This article will look at the effect that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has had on oval track racing, especially NASCAR, in the US.
But first, the story of what inspired this article.
The Fan sat in his usual spot at the local short track; about half way between the Flag Stand and the First Turn, about half way up.
It was a beautiful summer Saturday night at the track. It was truly “Racing Weather.”
This reminded the Fan of an event at a race track so many years ago.
He couldn’t have been more than three years old, sitting in the same part of the stands, half way between the First Turn and the Flag Stand, about half way up.
The little Fan watched a car head down the front straight. Perhaps it was a car built by his father, the Fan couldn’t remember, as the memory was more like a flash in time, just a bit of a memory, everything else lost to the passing years.
The car went through Turn One, and was momentarily lost from view behind the infield clutter at the now long-defunct dirt track.
As the car reappeared in view it had almost completed Turn Two and as the car started onto the back straight the car suddenly turned to the right and burst through the wooden fence along the track.
The little Fan was startled by the accident, the memory burned into his memory forever. The Fan could not remember what happened after the car went through the fence.
He had to assume that everything turned out okay, but only the fence-smashing had stayed in his memory.
That was all the Fan could remember, just that snatch of time from so many years ago.
The next “racing incident” that the Fan remembered, another snatch of time, was in front of the family home.
The Fan’s father’s race car sat in front of the home. The young Fan bugged his dad until he was put in the driver’s seat.
The little Fan imagined himself driving the Flathead-powered Ford Coupe around the track, broad-sliding out of Turn Two heading for the checkered flag, on the way to another win.
Suddenly, the powerful “flattie” roared to life! It was unbelievably loud! The little Fan was startled. He cried out to his father to get him out of this noisy thing!
The little Fan’s father couldn’t hear his son, as he was tuning the rumbling Flathead Ford engine; his head down, working on the running engine.
After the little Fan’s dad shut the engine off, he saw his frightened little son’s tear-streaked face.
The little Fan was extricated from the driver’s seat, and he went inside.
After a while, the little Fan wondered when he could do it again.
And then another memory came to mind, the memory of how years later the young Fan was at a different track with his father.
In fact it was the track he was sitting at tonight, in the stands half way between the Flag Stand and Turn One, about halfway up.
The Local Hero was leading the race, again, on the then-dirt track.
Suddenly, coming out of Turn Two, the left front wheel came off the Local Hero’s car. The Hero didn’t slow, he continued to lead!
As the Local Hero’s car continued around the track, the wheel-less end of the front axle was just skimming across the dirt. All the cars ran small left front tires, so running without that wheel was not a big deal to the Local Hero.
As the Local Hero’s car began to move into Turn One, the tie rod snapped, the right front wheel turned outward and the car ground to a halt against the guard rail entering Turn One, not even making it back to Turn Two.
Another memory came to mind. Years later, the Fan was with his father and some of his father’s friends.
They were sitting in the stands in the usual location in the stands half way between the Flag Stand and Turn One, about halfway up.
The young Fan got to tag along, going to his first Big Race. A rain delay and the Big Race being re-scheduled for the following weekend was the young Fan’s ticket to the big time!
The Fan’s new Ford Hero was chasing down the white Chevrolet. Late in the race the Ford Hero, in his pearl white Ford, easily lead the challenger through Turn Two.
Then, as they swept through Turn Four the Chevrolet slapped the wall with a shredded right front tire just a few laps from the end, and the Ford Hero cruised to the win.
When the local track was remodeled and reopened, the Fan, still too young to drive, bugged his father to go to the local track. They only missed two race weekends during the season.
The stands were virtually full for each race they attended, the local race fans excited about the reopening of the track.
The Fan and his father sat at their usual location, in the stands half way between the Flag Stand and Turn One, about halfway up. It felt a little strange however, as during the remodel, the old back stretch had become the front straight.
But now the Fan’s attention returned to the races at hand.
During a preliminary event, an accident in Turn Two caused the red flag to come out stopping the short race.
