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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The Birth of the Indy 500

Early days of the Indy 500
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On August 19, 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its gates for the very first time, marking the beginning of a legendary racing event that would capture the hearts of millions and become an iconic brand in the world of motorsports. In that inaugural five-mile race, 12,000 spectators gathered to witness history as Austrian engineer Louis Schwitzer clinched victory with an average speed of 57.4 miles per hour. This event would lay the foundation for what would become known as the Indianapolis 500, a race that would go on to shape the course of motorsport history.

Early Indy 500 admission ticket
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The Origins of the Indianapolis 500

The story of the Indianapolis 500 begins with a vision fueled by speed and innovation. Carl G. Fisher, a successful entrepreneur and automotive enthusiast, dreamed of creating a testing ground for automobiles that could push the limits of speed and performance. Fisher envisioned a racetrack where manufacturers could showcase their vehicles' capabilities and drivers could showcase their skills. He wanted a venue that would be a proving ground for the rapidly growing automobile industry, elevating it to new heights.

Together with fellow automotive enthusiasts James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby, and Frank H. Wheeler, Fisher embarked on a mission to bring this vision to life. They founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company in 1909, with the goal of building a racetrack that would host high-speed racing events, capture the attention of the public, and foster advancements in automotive technology.

Ray Harroun
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The Birth of an Iconic Race

On Memorial Day, May 30, 1911, the first Indianapolis 500 took place. The event featured a field of 40 drivers, each eager to conquer the newly constructed 2.5-mile oval track and claim victory in what would become known as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Ray Harroun, driving the Marmon Wasp, emerged as the winner of the inaugural race, with an average speed of 74.6 miles per hour.

One of the key innovations introduced during the first Indianapolis 500 was the use of the rearview mirror. Ray Harroun's "Marmon Wasp" featured a mirror mounted on the car's dashboard, allowing him to see behind without the need for a riding mechanic, which was common at the time. This groundbreaking addition not only contributed to Harroun's victory but also revolutionized safety and visibility in racing.

Throughout the years, the Indianapolis 500 has continued to captivate audiences with its thrilling races, daring drivers, and technological advancements. The race became a platform for automotive manufacturers to showcase their latest innovations, from aerodynamic designs to cutting-edge engines. Brands such as Chevrolet, Ford, and Honda competed on the track, pushing the boundaries of engineering and performance.

Carl G. Fisher
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Carl G. Fisher: Visionary Entrepreneur

Before his involvement in the Indianapolis 500, Fisher had already established himself as a successful entrepreneur. He began his career selling newspapers and eventually invested in a bicycle repair shop. His knack for innovation and promotion led him to invent the first practical headlight for automobiles, which earned him significant profits.

Fisher's interest in automobiles grew, and he recognized the need for better roads to accommodate the growing number of cars. He co-founded the Prest-O-Lite Company, which specialized in producing acetylene gas headlights. Fisher's promotional efforts, including the famous "Use Prest-O-Lite" slogan on billboards across the country, helped popularize the use of headlights on automobiles. Fisher's legacy goes beyond his contributions to the world of motorsports. He also played a significant role in the development of Miami Beach, Florida. In the 1920s, he undertook ambitious projects to transform the area into a resort destination, including the construction of the famous Dixie Highway and the creation of upscale hotels and casinos. However, Fisher's ambitious projects and extravagant lifestyle took a toll on his finances. Despite his numerous achievements, he faced financial difficulties and eventually lost many of his investments.

Indy First Janet Guthrie
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Key Milestones and Moments

Over the decades, the Indianapolis 500 witnessed a series of historic moments that solidified its status as a cultural phenomenon and a brand synonymous with speed and competition:

  • Unforgettable Finishes: There are man, but just to highlight a couple...the 1992 Indianapolis 500 featured a dramatic battle between Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear, with Unser narrowly clinching victory by just 0.043 seconds, the closest finish in race history. Helio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in a tense duel with second-year driver Alex Palou. The 2021 race was one of the most competitive in the event’s history with 361 passes, including 35 lead changes and an eventual margin of only .493 seconds.

  • Female Firsts: In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify and compete in the Indianapolis 500, breaking barriers and inspiring future generations of female racers. As a result of Guthrie's successful qualification, the traditional starting command "Gentlemen, start your engines!" had to be modified. Danica Patrick made history in 2005 by becoming the first woman to lead laps during the Indianapolis 500. Her groundbreaking achievements paved the way for increased diversity in motorsports.

  • Four-Time Champions: There are four to date...A.J. Foyt, a legendary American racing driver who won the Indianapolis 500 a record four times. He achieved victory in 1961, 1964, 1967, and 1977. Foyt's versatility and success extended beyond IndyCar racing; he also competed in various other racing disciplines, including stock car racing and sports car racing. Al Unser Sr., another prominent American racing driver, also secured victory at the Indianapolis 500 four times. He won the race in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987. The Unser family has a rich history in motorsports, with Al Unser Sr. and his brother Bobby Unser both achieving success at the Indy 500. Rick Mears secured his place in history by winning the Indianapolis 500 four times (1979, 1984, 1988, and 1991), cementing his legacy as one of the greatest drivers to grace the track. Finally, Helio Castroneves, a Brazilian racing driver won in 2001, 2002, and 2009 with Team Penske. Then Castroneves joined Meyer-Shank Racing for a part-time schedule in 2021, winning the Indy 500 in dramatic fashion with a margin under .5 seconds.

  • Marked With Tragedy: Unfortunately, speed can kill and there are 74 individuals whose deaths have been related to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: 42 drivers, 1 motorcyclist, 13 riding mechanics, and 18 others including a pit crew member, track personnel, and spectators have sustained fatal injuries or have had fatal medical conditions.

Indy 500 Four Time Champions
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Did You Know?

The original surface of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was made of crushed stone and tar, which led to a perilous race in 1909 where many drivers suffered punctured tires.

The first Indianapolis 500 winner, Ray Harroun, drove without a riding mechanic, a common practice at the time. He used a rearview mirror to compensate for the lack of a co-driver.

The Borg-Warner Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Indianapolis 500, weighs a staggering 110 pounds and features the faces of every race winner since 1911.

The "Pace Car" tradition began in 1911 when a Stoddard-Dayton vehicle led the field to the green flag. Since then, various iconic cars have served as the official pace car.

In 1945, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was temporarily closed due to World War II, as the facility was used for military purposes, including a maintenance depot and training grounds.

The event's nickname, "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," was coined by racing journalist and historian Tom Carnegie in the 1950s as a way to capture the grandeur of the race.

The iconic winner's wreath, made of roses, has become a symbol of victory at the Indianapolis 500, mirroring the tradition of presenting flowers to winners in ancient Greece.

The Indianapolis 500 has an enduring tradition of honoring fallen soldiers during its pre-race ceremonies, paying tribute to the race's Memorial Day roots.


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