RACING INDY: HISTORY

Shrieking engines, fluttering balloons, sizzling asphalt, burning rubber, and screaming fans. Every Memorial Day weekend, these are the sights, sounds, and smells you encounter at America’s temple of speed, known more formally as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). It is home to the most prestigious and longest running established motorsports race in the world, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (Indy 500).

For motorsports athletes, fans, and native Hoosiers, the Indy 500 holds a near-religious significance. It is a spectacle worthy of sacrifice – both fans and competitors go to great lengths to attend. When you combine history, tradition, passion, and speed – they combust inside of the powder keg that is the Indy 500.

At 2.5 miles around, the track is mind-boggling large. To understand the enormity of the IMS, consider for a moment that all of these venues combined could fit inside of the track: Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, Churchill Downs, the Roman Coliseum, the Wimbledon Campus, and all of Vatican City. Remember that this is only the interior of the racetrack!

Even with all of these venues put together, there would still be some room to spare. This explains why the IMS is the highest-capacity sports venue in the world with 257,325 permanent seats and infield seating raising the total capacity to approximately 400,000.

“When you get to the track you can see the first-timers, blown away by the scope of the track, the sheer magnitude of a ‘stadium’ that holds 400,000 people, suddenly aware that they’ve entered a city within a city,” noted Jeremy Siebert, a pilot for Jet Linx Indianapolis.

IMS started in 1905 with Carl G. Fisher, an Indianapolis businessman. Initially, he wanted a way for automobile manufacturers to test their cars before bringing them to consumers. Public roads and horse tracks were unsafe for testing automobiles at the time, so he decided to build his own speedway. His plan also involved getting manufacturers to test their vehicles against one another as a way to build excitement around the developing automobile industry and to create competition within the American automobile industry.

At the time, nobody believed that a circular track would work for motorsports. Most race tracks were linear, one-mile horse tracks, or straightaways on public roads. Fisher believed that the circular track would appeal more to consumers because they could see the entire length of the track. The circular shape would also allow automobiles to attain higher speeds, which meant better testing conditions for car manufacturers.

At this point in time, cars were relatively new, and the jury was still out on which type of surface worked best for cars as opposed to horse-drawn carriages. When construction began on the IMS in 1909, the track was constructed of graded and packed soil, which was then covered by differing layers of gravel, tar, oil, and crushed stone.

The first event ever held at the IMS was a gas-filled balloon race in 1909 that attracted 40,000 people. That event was shortly followed by a motorcycle race and then, finally, an automobile race. However, there were problems when the track first opened.

The gravel and tar road surface did not hold up well in the first three long-distance motorsports events. The 250-lap Prest-O Lite Race in 1909 was completed under “fearful conditions.” Potholes formed at the turns of the track and racers were smattered in tar and oil. In fact, there were two fatal accidents in the first two long distance events, and at one point a car was thrust into a group of spectators.

Despite the failure of the track’s surface, the initial events attracted 15,000 paying customers with crowds upwards of 40,000 people. For Fisher it was a financial success, but the track surface proved to be sub-par.

After many concerns and complaints over safety, Fisher was forced to consider either a brick track or one paved with concrete. After some testing, brick was chosen, and the famous nickname, “The Brickyard,” was born. It took 3.2 million bricks to pave the speedway, with a final golden brick being set by the Governor of Indiana in 1909. The surface was partially repaved with asphalt in 1936, but many of the original bricks still remain in place underneath the road’s surface.

Although the track has been resurfaced many times since it was built, one yard of original brick is visible at the start-finish line, which victorious drivers now kneel and kiss in homage to the long and storied history of the track.