recommend anyone planning to visit call ahead to confirm what’s on display at any given time.

  3. Well done article on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. It’s a great tour of past victories, and more.
    BTW, the #9 car in the original garage was built by George Salih (sp).

  4. My father was a great fan and attendee of the Indy 500, in early 1900’s.
    I have his album of clippings from newspapers, quite interesting and wondered in the Museum was interested.
    27th Indy, Shaw the winner?