Five Hundred Miles

Carl Fisher, James Allison, Frank Wheeler, and Arthur Newby.

Everyone knows the story by now. After two possible locations were turned down, Fisher’s plan of a large testing facility for car manufacturers to showcase their products finally came to fruition on 328 acres of farmland on the outskirts of Indianapolis. There was still something else they could do to increase sales.

Henry Ford once said, “The way to sell cars is to race them.”

A change in marketing strategy, of all things, led to the decision to host just one major racing event during the year. An estimated 80,000 people were there to witness the very first 500-mile race at the Speedway on May 30, 1911. “We’re talking about the greatest automobile race ever put on anywhere on the face of the earth,” Fisher said. “Everything connected with it is going to have to be bigger and better than ever before, or we’ll miss the boat.”

Just like that, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway transformed into a grand theater that plays host to one of the greatest sporting events in history.

As you descend upon 4790 West 16th Street in late May, an indescribable feeling overwhelms you. The sun glistens over the pagoda, and you feel the brisk morning air in the shadows of the grandstands. Generations of people have experienced the cultural touchstone known as Race Day in Indianapolis.

For more than a century, drivers have been showcasing their bravery and talent, risking it all to win at the Roman Colosseum of racing. Nearly 400,000 fans, 33 drivers, and 1 trophy complete the scene, like a Van Gogh painting that has come to life.

It’s impossible to summarize this prime event in just a few words, but many have tried. In 1955, Alice Greene referred to the Indianapolis 500 as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Alice wins.

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Yes, winning the most monumental automobile race in the world is a rigorous task, but even qualifying to be a part of the race has been a feat in itself.

The Contest Board of the American Automobile Association had a formula for limiting the size of a starting field according to the size of the track. They determined the safe distance between each car spread around IMS would be 400 feet, therefore limiting the field to 33 cars. That maximum has been in place since 1934, with exceptions being made in 1979 and 1997. Being “bumped” from the field was a common occurrence when 50-something cars were entered.

Several well-known drivers have missed out on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing at some point. Rick Mears failed to make the race as a Rookie in 1977, but went on to win the race four times. Many drivers like Tom Sneva have tasted the milk in Victory Lane, but also know the agonizing feeling of watching from the sidelines.

Even the legendary Roger Penske struck out on making the field for the 1995 race. Despite winning the previous two Indy 500 races, both Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr failed to qualify for Team Penske in 1995.

The nostalgia you feel as you enter the Speedway. The smell of the tires, the sound of the engines, and the taste of victory. It truly is an assault on your senses. The radio broadcast paints the picture of the 33 spirited souls that put everything on the line for 200 laps. There is danger for all, and glory for just one.

The sensational battles between Rodger Ward and Jim Rathmann in 1961, and Al Unser Jr and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989, captivated everyone who was watching and listening. Not every race had these dramatic duels down to the final laps, or an iconic photo finish, but every race has had something special.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen many changes over the past century. A few things have stood the test of time, though. The rectangular track is still 2.5 miles long, with nine degrees of banking in each turn. At the finish line awaits the Borg-Warner Trophy, a cold glass of milk, and immortality. Unfortunately, death is no stranger to this majestic quest. Many drivers have exited this great earth from inside of the famed Speedway.

The tragic 1973 Month of May is still a haunting nightmare. Drivers Art Pollard, Swede Savage, and mechanic Armando Teran all perished. Salt Walther suffered disfiguring burns in a fiery crash that injured 13 spectators at the start of the race. Three years ago, AJ Foyt was asked about that particular dark month. The four-time winner said “You never forget it. It’s still on my mind.” Mario Andretti went into more detail about why the drivers do what they do. “The drivers defy the potential dangers trying to conquer this place and this race. It’s what keeps us motivated. I felt I was willing to take the calculated risk to win the Indianapolis 500. I had to accept that, or do something else with my life. It’s the life of a race car driver, especially at the Indianapolis 500.”

Safety, relative to the cars and track, have come a long way since Ray Harroun crossed the finish line in his Marmon Wasp. The jet fighter machines of the last two decades are well equipped to whip around the oval with smoothness and precision. It’s difficult to fathom what the drivers and mechanics endured inside of those cars in the early years of the event.

Imagine for a second, that you’re sitting in a Radio Flyer wagon. That wagon is now hitched to a truck, being pulled through an empty cornfield at 80 mph. You’re swallowing the dirt and dust, getting roasted from the heat of the exhaust, and trying to hold on for 500 miles. No seat belt, no helmet. You get a pair of goggles and a rubber mud flap to protect your skull. If you flip, fall out, or somehow ignite into a ball of flames, well… I’m sorry. That was the courageous life of the early racers at Indianapolis.

These magnificent machines that were built before 1960 were not designed to be comfortable. They were loud, they were hot, and they were a handful to drive. They were also incredibly fast. At Indianapolis, that trumps everything else.

The track itself was anything but smooth until the 1961 repaving, at the earliest. Drivers would describe the feeling of driving on top of the bricks for 500 miles. They could feel every bump and every vibration, often for days after the event.

As the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 awaits at the end of the month, it’s important to recognize the iconic people who are tied to this monumental event. The Indianapolis Star touched on this topic just recently. Most people will agree that near the top of the list are Fisher, Tony Hulman, and Wilbur Shaw.

If it weren’t for Hulman and driver/mechanic/writer/entrepreneur/President Shaw, the Speedway likely would have been demolished seven decades ago. What if the last Indianapolis 500-mile race ever held was in 1941? Imagine erasing everything that has happened over the last 75 years with this prodigious event.

There would be no four-time winners, no epic photo finishes, and no “Spin and Win.” No Foyt, Unser, Mears, Andretti, Vukovich, Johncock, Rutherford, Parnelli, Castroneves, etc. What would auto racing in general look like today?

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Shortly before his death in 1954, Shaw said “To me the track is the last great speed shrine, which must be preserved at all cost. I felt that all I was, or ever hoped to be, I owed to the Indianapolis 500 mile race.”

The race has its icons, kings, and legends, but not a single person is bigger than the event itself.

For all the talk of a century of racing here, there are only 27 Indianapolis 500 winners alive today. The delicious combination of tradition, bravery, competition, and speed are what make it the gold standard; auto racing in its purest form. Triumph and tragedy, this race has seen it all.

No race is faster, closer, or more difficult. Even the bravest are not without fear. It is this race, on Memorial Day weekend, where speed and desire culminate into immortality.

The Indianapolis 500 has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, and conflicts in Vietnam and Korea, among other major happenings. You can call it mystical, or you can call it magical. In a sense, it is both.

The 99 races have combined to complete 48,433 total miles.

Five hundred to go.


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