To say that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has some impressive history would be the biggest understatement known to man. The greatest venue on earth has given us unforgettable moments every year since it was born more than one hundred years ago.
Famous architects Carl Fisher, James Allison, F.H. Wheeler, and Arthur Newby first broke ground on March 15, 1909. Construction didn’t take long, as the hundreds of workers (and mules) were able to get the track opened less than five months later on August 12.
Fisher first envisioned the massive speedway in 1905 when he was visiting France. He noticed they didn’t have sufficient ways of testing the cars before they were delivered to consumers. His original plan was to build a circular track, three to five miles in length.
He was searching for the right spot to put this giant oval, turning down two potential sites before finding the 328 acre farmland just outside of Indianapolis. The men bought the property for $72,000 and so it began.
The Racing Capital of the World began with a simple rectangle drawn into a patch of Indiana dirt. Fisher envisioned an automotive proving ground that would revolutionize the auto industry. What resulted from this, is arguably the greatest venue on earth.
There have been several unique events held at the speedway, mostly in the early years. An ace in the air, Eddie Rickenbacker actually had a plane at the speedway in the early 1930s. The balloon and motorcycle events are more well known, but in 1931, Cummins took the track to prove a point. They did so by breaking an impressive endurance record with their new diesel engine.
Their plan was to drive 10,000 miles around the speedway without stopping. They began on December 12, and drove two full days before losing a tire. They made the repair and kept going. The steering arm then disintegrated, but they made the repair without stopping. Two weeks later on December 26, they broke the endurance record, logging 13,535 miles around the track.
After the balloon and motorcycle races, a change in marketing focus led to having just one big race in 1911. It was then, that the 500 was born. An estimated 80,000 people witnessed the very first 500 mile race at the speedway on May 30, 1911.
Fisher’s vision was very clear from the start. When asked about the plan for one large race in 1911, Fisher said “We’re talking about the greatest automobile race ever put on anywhere on the face of the earth. Everything connected with it is going to have to be bigger and better than ever before-or we’ll miss the boat.”
As you descend upon 16th & Georgetown, an indescribable feeling overwhelms you. The sun glistens over the pagoda, and you feel the cool morning air in the shadows of the grandstands. Generations of people have experienced the cultural touchstone known as Race Day in Indy.
For more than a century drivers have been showcasing their bravery and talent, risking it all to win here at the Roman Colosseum for race fans. Nearly 400,000 fans, 33 drivers, and one trophy complete the scene, like a Van Gogh painting that has come to life.
To put it into perspective, there are only three major venues in the world that are older than IMS. Churchill Downs, Saratoga Race Course, and the Old Course at St. Andrews. All of the talk about Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Pebble Beach, the Rose Bowl, Soldier Field, and Augusta is interesting, but they don’t compare to the history of the greatest race course in the world.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is older than them all.
When the speedway was being constructed in 1909, William Howard Taft had just succeeded Theodore Roosevelt as the President of the United States. The construction had just begun on the giant Titanic ship, and the Pittsburgh Pirates and Yale University were the respective champions of baseball and college football.
In 1954 Wilbur 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.” Shaw knew the importance of this place, and had a great passion for everything associated with it.
Before the first 500 mile race in 1911, the speedway was already one of the first race tracks to have permanent garages, which were just inside of turn one. In 1913 the first “Japanese” pagoda was built. It lasted until 1925, when it was taken down to make room for a newer, bigger pagoda.
It is interesting to note that even though it is over a century old, the speedway has only had three owners. Eddie Rickenbacker bought it for $750,000 in 1927, then Tony Hulman purchased it at the same price on November 14, 1945.
This was also the first race track to install safety warning lights, which they did in 1935. The coming World Wars would have a drastic effect on the speedway, as it was deteriorating while it was used by the military during the 1940s.
Once the War came to an end, and the focus was back to racing, there were some major improvements all around the course. All of the old wooden grandstands were replaced with steel and concrete ones. Almost a decade later, the first Hall of Fame Museum/office building at the speedway was up and running.
The pagoda constructed in 1926 was replaced in 1957 by a larger control tower. Other improvements this year included a new pit area and a new tunnel that went under the backstretch.
On April 5 of 1976, a multi-million dollar Hall of Fame Museum was officially opened up. The museum is a must visit for any race fan, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Later that year, the entire track was resurfaced with asphalt. This was the first complete replacing since the bricks were laid in 1909. Ten years later the new garage area was built, giving race teams a total of 96 individual garages to work from.
Victory Lane got a major face lift in 1994 when a circular rotating lift in the Tower Terrace was constructed. Also, new a 97-foot tall scoring pylon replaced the old one on the main straightaway that had been there since 1959. The new Administrative Office at the corner of 16th and Georgetown was also finished in 1994.
The modern day Bombardier Pagoda was completed in 2000. Two years later IMS introduced the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) Barrier walls in all four turns.
When you talk about history, it really doesn’t get any deeper or richer than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For all the talk of a century of racing here, there are only 27 living Indianapolis 500 winners left today. The traditions, bravery, speed, competition, and creativity of everyone associated with this place are what make it so special today.
As we have already seen, it is impossible to duplicate this place. In southern California in 1970, Ontario Motor Speedway tried and failed with their 2.5-mile oval track. After numerous problems, the property was sold in 1980 and the track was destroyed.
Try as they might, there will never be another place like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.