The Fan had gone to the race by himself, unlike the usual fan who attended with family and friends.
And then a solitary Stranger sitting to his left asked a question.
“Excuse me sir,” the Stranger said,” why do they call it Turn Two? It looks like one big turn to me.”
The Fan was taken aback. It was always Turn Two wasn’t it? Why was it called Turn Two?
Still a bit startled the Fan finally replied (the pause probably wasn’t as long as it seemed) “I don’t know.”
The Stranger shrugged, and as the cars re-started, returned to watching the race.
After the race the Fan thought to himself ‘Why do they call it Turn Two?’
Through the following years reading many books and magazine articles about the history of motorsports the Fan finally felt he knew why they call it Turn Two.
The Fan wished he had known the answer to the question all those years before from the solitary Stranger.
The Stranger was probably that most rare of race spectators attending the races for the first time by himself, unlike most first-time fans that are brought to the races by family or friends.
The Fan regretted that he could not answer the question, “Why do they call it Turn Two?”
The Fan thought to himself: ‘I’m sorry Mr. Stranger; I wish you could ask me again, for now I believe I know the answer.’
Two thousand nine was the beginning of the Centennial Era (2009 – 2011) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The track and its signature race the Indianapolis 500 have had a profound effect on motorsports in the United States.
The Centennial Era of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway marks the earliest years of the track which first opened in 1909 through the year the signature event of the race track, the Indianapolis 500, first ran in 1911.
The origin of the idea for a race track was the result of a trip to Europe in 1905 by Carl Graham Fisher.
Fisher had helped some friends who were racing in France, and he noted that the Europeans were ahead of the US in automotive technology.
Fisher felt a facility for testing, as well as racing was needed in the United States. Highways were poor or totally nonexistent in the US at the time giving manufacturers no place to test autos safely.
Fisher’s belief was strengthened after he visited the first purpose-built auto race track, Brooklands in England. Brooklands, a high banked, pear shaped ‘oval’ of 2.75 miles, opened in 1907 outside of London.
Fisher’s proposed facility was intended for auto testing by manufacturers as well as racing. The races would prove to the buying public the strength and durability of this still-new product, the automobile.
Fisher had already been involved in the automobile business as a salesman, having flown a Stoddard-Dayton automobile by balloon over Indianapolis to get the attention of potential customers.
At the early part of the 20th century, Indiana was full of car companies, having more manufacturers than any other part of the country. All these manufacturers in the state were to be a good customer base for the auto testing that was one of the reasons for the facilities’ construction.
In the beginning of the century Indiana was the home of such renowned brands as Stutz, Duesenberg, Auburn, Cord, National and Studebaker.
By the time the 20th century was done, almost 250 different makes and models of autos had been manufactured in Indiana.
More than eighty-eight cities and towns in Indiana were the home of companies that assembled or manufactured automobiles, cycle cars, and motorcycles over the years, with Indianapolis being the home of over a hundred manufacturers.
By the time the Indianapolis Speedway was built, Fisher was already rich. In 1904, Fisher and James Allison and each invested $2500 to start the Prest-O-Lite Corporation, the first manufacturer of automobile headlights.
The Prest-O-Lite system used gas lamps that used a fuel derived from carbide. Years later Union Carbide bought control of Prest -O-Lite for $9 million, a huge sum at the time.
After four adjoining tracts of level farmland totaling 328 acres five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis were located, Fisher convinced three partners In December 1908 to purchase the property for $72,000.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company's incorporation papers listed capitalization of $250,000, with Fisher and James Allison investing $75,000 apiece and Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby investing $50,000 each.
The investors’ titles were: C. G. Fisher president, J. A. Allison, secretary; A. C. Newby, First Vice president; F. H. Wheeler, second vice president. The four investors were, in fact, named on the trophy awarded to the 1912 winner of the ‘500’ that can be seen today at the Speedway Museum.
Investors Arthur Newby (President), and James Allison (Secretary) were also officers of the National Motor Vehicle Company, headquartered in Indianapolis.
