the speed and danger at the first indianapolis 500 -- 5/24/16

Today's selection -- from Black Noon by Art Garner. In the early 1900s, Indianapolis was competing with Detroit for supremacy in the nascent automobile industry. To bring attention to their city's new industry, civic leaders in Indianapolis started an auto race that became known as the Indianapolis 500:

"The idea behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway started in the early 1900s as a proving ground for the budding American auto industry. Detroit and Indianapolis were battling for the right to be called 'the Motor City' and Indy was the early leader, building more cars than its Michigan rival. However, Detroit had the advantage of being located on the Great Lakes, with a port to ship in raw materials and ship out vehicles, and Henry Ford was hard at work there, developing the assembly line. So a group of India­napolis industry leaders figured a large testing facility was needed to help tip the balance in favor of their city.

"In late 1908, the group led by Carl Fisher, a partner in the Prest-O-Lite Company that manufactured headlamps, purchased more than 320 acres about 6 miles west of town on the corner of Georgetown Road and Craw­fordsville Pike for the then-significant sum of $72,000. Fisher liked to dream big, and his dream for the proving ground was big: a 5-mile circle track. Only one problem -- the track wouldn't fit on the land purchased by the group. So Fisher dialed back his vision to a 3-mile outer oval with an infield road course. Combined, the track would total 5 miles in length.

"This design created an enormous infield area of more than 250 acres, capable of fitting such sporting venues as Churchill Downs, Wimbledon, the Roman Coliseum, Yankee Stadium, and the Rose Bowl all inside the track at the same time.

Early Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo U.S. Library of Congress

"Construction started as soon as the snows cleared in March 1909. ... Once it was completed, the owners decided to stage races at the track in an effort to help create awareness about the facility. At the time, auto rac­ing in America was relegated to dirt tracks used primarily for horse rac­ing, or cross-country events run on public roads. After the track served as the starting line for a balloon race, a motorcycle exhibition was planned. It immediately became apparent the surface was unsuitable for the skinny motorcycle tires, and the race was suspended soon after it started.

"A series of exhibition auto races the following weekend attracting the era's leading racers -- including Barney Oldfield, Louis Chevrolet, and Ray Harroun -- proved to be an even bigger disaster. Chevrolet nearly lost an eye when a flying stone broke through his goggles, and the races were marred by accidents and death, as one driver, two riding mechanics, and two spec­tators were killed. The feature race was stopped before the finish, and as the slim crowd filed out, the future of the proving ground was very much in doubt.

"Comparisons to the Coliseum were not well received at this point. The Detroit News, highlighting the problems its rival city was having, editorial­ized that the racing was 'more brutal than bull fighting, gladiatorial com­bat or prize fighting.' To head off efforts to shut down the track, the owners decided to invest further in the facility and pave it, choosing bricks because they would last longer and provide better traction than concrete. It was a massive undertaking. More than 3.2 million paving bricks, each weighing 9.5 pounds, were laid at a cost of $165,000, more than twice the original investment. A 33-inch-high concrete wall was built around the outside of the track to protect spectators. It took just two months to complete, and the track has been known ever since as 'the Brickyard.' ...

"The promoters wanted an all-day affair, leaving just enough time for the fans to arrive at the track and return home in daylight. They figured 500 miles would last about seven hours and still provide the needed travel time, so the first 'Indianapolis 500-Mile Race' was set."


Art Garner


Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500


St. Martin's Griffin


Copyright 2014 by Art Garner


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