The early years of the Indianapolis 500

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The Indy 500 has long been regarded as one of the world’s premier annual sporting events and yet has not changed much since the first running of the famous race in 1911.

In the days before the Indy race began, most races took place on the primitive roads or dirt tracks which existed around the major cities and was often arranged by local entrepreneurs eager to earn a quick buck. One of the promoters was Carl Fisher who was a little more ambitious and he saw the potential of building a dedicated, enclosed, motor speedway where lots of races could take place and the public would be charged to gain entry. 

As Fisher also ran a company providing products to the motor trade, he also saw the commercial potential of being able to offer a track to the growing number of motor manufacturers so they could test the potential of their new cars in a traffic-free environment and at any speed they liked.

Seeing the opportunities, he enlisted the financial support of three wealthy partners and together they purchased 320 acres of land outside of Indianapolis and then built their track for an eventual cost of around $500,000. But as the rough surface resulted in a number of fatal accidents, a further $200,000 was then spent purchasing and laying more than three million bricks to provide a more even surface.

After the success of the first races, interest in the new track waned and the partners realised they needed a new idea to help generate the substantial revenue they required to at least recoup their money.

The plan they had was to stage one massive event each year which would attract all the leading cars and drivers, and hopefully a large number of spectators. To give the spectators something they could enjoy for much of the day, they chose an extremely long race of 500 miles (or 200 laps). Finally, with everything ready, the first race took place on Memorial Day, May 30, 1911 and more than 80,000 spectators turned up, paying $1 each. The winner was Ray Harroun driving a Marmon "Wasp" who completed the event at an average lap time of around 74 miles an hour -less than half the speed of today’s leading racers.

Like the other cars in the competition, the large, heavy Marmon may have been much better prepared than the average road car of the period, but it was incomparable to the highly tuned technologically advanced race cars which whizz around the track today.

Such was the success and impact of the race that over the next few years most of America’s leading car makers, as well as those from Europe, started entering their cars into the event, well aware that success at Indy would mean more sales in the showroom.

The race quickly entered the motor racing calendar, but was halted for two years in 1917 due to the First World War in Europe. It resumed in 1919 and this time was won by Howdy Williams, driving a Peugeot.

Millers and Dusenbergs
During the 1920s, most of the winning cars were either Dusenbergs and Millers and as the cars became more advanced, their average speed increased dramatically. In fact, when Howdy Williams won the 1919 race it took him five hours and 40 minutes to pass the finish line, but when Floyd Roberts won the race in 1938, he had cut the time down to just four hours and 15 minutes.

During the 1930s, two-man cars were the rage but the idea didn’t last. The 1930s also saw the race dominated by two legendary American drivers Louis Meyer and Wilbur Shaw who both won the race three times between 1928 and 1940 and between them  claimed second spot on four occasions. The race in 1941 proved to be the last one before the end of World War 2, when Wilbur Shaw was then instrumental in getting the track and the race back to where it had been before. He also became President of the speedway and one of America's most respected race drivers.

In the early years of the race, one of the major criticisms was the number of accidents on the track and the inevitable fatalities. Up to the start of World War 2, as many as 30 drivers and mechanics has been killed either during the Indy 500 race itself or practising for it, and many more had been seriously injured.

As such, numerous safety measures were progressively introduced with many becoming the standard for smaller motor race meetings elsewhere. One was simply to reduce the number of cars on the track as it was felt that too many cars travelling at different speeds in such close proximity was one contributing factor to the problem. Another was the very limited amount of protection which existed for the drivers. There were no roll bars on the cars as is the case today and the clothing and helmets which were worn were extremely limited by comparison to today’s standards.

Essentially, apart from the speed of the cars and the much greater emphasis being placed on safety, the Indy 500 is still largely the same event as it was in the early years. Even some of the great traditions have been maintained, such as the cars starting three abreast (first begun in 1919) and the winner drinking milk at the end of the race -started by Louis Mayer after his success in 1936.

There is no question that the ambition, measures and foresight that Carl Fisher and his colleagues had more than 100 years ago played a huge role in making the Indy 500 one of the greatest sporting spectacles of modern times, as well as putting the city of Indianapolis onto the world map.

Multimedia stories from history

Work begins on the construction of the new motor
speedway a few miles outside of Indianapolis

Joe Dawson wins the 1912 race in a car
built by the National Motor Vehicle Company

Creating the special banked curves was one of the reasons for the huge cost of the project

Huge numbers of fans would drive
across America to attend the races

By the late 1930s, the Indy 500 had cemented itself as one of the world's greatest annual sporting spectacles

His efforts to get his car to the finish
are now part of Indianapolis folklore

Michigan born Bob Burman entered the Indy 500 in the
first five events but was killed in a different race in 1916

Above is the wreck of Bob Burman's
Cutting car after he crashed on lap 157 in 1912

Frenchman Jules Goux became the first overseas winner at Indy when he won on his first attempt in 1913

Mel Marquette's car was one of more than a
dozen which failed to complete the 1912 race

The winning Marmon car from the first race has been fully restored and is now housed at the Motor Speedway museum .

Tommy Milton poses with legendary drivers Barney
Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet before the 1921 race

Goux's winning car was a Peugeot which completely dominated the competition

Ford also supplied a number of
cars which were used by track officials

"Wild" Bill Cummings was one of the most popular
pre-war winners (1934) as he came from Indianapolis 

Sadly, 30 drivers and mechanics lost their lives in the pre-war Indy races but this did result in improvements in later years

In 1934, Ford officially returned to Indianapolis with a finely
tuned version of their new V8 car seen here being prepared

Year after the year the infield would be strewn with wrecked cars from the countless crashes that ocurred

The drivers get ready for the start of the 1923 race which was won by Tommy Milton -his second victory in three years

From the very beginning the race attracted huge crowds -initially paying $1 each for the day's event

One of the main innovations of the early years were
the two man race cars -although the idea didn't last

The 1930s saw the speed of the cars increase significantly from the early races

Ralph Beardsley sits in his Simplex car before completing 178 laps in the first Indy 500 in 1911

Ralph De Palma led for most of the 1912 race but eventually had to push his Mercedes over the line

Film now showing
Indianapolis 500, 1934

Duration: 2 mins. 45 seconds

Motoring through history
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Film provided courtesy of

(c) Universal Motoring History Enterprises

The early meetings had more cars, but the number was subsequently reduced to 33 for safety reasons