500 facts: the birth of IMS 

Before the 500

click to enlarge 500facts_webheaders1.jpg

1. Fisher was the first of the "Four Fathers."

Carl Fisher, a partner in the Prest-O-Lite auto headlamp company, got the idea for a track in Indy in 1905. Indy was a manufacturing hub in the early days of the auto industry, and Fisher envisioned a proving grounds where cars might be able to attain the unheard of speeds of 120 mph and more. Fisher also sold cars, and racing them was a terrific sales tool. Fisher convinced James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler to invest in the land for the Speedway.

2. Allison originally made his living from coupons and fountain pens.

The "coupons" the Allison Co. made were essentially legal tender at coal mining company stores at the turn of the 20th century. The business expanded by printing tickets and vouchers, but James split to found a company that manufactured his invention, the Allison Perfection Fountain Pen. The original coupon company had an address that would've put it near the corner of Georgia and Capitol.

3. The track was once a farm.

The investors purchased the 328-acre Pressly farm for $72,000 in 1908. The land was level, which fit Fisher's vision perfectly.

4. A railway station once stood near where the "Speedway" gas station is now located.

"The railroad tracks went in sometime around 1870," says IMS historian Donald Davidson. "A lot of people didn't own automobiles yet ... so they'd come by train from downtown."

5. The original design included a road course.

Much like the track today, Fisher's initial plans called for an oval with a secondary road-style course that ran through the infield. The original three-mile oval was reduced to its current length and the road course was scrapped to make room for spectator seating.

6. 300 mules helped build the track.

Along with 500 men, animal power and steamrollers created the surface.

7. The track's been around longer than many of America's most famous sporting venues.

The track was finished in 1909, making it older than Fenway Park (1912), Wrigley Field (1914) and the Rose Bowl (1922). The original Yankee Stadium was built in 1923.

click to enlarge The original design for the Speedway included a road course. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • The original design for the Speedway included a road course.
  • Wikimedia Commons

8. The first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway occurred in the air.

The track was the launching point for a balloon race on June 5, 1909 that saw a helium-lifted craft called the Universal City winning by landing nearly 400 miles away in Alabama after a day in the sky.

9. 40,000 people showed up for the balloon race.

No word on who DJ'd the Snakepit.

10. The track originally had zero bricks on its surface.

Compacted soil, limestone, gravel and a lovely-sounding goop called "taroid" covered the 2.5-mile track, which was, by all accounts, awful.

11. The first engine-powered vehicles racing on the track at IMS: motorcyles.

Two days of racing were planned for Aug. 14-15, 1909, but track conditions deteriorated so quickly that the event was called after seven races on day one.

12. The earliest gate admission tickets cost 50 cents each.

25 cents for the kids!

13. The first auto races at the Speedway were absolute mayhem.

Driver Wilfred Bourque and mechanic Harry Holcomb were killed in the 300-mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy Race (Aug. 19, 1909). Two days later, during the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy race (another 300-miler), Charlie Merz's car blew a tire and flipped. The crash claimed his mechanic Claude Kellum and spectators Howard Homer Jolliff and James West.

14. Racing's sanctioning body boycotted the track in 1909.

The AAA — yep, the American Automobile Association — determined that until the surface was improved, the Speedway was off-limits.

15. The "Brickyard" was born in the fall of 1909.

3.2 million ten-pound bricks were laid, the last a solid-gold block in a special ceremony led by then-Governor Thomas R. Marshall.

16. Sixty-six auto races — and an airshow — were held in 1910.

The bricks worked well, and cars began hitting speeds well over 100 mph. Orville and Wilbur Wright turned up at the National Aviation Meet June 13-18, 1910, an airshow that saw pilot Walter Brookins set an altitude record, as reported by the Indianapolis News on June 14, 1910.


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Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.

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