Indianapolis 500 Retrospective – The Hulman Era

With the Speedway for sale, it would be with the persuasion of Wilber Shaw that Tony Hulman would not only save the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, buying it for $750,000, but turning it from a regional event into a world renowned event, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. By this time, however, the Speedway had fallen into a desperate state of disrepair.

According to stories of the time, Hulman couldn’t quite understand why anyone would come out and watch a race over a period of days, but once he realised the business potential in the venture, he wanted a race organised over a few weeks time. After much rebuilding, Speedway was reopened in 1946, drawing a 150,000 people to the 30th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. The Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once again a success.

A new control tower replaced the original Pagoda at IMS. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
A new control tower replaced the original Pagoda at IMS. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Hulman would make huge facility changes during his tenure. The grandstands would be rebuilt and re-modeled, a new control building would be developed, and the radio coverage would be brought in-house. After 1950, the Mutual Broadcasting Corporation increased its rates and the race had to be quickly organised to be broadcast on local radio after negotiations with Shaw. For 1951, Shaw would launch the Indianapolis 500 Radio Network with Sid Collins as “The Voice of the 500,” who had replaced Bill Slater in 1950.

Television would come to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, from 1948, with local broadcasts, before it was decided to black out the local TV broadcast, an act which continues to today in the Indianapolis area, until a tape delay later in the day.

The revolution came in the style of cars at Indianapolis, the 50’s started with the end of an era for the pre-war style of car, and the birth of the Roadsters. During the 1950’s, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race served as a round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Although very few F1 drivers ever competed, it did see Troy Ruttman become the youngest winner of an F1 race at 22 in 1952 at Indianapolis, a record unbeaten until recent years when F1 drivers have historically started younger in racing, as evident in recent weeks.

Kurtis Kraft dominated the roadster era, and made them into a marque that went down in not only Indianapolis history, when partnered with Offy engines during this era, but also in F1 history by the 500 being a part of the world championship. They won at Indy every year, as the field was almost full of them, whilst also counting towards the Championship Trial, which AAA still sanctioned. After the 1955 Le Mans disaster, AAA stopped sanctioning auto racing events which led to the the start of the Hulman-ran USAC era from 1956, placing the Indianapolis 500 and the Championship Trial for the first time under the same Hulman control, adding to the strength of the era for the series in north America, and making a unified stable championship.

Parnelli Jones with car owner J.C. Agajanian and crew in Victory Circle after winning the 1963 Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
Parnelli Jones with car owner J.C. Agajanian and crew in Victory Circle after winning the 1963 Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
The 60’s would bring a new era to the Speedway. Whilst the early 60’s where still dominated by the roadsters, a new style of car was just on the horizon. AJ Foyt won the first of his four races in a roadster in 1961. Parnelli Jones would break the track record in 1962 at over 150 mph. The Jalopy Racer from Arkansas (Jones) became a national hero, winning in 1963, but it was under controversial circumstances. Lotus had arrived with the revolutionary rear-engined Ford-powered Lotus 29, and was second when Parnelli’s car started leaking oil. The officials decided that the oil leak was not severe enough to disqualify Jones, much to the annoyance of Colin Chapman.

Whilst it was disappointing for Lotus, it did signal the end of the front engine roadsters. Lotus and rear engine race cars where the way forward for the Speedway. That was evident by the pace and the fact Clark had come 2nd in his first race. It would take until 1965, for Lotus to win with Clark, and therefore the roadsters got some last hurrahs but it was basically the end of the era.

Yes, the style has changed but the core idea of what Chapman and Clark took in 1965 with rear engine, open wheel cars with wings is the formula we still see today even if it has evolved or devolved dependent on your viewpoint. Beginning in 1965, television’s impact would be really felt on the Hulman Era of the Speedway, with ABC’s wide world of sports covering the event every year. In 1966, Lotus would return to the Speedway with Graham Hill taking victory in his rookie year.

1967 saw the American fight back, with AJ Foyt claiming his third victory, his first in his own build rear-engined Coyote. The last ever roadster in the race was driven by Jim Hurbitise in 1968. It would fail to finish, whilst turbine cars would fail to finish, and it would be Bobby Unser in his Offenhauser who would claim victory.

Mario Andretti taking the checkered flag at the 1969 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Mario Andretti taking the checkered flag at the 1969 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Following the attempts at a turbine revolution, USAC changed the regulations and restricted the size of the air inlets for engines, effectively banning the Granatelli Turbines. Mario Andretti claimed his one and only victory at Indianapolis that year in Granatelli’s year-old backup piston-powered car after the team’s four-wheel drive machine, which had been dominant, was destroyed in practice. It was the great American drivers and the huge innovation, that Fisher had set out for Indianapolis to become back in 1911, an innovative platform in which to further the development of the automobile.

The 1970’s saw Al Unser, Sr. come to the fore, racing for Vels Parnelli Jones, Parnelli having retired from racing himself after the Granatelli-era of turbine cars. ABC carried the 1971 race for the first time, and has done every year since. 1972 saw a revolution at Indianapolis with the Penske Racing rising to the top of the order with legendary driver Mark Donohue. The style of the cars changed in the early 70’s as well, with aerodynamics and wings playing more of an evolutionary change, just as they did in Europe with Formula one. McLaren would arrive at Indianapolis for 1975 and 1976, claiming victories, however the events away from the track, took a turn for the worse in 1976 and 1977.

In 1976, Elmer George, vice president of IMS, was involved in a confrontation with Mari’s lover Guy Trolinger at the family farm in Terre Haute. Elmer was killed in the confrontation, after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds, whilst the Indianapolis 500 was happening. It was found that Trolinger acted in self-defence. Mari had filled for divorce prior to the incident.
In 1977, more tragedy struck the Indianapolis 500, Sid Collins, the long time ‘Voice of the 500’ committed suicide, before Tony Hulman died of Heart Failure in October 1977, just six months after AJ Foyt had claimed his 4th victory at IMS, breaking records.

Combined with the USAC plane crash in 1978, which lost 10 members of the USAC organising body, the stability that Indianapolis had enjoyed since Hulman and Shaw had purchased the Speedway in 1945 was over. A new era was dawning, politics where brewing, and the future was uncertain.

Join us next time as we look at the CART era leading up to 1996 at ‘the split’

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Interesting article, thankyou. And Parnelli Jones’ #40 – what a beautiful car.

Johnpierre Rivera

Well done. Very informative article, I must admit I new almost nothing of the history of this great race. For example I knew Lotus was a winner but had no knowledge that McLaren was as well. You really know your stuff…. Looking forward to your next piece. Btw I was a big fan of CART, still can’t quite get me head around why it failed…