Since 1911, the capital city of Indiana has hosted one of the most prestigious motor races in the world, the Indianapolis 500. Even 110 years later, it still captures the heart of millions of fans around the world.
Motorsport was still in its infancy in 1909, there was no organized championship, very few permanent racing facilities, and no professional drivers. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of those first permanent racetracks, opening in August 1909.
In 1911, after diminishing crowds due to having a race every other week, it was decided to hold one 500-mile endurance race around the track in May every year, and thus the Indianapolis 500 was born.
The first event in 1911 has a $25 000 prize, the equivalent of 37.6kg of gold. It was won by Ray Harroun, despite other drivers being angry at him for not carrying a riding mechanic to check for traffic. The race attracted a crowd of 80 000, cementing the annual tradition at Indy.
In 1912, the field size was slashed to 33, which it still is today, and riding mechanics were made mandatory. The prize was doubled to $50 000 and the race was won by Joe Dawson, however, this race was very different from 1911. Ralph DePalma led from the start to turn 4 on lap 199 when his Mercedes died on him, and Joe Dawson took the lead and won. The prime example of “you only need to lead those last few turns”.
The pre-WW1 years began to be dominated by international cars and drivers, with Mercedes, Fiat and Peugeot generally upfront, meaning the event lost popularity. From 1913-1916, the race was exclusively won by Europeans.
World War 1 briefly interrupted the running of the Indy 500, but it was back in 1919, with American Howdy Wilcox winning. 1919 was the first year the qualifying average speed was over 100mph, with France’s Rene Thomas doing 104.7mph. In 1920, the four-lap average qualifying system was put into effect, one which we still use today. DePalma took the first pole position using this format.
Tommy Milton became the first driver to win the event twice, having won it in 1921 and 1923. 1925 was the year a driver completed the 500 miles in under five hours, with a race average speed of 100mph. Peter DePaulo was the man to achieve this feat, despite spending 20 laps on the sidelines as his relief driver drove.
By 1926, the field was full of cars built by Harry Miller. The engines built by him won 12 races between 1922 and 1938. In this time, Louis Meyer became the first man to win three Indy 500s, taking the victory in 1928, 1933, and 1936. From 1935, another engine began to dominate the race, the Offenhauser. This engine took no less than 27 wins, including 18 in a row post-WW2.
Between 1942-1945, the Indy 500 wasn’t held due to the second world war. Wilbur Shaw became the first to win two Indianapolis 500s in a row when he won the 1939 and 1940 rounds. Post WW2, the Indy 500 was mostly dominated by Offenhauser-engined Kurtis-Kraft cars. Drivers like Mauri Rose and Bill Vukovich won two races on the trot in the late 1940s and 1950s, when the Indy 500 was briefly a Formula 1 round. Vukovich was well on his way to winning three in a row too, but he had a bad crash in the 1955 event and died from his injuries.
The cars had mostly been front-engined for the first 50 years of the Indy 500, but that changed in the early 1960s. Drivers and cars from Europe were beginning to float overseas again, one of whom being Jim Clark and Colin Chapman. As they had done in Europe, they revolutionized the American racing scene with the rear engine, monocoque Lotus cars. Clark won the 1965 race, and set the trend of rear-engine cars in Indycar, by leading 190 of the 200 laps.
It was around this time that the modern-day legendary teams made their appearance too. McLaren, Penske, and Andretti among others, came about in the late 1960s to early 1970s. The Indy 500 became more universal as aerodynamics floated across the Atlantic to America and teams began to fit wings to their cars, and ground effect in the 1980s.
The race was beginning to be broadcast internationally too, with live or same-day delay coverage of the race the norm in most countries worldwide. It was the late 1970s when the only three four-time Indy winners raced at the track at the same time. A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser. Incredibly Foyt, who won his first 500 when Mears was 11, started his last 500 after Mears had retired, with Foyt running 36 Indy races between 1958-1993.
In the modern era, drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya, Takuma Sato, Will Power and this years polesitter Scott Dixon have been at the front, the modern history makers in the now Dallara built Indycars. Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti are two other legends since the turn of the century, and one can only wonder how many wins Dan Wheldon could have had he not died in 2011.
Indianapolis truly is a spectacle of worldwide motorsport, and 2021 is likely to be another great story around the brickyard as the race gets underway later today.