(Carl Fisher went on to develop Miami, after building the Speedway but he eventually lost his fortune to a hurricane and the Stock Market Crash of 1929.)
(James Allison’s race team eventually became the Allison Engine Company, famous for its aircraft engines in WWII, and afterward became part of GM. Allison’s companies later became Allison Gas Turbine (now Rolls Royce Allison) and Allison Transmission.)
Construction began in March 1909, with ambitious plans to start racing by the Fourth of July. The first paved public road was also under construction in 1909, so no one had an idea for what would be the most durable surface.
The track surface was composed of limestone covered with taroid (a solution of tar and oil), then crushed stone chips that were also drenched with taroid, and a final topping of crushed stone.
Due to the poor reliability of the original surface, the track was paved with bricks for the 1911 season.
The size of the property acquired for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dictated the final shape of the track. Fisher had original wanted a three-mile oval with additional racing surface for a road course in the infield.
The owners quickly realized that the original design had no room for spectators, so the oval was built at 2.5 miles, and the idea of an infield road course was dropped.
With Henry Ford (left) Speedway founders: AC Newby, Frank Wheeler, Carl G Fisher, James Allison. Note that Fisher is wearing his duster coat and goggles that he wore while driving his personal Stoddard-Dayton car as pace car.
The track was laid out in a rectangular shape, conforming to the grid pattern of the property lines that encompassed the area in which the property was located.
The final shape of the Speedway consisted of four quarter-mile-long turns linked by two five-eighths-mile straights and two eighth-mile “short chutes” connecting the corners which were banked at 9.2 degrees.
Thus the first purpose-built automobile race track in the United States had four separate turns.
From this, the practice of referring to the turns of an oval as “Turn One,” “Turn Two” etc. began even though, in most cases the typical oval track is a true oval shape, being closer to a ‘paper clip’ shape than the rounded rectangle of Indy.
Although the organizers of Brooklands used horse racing for the model to organize their events, the operators of Indianapolis went their own way.
Brooklands used colored jerseys on the drivers (similar to jockey silks) to identify the different cars, and used the horse racing terms of ‘paddock’ for the gathering area of the cars, and ‘clerk of the course’ for the top track official.
(The terms ‘paddock’ and ‘clerk of the course’ are used to this day in Europe.)
Later, the AIACR (the forerunner of the present-day FIA) followed the horse racing model, assigning colors for race cars on a national basis.
Race cars from each nation, no matter who made them, would use the same colors. Red was for Italy, yellow for Belgium, green for England, white (yes, white) with green markings for Germany, white with blue markings for the US, light blue for France, and so on.
The operators of the Indianapolis track would use numbers on the cars to keep track of the contestants, with the colors of the cars having no significance, except to the builders and later, the sponsors.
Prior to the first “500” in 1911 the track operators quickly found out that trying to have a rolling start for the auto races was nearly impossible and, after the first few races, began the races from a standing start.
For the start of the first Indianapolis 500 Carl Fisher used his own Stoddard-Dayton car to ‘set the pace’ to keep the drivers in order until the Green Flag was waved. Thus the use of Pace Cars for auto races in the US began.
1911 Indianapolis pace car: track president Carl Fisher driving his personal Stoddard-Dayton (note his initials "CGF" on the radiator.)
In the early days of the Indianapolis 500, the mechanics for the various entries worked out of a “pit” dug beside the service points assigned to the cars. These “pits” were used to lower the crewmen out of the line of sight of the paying customers in the infield.
From this, the term “pits” quickly came into use to refer to the service areas and the service roads at all race tracks.
From the very start, the Indianapolis 500 was known for the specially built cars used for the competition. The term “Special” quickly became part of the nomenclature of the Speedway.
This also became a way to get a sponsor’s name in the newspapers as the tradition-bound news writers were virtually all non-motorsports fans.
Thus we saw, for decades, such names as the “Bowes Seal-Fast Special” (for an auto additive) or the “Leader Card Special” (for a greeting card company).
But despite the history of Specials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first auto races at the track were for modified stock cars!
