On this Day:
On May 30, 1911 the 1st Indianapolis 500 was held. Ray Harroun driving a Marmon Wasp for Nordyke & Marmon Company comes out of retirement, and wins the inaugural event; his average speed: 74.602 mph (120.060 km/h).
The Indianapolis 500, also formally known as the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, or simply the Indy 500, is an annual automobile race held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in Speedway, Indiana, United States, an enclave suburb of Indianapolis. The event is traditionally held over Memorial Day weekend, usually the last weekend of May.
It is contested as part of the IndyCar Series, the top level of American Championship Car racing, an open-wheel, open-cockpit formula colloquially known as “Indy Car Racing”. The track itself is nicknamed the “Brickyard”, as the racing surface was paved in brick in the fall of 1909. One yard of brick remains exposed at the start/finish line.
The event, billed as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, is considered part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport. The Triple Crown comprises three of the most prestigious motorsports events in the world, also including the Monaco Grand Prix (which traditionally falls on the same day as the Indianapolis 500) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In two different periods, the race was part of FIA World Championships; between 1925 and 1928, the World Manufacturers’ Championship and between 1950 and 1960, the World Drivers’ Championship. The official attendance is not disclosed by Speedway management, but the permanent seating capacity is upwards of 250,000, and infield patrons raise the race-day attendance to approximately 300,000. It shares its date with NASCAR’s 600-mile event later in the evening at Charlotte, with drivers having completed both events in one day before in a so-called Double Duty. In addition, the Monaco Grand Prix in Formula One also on the same date, a few hours earlier in Europe. As such, the last weekend of May is known as one of the largest weekends in auto racing.
The inaugural race was held in 1911 and was won by Ray Harroun. The event celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, and the 100th running was held in 2016. The event was put on hiatus twice, from 1917 to 1918 due to World War I and from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II. Marcus Ericsson is the current champion. The most successful drivers are A. J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears and Hélio Castroneves, each of whom has won the race four times. The active driver with the most victories is Hélio Castroneves. Rick Mears holds the record for most career pole positions with six. The most successful car owner is Roger Penske, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Team Penske, which has 18 total wins and 18 poles. Penske also has five wins at the IndyCar Grand Prix, held on the combined road course.
The event is steeped in tradition, in pre-race ceremonies, post-race celebrations, and race procedure. The most noteworthy and most popular traditions are the 33-car field lining up three-wide for the start, the annual singing of the chorus of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and the victory lane bottle of milk. Also unique is that qualifying requires the driver to complete four, rather than one, timed laps. Qualifying has a separate weekend.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway complex was built in 1909 as a gravel-and-tar track and hosted a smattering of small events, including ones for motorcycles. The first long-distance event, in “fearful conditions,” was the 100-lap Prest-O-Lite Trophy in 1909, won by Bob Burman in a Buick. The breakup of the track surface led to two fatal accidents in the first two long-distance events (a 250 mi (400 km) and 300 mi (480 km), which was shortened to 235 mi (378 km) after two severe wrecks).
That these spectacles had attracted 15,000 paying customers (and crowds of up to 40,000) persuaded principal owner Carl G. Fisher to spend $155,000 on repaving the track with 3.2 million bricks; he also added a 33-inch (0.84 m) concrete wall around the track’s circumference. During the 1910 Decoration Day weekend, the first events on the newly paved circuit drew 60,000 spectators; Ray Harroun won the 200-mile (320 km) Wheeler-Schebler Trophy in a Marmon.
The crowds grew progressively smaller for the rest of the season, however, so the track owners chose to focus on a single race, and considered a 24-hour contest, in the fashion of Le Mans, or a one-thousand-mile (1,600 km) event. They decided on 500 miles (800 km), the estimated distance a race car could run before dark descended on the track, and a spectacular purse of $25,000, equivalent to 82.93 pounds (37.62 kg) of pure gold. The combination allowed the track to rapidly acquire a privileged status for automobile races.
