Track’s spirit of independence, innovation alive and well a century laterSRC Member
May 8, 2011
SPEEDWAY, Ind. (WISH) – When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909, 2 pennies would buy you a Hershey chocolate bar, and a new automobile would cost you $1,280 on average.
Indianapolis was among the top five automobile-producing regions in the country, with dozens of auto companies, including Marmon, Cole, National and Overland, in and around the city limits. But roads in the area were not keeping pace. Automotive technology was increasing so rapidly that many passenger vehicles at the time were capable of greater speeds than any dirt road – the standard at the time – would permit. And so the vision of a local automotive proving grounds was born.
Carl G. Fisher, business leader and Greensburg native, joined forces with other local businessmen James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler to create a track for private testing and occasional auto racing that would promote the vehicles to the general public.
Fisher would go on to develop Miami Beach from Florida swampland, and he formed the Lincoln Highway Commission, which built the first drivable highway across the United States. Newby was the head of the National Motor Vehicle Co. Wheeler led Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor. Allison went on to start operation that would become the massive Allison Engineering Co. But in 1909, their collective vision would create the start of a century of racing tradition in Indianapolis.
The track officially opened to the public on June 5, 1909, for the U.S. National Balloon Championships. Motorcycle races were held the following Aug. 14, and auto races on Aug. 19-21.
Over those first three days of auto racing, however, one driver, two mechanics and two spectators were killed. The original surface of the track – a tar, sand and gravel mix – was deemed unsuitable, and management eventually decided to resurface the track with 3.2 million street-paving bricks – earning the track the local nickname “The Brickyard.”
In 1909 and 1910 several auto races and other events – including a National Aviation Meet that drew famous flight pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright – took place, but om September 1910 local newspapers reported IMS management was considering a single major racing event – a 500 mile race with a huge total purse of $30,000 – for the next year.
The race that began a 100-year tradition took place on Memorial Day weekend of 1911, and the event would be an annual Indianapolis occurrence except for during the world wars. And from the traffic and prestige of the track sprang a city.
A year after the first race, the plans for Speedway City were drafted. The community was to be committed to industry, transportation and progress, to be an example for living in the new automotive era. Fisher, the track visionary, was one of the founders of the city that touted sidewalks, water, gas, electric lights, interurban train service and gravel roadway (an improvement over the dirt tracks that crisscrossed the country at the time).
Several industrial companies set up shop in the area over the next few years, and on July 14, 1926, the community petitioned Marion County to incorporate as a town, with 507 residents. Within four years, that population had nearly tripled to more than 1,400.
World War II brought more factories and more people. Population of the town hit nearly 5,500 by 1950, and had nearly tripled again by 1970, to 15,000.
The war years, however, were not kind to the track. Though a World War I hero, flying ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, bought the IMS in 1927, it was closed in 1942 due to America’s involvement in World War II. The track fell into disrepair, and remained closed through 1945.
But the year the war ended, Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman purchased the famed by rundown 2.5-mile racetrack for $750,000 – the same price Rickenbacker had paid nearly 20 years earlier.
Hulman immediately undertook a major renovation project, and the track re-opened in time for the 1946 Indianapolis 500.
Since that time, the track has become the showcase for other major racing events, including NASCAR’s Brickyard 400, Formula One’s U.S. Grand Prix, and the Red Bull GP, a motorcycle racing event.
Auto safety and media broadcast technology have also been showcased and developed at IMS over the years, and the town of Speedway has remained a distinct identity, despite being engulfed by growth of the Indianapolis metropolitan area.
This month, the town “dropped the checkered flag” on its Main Street revitalization project. The $10 million project began in November 2009 and included bike lanes and racks, widened sidewalks, new street signs, and an upgraded stormwater management system. Redevelopment officials expect the improvements to have a great economic impact on the area.
“Main Street’s redevelopment not only begins to restore the area’s former grandeur, but it carries on Speedway’s mantra of racing, innovation and community,” said Vince Noblet, president of the Speedway Redevelopment Commission. “We’ve had great successes on Main Street so far, like the opening of the Dallara Automobili and Indy Racing Experience facility in the coming months, and we are looking forward to even more wins in the near future.”
Sustainable construction was also a priority in the project, in keeping with Speedway’s heritage of innovation. Features include rain gardens, porous pavement and green gutters.
“We may have crossed the finish line, but the race continues here in Speedway,” Noblet said. “The new, sustainable Main Street reinvigorates this historic area in our community, and we expect its growth and development to continue well into the future. Today is a good day for Speedway, but we’re not finished just yet.”