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The Amazing History of the Indy 500

Indy 500The Indianapolis 500 is called “the greatest spectacle in racing” for a reason. Throughout its 100+ years, the 500 mile race has entertained millions, while pushing racing engineering and racecar drivers to their limits.

Early History

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was constructed in 1909, as the idea of local businessman Carl Graham Fisher. Fisher thought horseracing tracks were ill-suited for horseless-carriages, and that Indiana would be the home of the American auto industry and therefor the state needed a prestigious track.

The new track ran several races of various types, including motorcycles, for the first few years. A change in marketing led to the creation of a much hyped annual event in 1911, creating the first running of the Indy 500. The marketing worked, and 90,000 showed up for the race, paying just $1 admission.

 Indy 300Unfortunately, disaster struck the first race, when a wooden wheel came off an Amplex roadster, causing the racer to cartwheel, and killing onboard mechanic Sam Dickson. The race continued though, and local hero Ray Harroun won the race in his Marmon Wasp, in six hours and forty-two minutes, with an average speed of 75 mph. The paving technique proved inadequate for the racing, and was quickly paved over with millions of bricks.

The Indy 500 immediately became an international race, with the first decade of races seeing winners from the UK, France, and Italy joining the Americans in the winner’s circle. The race was postponed during World War I, and in the 1920s and ‘30s, the speeds increased. This is partially due to racers entering specialized racecars, rapidly advancing engine technology, and the fact that the onboard mechanic was no longer required, thus reducing weight. By the late ‘30s, speeds were averaging 155 mph, with the race taking about four and a half hours to complete.


The 500 was again postponed due to World War II, with alloys and fuels needed for the war effort. The track needed serious repairs and upgrades after years of neglect, but once refurbished, Americans dominated in the ‘40s. The cars rapidly picked up speed, with V8s sporting well over 500 horsepower. Several drivers were killed in the golden years of the 500, resulting in seatbelts, helmets, and roll cages becoming mandatory. Eventually the track would earn the reputation as one of the must-see racing events worldwide, joining Le Mans and Monaco in the “Triple Crown of Motorsports.” Today, American drivers face off against worldwide competition, with recent winners from Brazil, New Zealand, and UK. The race takes about two and a half hours, and speeds average 180 mph.

Interesting tidbits

Throughout its many races, the Indy drivers, crew, and fans have picked up some superstitions that are still believed today. In the ‘30s, peanuts were considered bad luck. The reason why varies, but is said to either be due to peanut shells causing an error in the pits, or a mysterious crash with peanuts aboard for no apparent reason. Either way, to this day no one likes peanuts, although you can buy them at concession stands. Green cars are also considered bad luck, which is unfortunate for the British racers that favor that color. The winner taking a swig of milk in the victory circle started in 1936 because the winner’s mother told him it was good for him on hot days. Jeanetta Holder hand sews a different quilt each year for the winner. It’s no Rolex, but is pretty nice.

Plan to attend!

For an internationally known race with an impressive history, the Indy 500 is still a racing value. Tickets start at just $40 for general admission, and $46 for a reserved seat. You can watch practice and qualifying, attend a concert, and get access to the garage area. If you are in the area around Memorial Day, make plans to attend and be a part of history.

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