SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Story by Race Chaser Online Midwest Correspondent Aaron Bearden — Chris Owens/IndyCar photo —
Memorial Day weekend is a special time in the United States, when we honor those who have fallen while serving our country.
For racing fans, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is even more special.
Proclaimed as the greatest day in racing, the day contains three legendary races; the Grand Prix of Monaco, the Coca-Cola 600, and the Indianapolis 500.
All three races are grand events. However, only one is known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”: the Indianapolis 500.
First run in 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has become one of the biggest races in the world. Drivers and teams come to Indianapolis every May looking for glory, hoping to add their name to the Borg-Warner trophy alongside names like Foyt, Andretti, and Wheldon.
While a huge race today, the Indy 500 was started out of necessity. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 out of gravel and tar. The first events held at the speedway were smaller, with the first long-distance event being a 100-lap feature in 1909.
The track began experimenting with longer events over the second-half of 1909, holding 200 and 300-mile races. However, break-up of the track’s asphalt led to severe wrecks, causing two fatalities and forcing the 300-mile event to be shortened to 235 miles.
The long-distance races were dangerous, but they drew the biggest crowds. Upwards of 15,000 paying customers came to watch the new spectacle of auto racing. In order to continue to accommodate long-distance races, track owner Carl G. Fisher commissioned a repaving of the track with 3.2-million bricks, and added a 2 ft., 9 in. concrete wall around the track.
The first events of 1910 brought over 60,000 spectators, with legend Ray Harroun winning a 200-mile race. However, the tracks continual events throughout 1910 drew smaller crowds.
Seeing the decreasing returns, track officials decided to adapt a “less is more” philosophy the following year. The track reduced their schedule from multiple events to a single, 500-lap event.
Thus, the Indianapolis 500 was born.
The first Indy 500, then called the “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes” was held on May 30, 1911. With a $25,000 cash prize, the event gained immediate prestige among drivers, garnering 40 entries in the first year. In front of over 80,000 spectators, Ray Harroun (and relief driver Cyrus Patschke) won the inaugural event.
Over time, the race grew in fame and its rules were refined. The purse was raised to $50,000 in 1912, and the field was, over the next several years, cut to 33 drivers — the same number that race today.
The track, known as “The Brickyard” for its three-foot stretch of bricks at the start/finish line, quickly grew to become one of the most famous racetracks in the world. Teams, owners, and drivers all looked forward to May, when they would get another chance at racing immortality.
The track was shut down from 1917-1918 and 1942-1945 for World War I and World War II, but quickly returned following the end of each war. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has hosted the Indy 500 for 69 consecutive years, running a race every May since George Robson won the 500 in 1946.
This Sunday will be the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500. There’ve been a few changes along the way. There have been multiple tragedies, causing the track track to adapt the newest safety features, such as the implementation of SAFER Barriers. The winning driver now drinks chilled milk upon driving to victory lane, and then kisses the yard of bricks at the start-finish line — the only bricks of the original paving that still show.
NASCAR, Formula 1, MotoGP, and IMSA have all run races at the track, much to the chagrin of IndyCar purists. The Verizon IndyCar Series has even added a road-course race.
However, to the track’s biggest fans and drivers, one race rules them all.
It is the Indianapolis 500.
Even today, it is “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”