Proving ground to podium 

How the Indy 500 went from tech-testing to competition

click to enlarge Ed Carpenter makes contact with the "safer barrier" at IMS in 2014. - PHIL TAYLOR
  • Ed Carpenter makes contact with the "safer barrier" at IMS in 2014.
  • Phil Taylor

In the early years of the twentieth century when automobiles were new, cars raced on public roads. What is now considered rallying was first formalized as a competition in France in 1894 with a race from Paris to Rouen. One year later racing hit the streets of Illinois for America's first sanctioned race.

The few existing roads were rough, rutted and sometimes muddy former wagon paths that meandered around obstacles such as trees and boulders. They were brutal on cars. Not only did that make for difficult and dangerous racing, but it also hampered everyday travel by automobile.

RELATED: A timeline of innovations at IMS

Realizing that the burgeoning U.S. automotive industry needed further development if it was to compete with European design and craftsmanship, entrepreneur and automobile enthusiast Carl Fisher envisioned an immense test track to develop and promote this new phenomenon. Automakers needed a place to test prototypes.

Because it was flat, the 328-acre Pressley Farm west of Indianapolis lent itself to becoming the perfect test track.

Becoming the Speedway

Built in 1909 to develop and test the latest automotive technology, Fisher's track attracted local manufacturers and racers. Fisher's test track also enticed observers eager to watch the competitions from the relative safety of grandstands.

Known as an outlandish promoter for the daring publicity stunts he devised, Fisher learned from his mistake in 1909. Undaunted by calls from the press, several automobile clubs and the public to end the bloodbath after several drivers were killed, he instead hyped the danger and the unrivaled drama.

After repaving the track in 1910 with bricks that would provide a safer surface that was easier on tires ( it had originally been crushed stone), he announced plans for a 500-mile race in 1911: a grueling test of endurance for man and machine, to be sure, but something more.

The "International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race" was an unprecedented, intoxicating, addictive, daring spectacle guaranteed to thrill an audience. It was the birth of American motorsports.

The stage was set to transform this testing ground into a sporting venue.


By offering the biggest purse for a single event, Fisher not only persuaded the best drivers to participate, he also drew the attention of the press. He wasn't the only one taking advantage of free publicity; automakers painted their names on the cars to get a little extra promotion.

It worked. More than 80,000 spectators, some arriving on special trains from Chicago, New York and Detroit, watched Fisher pace the field of 40 race cars in his Stoddard-Dayton roadster.

The lines between racing to test and racing for sport blurred in 1910 when the AAA refused to sanction the race because the cars "were not stock models, but professional racing machines," according to Automotive Quarterly.

By 1912, touches of sporting professionalism were apparent, with crews wearing color-coordinated uniforms. Local hotels filled up with advance reservations for this extraordinary event. The "500" was becoming sport's biggest day.

Testing the limits

Regardless of its sporting direction, racing remains a platform for experimentation that has taken automotive development beyond clinical testing.

Indeed, trial by racing has improved the automobile and contributed to safety on the highway. Your daily commute, from rubber to road, owes thanks to the Speedway, where many innovative technologies were tested under race conditions.

"Racing has always been a test laboratory," Al Speyer, executive director of Firestone Racing, once said, "because the demands of the track were far more extreme than anything on the street."

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About The Author

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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