The first “500” was held at the Speedway in 1911 on Decoration Day, May 30, (as it was known from its inception in 1868 to 1967, when federal law made “Memorial Day” the official name), run to a 600-cubic-inch (9,800 cc) maximum engine size formula. It saw a field of 40 starters, with Harroun piloting a Marmon Model 32-based Wasp racer—outfitted with his invention, the rear-view mirror. Harroun (with relief from Cyrus Patschke) was declared the winner, although Ralph Mulford protested the official result. Eighty thousand spectators were in attendance, and an annual tradition had been established. Many considered Harroun to be a hazard during the race, as he was the only driver in the race driving without a riding mechanic, who checked the oil pressure and let the driver know when traffic was coming.
In 1912, the purse was raised to $50,000, the field was limited to 33 (where it remains), and a riding mechanic was made mandatory. This second event was won by Joe Dawson in a National, after Ralph de Palma’s Mercedes broke. Although the first race was won by an American driver at the wheel of an American car, European makers such as the Italian Fiat or French Peugeot companies soon developed their vehicles to try to win the event, which they did from 1912 to 1919. The 1913 event saw a change to a 450-cubic-inch (7,400 cc) maximum engine size.
After World War I, the native drivers and manufacturers regained their dominance of the race, and engineer Harry Miller set himself up as the most competitive of the post-war builders. His technical developments allowed him to be indirectly connected to a history of success that would last into the mid-1970s.
For musical entertainment before the start of the race, the Purdue All-American Marching Band has been the host band of the race since 1919. In 1946, American operatic tenor and car enthusiast James Melton started the tradition of singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” with the Purdue Band before the race when asked to do so on the spur of the moment by Speedway president Tony Hulman. This tradition has continued through the years, notably by actor and singer Jim Nabors from 1972 until 2014. Nabors announced in 2014, citing health-related reasons, that the 2014 Indy 500 would be the last at which he would sing the song. In 2015, the a cappella group Straight No Chaser sang the song before the race, and in the two races held after Nabors’ retirement (and before he became the regular singer), the singing of the song was done on a rotating basis, with the Spring 2014 winner of The Voice Josh Kaufman performing in 2016. However, the Speedway has returned to a standard singer starting in 2017, with Jim Cornelison doing it for three races as of the 2019 race.
Louis Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk after winning his second Indy 500 race in 1933. After winning his third title in 1936, he requested another glass but instead received a bottle. He was captured by a photographer in the act of swigging from the bottle while holding up three fingers to signify the third win. A local dairy company executive recognized the marketing opportunity in the image and, being unaware Meyer was drinking buttermilk, offered a bottle of milk to the winners of future races. Milk has been presented each year since then, apart from 1947 to 1955. Modern drivers are offered a choice of whole, 2%, and skim.
At the 1993 Indianapolis 500, winner Emerson Fittipaldi, who owned and operated an orange grove, notoriously drank orange juice instead of milk during the televised winner’s interview. He eventually relented and also drank from the milk bottle later in the post-race ceremonies after the broadcast was over, but the public relations damage had already been done. The snub led to Fittipaldi being booed at the next ChampCar race, the Milwaukee Mile, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the heart of dairy country, and by some, as late as 2008 in which he drove the pace car. In 2016, as a promotion, the track gave out commemorative bottles of milk to 100,000 attendees to toast the winner with milk after the race.
Female participation of any sort at Indianapolis was discouraged and essentially banned throughout the first several decades of competition. As such, female reporters were not even allowed in the pit area until 1971. There have been nine female drivers to qualify, starting with Janet Guthrie in 1977.
Sarah Fisher has competed nine times, the most of any woman. Danica Patrick led 19 laps in the 2005 race and ten laps in the 2011 race, the only times a woman has led laps during the race. Pippa Mann has raced in Indy five consecutive times between 2013 and 2017 (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
Yesterday, joking around with a regular customer of mine, he asked me if I knew about the early days of the Indianapolis 500. I make up some story about how, in the olden times, they ran the race riding on cows. Ever since, they give a bottle of milk to the winner – even today.
He thought about that and left. He came back today and the following conversation took place:
Customer – Remember how you told me the Indy 500 was raced sitting on cows?
Me – Yeah
Customer – Well, I guess that’s why they call it steering…
Second, a Song:
Here is “Race Day Starts Now – 106th Indianapolis 500” Presented by Gainbridge and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, courtesy of YouTube.com. This video gives a bit of a feel of being there – we hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“I watched the Indy 500, and I was thinking that if they left earlier they wouldn’t have to go so fast.” – Steven Wright
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky