May 30, 1911: First Indianapolis 500: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

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A Brief History

On May 30, 1911, one of auto racing’s top 3 events was born with the initial running of the Indianapolis 500.  (The other 2 of the 3 most prestigious auto races are the 24 Hours at Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix, with the 3 races combined referred to as the Triple Crown of Auto Racing.)

Digging Deeper

Built in 1909 as a primitive asphalt track (using gravel and tar) the fragility of the surface caused the owner to repave the track surface with 3.2 million bricks.  Cost of the brick paving: $155,000, a big chunk of change in those days, especially with auto racing in its infancy.  A concrete wall was also built around the track to (hopefully) keep the cars off the spectators.

The first use of the new brick surface was a 200 mile race on Memorial Day weekend 1910, which drew a crowd of 60,000.  It must have been apparent to sponsors that they were on to something good.  Ray Harroun won that race in a Marmon (made by Marmon Motor Car Company located right there in Indianapolis).  The following year, when the first 500 mile even was held, Harroun won that first ever Indy 500 driving another Marmon.  Racing teams were competing for a whopping $25,000 purse, which if that does not seem like a lot, consider that it took almost 80 pounds of pure gold to equal that in those days!

Rules for that first race limited motors to 600 cubic inches and Harroun was the only driver to drive solo without an assistant mechanic in the car with him (to watch oil pressure and look out for other cars).  Harroun did not need the extra set of eyes because he employed his own invention, the rear view mirror.  Average speed for the winning car was 74.6 mph, a speed you would expect today’s economy cars to match or exceed.  (It was not until 1925 that a winner averaged 100 mph.)

Today’s Indy car engines are 2.2 liter twin-turbocharged capable of 650 horsepower, with the 2013 winner averaging 187.4 mph.  The first female driver that qualified for the race was Janet Guthrie in 1977, and 8 more women have qualified since then.  The highest finish by a woman driver was in 2009 when Danica Patrick finished 3rd.  She is also the only woman to lead the race, which she did in 2005 and 2011.

Patrick driving for Rahal Letterman Racing at the 2006 Indianapolis 500

Fact:  American World War I flying ace (and #1 race car driver before the war) Eddie Rickenbacker owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1927 to 1945.  Today’s owner is Hulman and Company.

The Indy 500 race organizers call the race The Greatest Spectacle in RacingQuestion for students (and subscribers): What do you think?  If it is not, then what auto race is?  Each Memorial Day weekend nearly 400,000 fans crowd the track to vote with their ticket money.  Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Kramer, Ralph.  The Indianapolis 500: A Century of Excitement.  Krause Publications, 2010.

Leerhsen, Charles.  Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500.  Simon & Schuster, 2012.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.