Most of the auto races held in 1909 and 1910 were for production (“stock”) cars, divided by engine sizes. Both race meetings also included Handicap and Free-for-All events.
In all these production car events, the cars had been stripped of unnecessary items making them, in essence, Modified Stock Cars.
Later, the 1912 winner of the Indianapolis 500 was a National driven by Joe Dawson. This car is considered to be the only stock car to win the 500.
When the Speedway decided to have only one race per year, beginning in 1911, the question of how long a race had to be answered.
The race length was determined by endurance. But it wasn’t the endurance of the cars or even the drivers, but fan endurance that decided the race’s length.
Five hundred miles was determined to be the longest time that the fans could endure watching the competition with the event scheduled to start at 10 AM.
A 500 mile race was estimated to require at least seven hours to complete, and the 10 AM start time would allow enough daylight to finish the race and still allow spectators, many using horse-drawn carriages, to return home.
Thus the "500-Mile International Sweepstakes Race," as it was advertised as from 1911 to 1980, was born.
Five hundred soon became the “magic number” in American racing. The Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) 500-mile race at Indianapolis was often simply referred to as “The 500.”
Although the 500 became known as the only race held each year, this didn’t immediately become the case in 1911.
The Harvest Auto Classic (consisting of three races, of 20, 50, and 100 mile lengths) was held Labor Day weekend of 1916. It was the last event other that the "500" to be held at the Speedway until the NASCAR Brickyard 400 in 1994.
(It is interesting to note that Johnny Aitken won all three of the races held on Labor Day of 1916, giving Aitken a total of 15 wins at the track. Aitken’s first 12 wins were in 1909-10 before the famous 500 mile race began. Aitken has the most driver wins all-time at IMS.)
When the Darlington Raceway was conceived, the track’s builders wanted to bring the cars that raced at Indy to the South.
The track was built as, and was originally measured as a 1 ¼ mile track, exactly half the length of the Indianapolis facility.
The influence of Indy was the reason the Consolidated and Central States Racing Association (CCSRA) was to sanction the first race at Darlington. The race would be for “big-cars” as Indy style cars were known at that time.
When Darlington’s operators failed to attract enough Big Cars, the race was switched to stock cars still by CCSRA, but with not enough entries they turned to Bill France and his fledgling NASCAR organization.
NASCAR became co-sanctioning body for the First Southern 500, even though France had thought that stock cars would not survive a 500-mile race and initially declined to sanction the race.
The 500 mile distance echoed the length of the famous race in Indianapolis.
The starting field lined up in rows of three as had been long the practice at Indianapolis.
When Bill France built the Daytona speedway he was determined to build a 2.5-mile track; a length equal to IMS. The result was the bend in the front stretch to get the 2.5-mile length track on the available land.
The term “500” became a “Magic Number” in US automotive circles.
By the mid-1960’s Ford Motor Company began using the “500” tag to denote its top-of –the line models. There was a Fairlane and then there was a Fairlane 500; likewise the Galaxie and the Galaxie 500.
Race promoters began to schedule more and more races that were “500’s.”
On short tracks races were 500 laps while 500-mile races became common on larger tracks.
Sometimes when a 500-mile race took too long to complete, the race became a 500 kilometer (about 311 mile) race. The fact that the race was measured in kilometers was rarely mentioned.
Thus we see that many of the racing traditions and terms in the United States come from the influence of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
ABOUT THE STORY: The long-defunct dirt track was probably Chestnut Avenue Speedway. The local track was started sixty years ago as Dude Ranch Speedway and was later remodeled and was renamed Langley Field Speedway and now known as Langley Speedway. The Local Hero was the late Gene Lovelace. The Fan’s first big race was the 1963 World 600, with Junior Johnson in the white Ray Fox #3 Chevrolet and Fred Lorenzen driving the white #28 Holman-Moody Ford. The Fan is I.
For the inspiration to tell some of my own experiences, I would like to thank a former editor at Bleacher Report: Saraswathi Sirigina.
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