Indianapolis 500 Retrospective – Dawn of the Speedway

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the brainchild of Carl Graham Fisher, described in the press in later years as one of the greatest promoters of his time; Fisher was born in Greensberg Indiana in 1874. He left school at the age of 12, carrying out several small jobs within the local area before finding success as a bicycle manufacturer and dealer within his own town, making it a fairly successful early business venture for himself and his family.

Following this came the start of Fisher’s fortune. In 1904, he and James Allison, who would be his partner on the development of IMS, formed the Prest-O-Lite company, a company that among other automotive products specialised in the development of headlights for cars. The company, whilst under the ownership of Fisher, would sponsor early races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with Allison and Fisher selling the company for $9 million in 1911.

In 1909, Fisher, Allison and associates began construction on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The facility initially was planned to be much larger, and involving an infield course, before settling on the eventual concept of a 2.5-mile oval. It featured some early events including a promotional event with hot air balloons, motorcycle racing and a 24-hour automobile race.

The first automobile race, however on the speedway would be rather disastrous, the surface was made of crushed stone, drivers including Louis Chevrolet, then one of the most prominent drivers in the United States, complained at the terrible conditions with dust and rocks thrown up at drivers, a new surface was required, and that surface was of course, paving the facility with thousands of bricks. The Brickyard was born!

A problem occurred, though. Following the 1910 races at the Speedway which featured as part of the AAA championship trail, a championship which pre-dated the speedway, having had races run, albeit not in a structured order since 1902, the Speedway just wasn’t bringing in the numbers which Fisher had envisioned in the development of his automobile proving ground.

The program cover for the 1911 and 1912 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
The program cover for the 1911 and 1912 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo

The solution was to develop a race between 300 and 500 miles in length, a real test of the automobile, and a unique event for the great promoter himself, Carl Fisher to sell. In 1911, the first ever Indianapolis 500 Mile International Sweepstakes where held.

The race would gather great attention from the motorsport world of the day. Drivers including Ralph DePalma and Arthur Chevrolet would compete for the honour of winning the race, along with ride on mechanics, In 1911, the presence of a ride on mechanic was not mandatory, something which Ray Harroun, who had engineered his own Marmon Wasp would exploit with the addition of his innovative rear mirror, which is widely regarded as the first of its kind to be affixed to a car in existence.

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo

Harroun was successful before his victory at Indianapolis in racing circles, having claimed numerous AAA trial victories throughout 1910, but it is the Indianapolis 500 which he is most remembered for, the last race before his retirement as a driver. He continued engineering cars for Marmon and later Marmon Maxwell until retirement. He died on the 19th of January 1968 in Anderson, Indiana.

The event and the speedway had proved itself very successful for Fisher, and whilst he would own and control the Speedway for a number of years to come, other projects where on the immediate horizon. In 1912, Fisher would conceive the plan to build the Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast route through the United States of America, the project would hit several issues along the way, however with some of Fisher’s own money contributing to the project alongside with State funds, construction was finally completed in 1926.

Fisher would go on to build a number of other highway construction projects before an ambitious project to turn the swamplands of Miami into a beach area for the rich and famous would add to his vast fortune. Fisher would then attempt to replicate the style in Upstate New York, with ill-timing. The Great Depression hit, and Fisher had to pay off creditors, leaving him practically broke, compared to the great wealth he had accustomed over the years. He died in July, 1939 in Miami, Florida, aged 65. Among the mourners, where Walter P. Chrysler, Barney Oldfield and William K Vandebilt II, confirming the impact which Fisher had on the automobile world.

The 1912 running of the race would be a classic. Ralph DePalma would dominate most of the race, with 24 qualifying. Unfortunately for the Italian-American driving a Mercedes, the car would give up on him with a five lap lead, leaving Indiana local Koe Dawson to claim victory in one of his three attempts at the Speedway. The average speed of the 1912 running was 78.719 mph, some four mph’s faster than Harroun’s Wasp run in 1911.

1914 race winner Rene Thomas in his Delage. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
1914 race winner Rene Thomas in his Delage. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo

1913 would see the first non-American winner, as the French invasion began at the Speedway. The advanced technology seen in Europe by Fisher was a reason for his desire to build a proving ground to advance US automobile technology. Peugeot and Delege would claim victories in 1913 and 1914, respectively. Jules Goux driving for the factory Peugeot team, led the race on multiple occasions throughout 1913, whilst grand prix racing team, Delege would claim victory with Rene Thomas at the wheel in 1914.

Ralph DePalma finally won at Indianapolis in 1915, racing for Mercedes once again. The race was shortened in 1916 to 300 miles due to various factors including the intensification of World War I ravaging Europe. The race would see Dario Resta, the first British winner, claiming victory in a Peugeot.

Racing would cease almost entirely at Indianapolis for 1917 and 1918 due to World War I. When racing resumed in 1919 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, De Palma would lead, but it would be Howdy Wilcox and Peugeot which would claim the victory.

The 1920’s saw a new era at the speedway, French driver Gaston Chevrolet and his Frontenac company, a company established ironically to service Ford Model T’s would claim the 1920 running. Frontenac would return for 1921. The teams car owner Louis Chevrolet fielding a car for Tommy Milton, with Milton claiming his first victory.

The remainder of the decade and the era in which Fisher presided over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be a battle between Dussenberg and Miller for supremacy at the Speedway. The average speed had climbed from 74.58 mph with the Marmon Wasp in 1911, to 97.545 mph when George Souders took his Dussenberg to victory in 1927.

The proving ground concept therefore that Fisher had set out to achieve was a triumph, he’d sell the speedway in 1928 to WWI pilot ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, and a new era at the Speedway would begin.

In the next installment of our Indianapolis 500 retrospective, we will explore the Rickenbacker era – developments at the speedway, the effects of wartime on the speedway and the start of the Hulman era.

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