History of the Indy 500

Indianapolis Motor Speedway entrance
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Entrance

This year, the Indianapolis 500, or “Indy 500” – one of the most prestigious events in automobile racing – celebrates its 100th running. Originally known as the International Sweepstakes, it’s often called the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

When the construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was completed in 1909, its owners began running a season of racing events. But a crumbling tar and gravel track caused major issues for their goal of long distance races. Several fatal crashes cut short an early 300 mile race in 1909. Despite this, races were still well-attended, and ownership had the racing surface finished with 3.2 million bricks before the 1910 racing season (hence the track’s nickname of “Brickyard”). Again, organizers ran into a problem, but not with the track. While attendance was initially good, it quickly dropped off over the course of the year. For 1911, it was decided that the Speedway would have just one race, and it would be a big one — the Indianapolis 500, an epic 500-mile, 200-lap contest.

Indianapolis Race Day 2011
Indianapolis Race Day 2011

A massive (in 1911, anyway) prize pool of $25,000 was offered, compelling 46 drivers from around the world to register. Of those, 40 drivers qualified for the inaugural race. An estimated 80,000 people packed into the speedway on Memorial Day. Engineer Ray Harroun would be crowned the eventual winner of the first race, despite driving a rather peculiar car. Instead of using a riding mechanic like other drivers to monitor progress during the race, Harroun had the first ever cowl-mounted rearview mirror. Controversy still surrounds that first victory, with some claiming that Ralph Mulford was the actual winner.

The Indy 500 continues to be one of the most prestigious automotive races in the world. Indianapolis Motor Speedway has undergone several renovations, adding capacity over the last century. Though race organizers don’t release official attendance numbers, the speedway holds 235,000 people, and when you include the infield, attendance may be as high as 400,000. The Indy 500 continues to have one of the richest prize purses in sports, valued at over $13 million. The winner walks away with $2.5 million.

The Indianapolis 500 is steeped with traditions, many of which happen outside of the race itself. Celebrations and traditions extend before the green flag, and well after the checkered flag. Since 1946, spectators have joined together to sing the classic anthem “Back Home Again in Indiana”. Thousands of balloons are released into the air, a tradition started in 1947. Ten years later, in 1957, the first Indy 500 Festival parade took place. Winning drivers have an unusual tradition of their own: They drink a glass of milk. This custom began way back in 1933, when Louis Meyer asked for a glass of buttermilk to refresh himself after his victory. When Meyer again requested buttermilk after his 1936 win, a local dairy executive, sensing an awesome marketing opportunity, began the tradition of offering milk to the winner of the Indy 500.

1965 Indy 500 Winner Jim Clark
1965 Indy 500 Winner Jim Clark

We’re looking forward to the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 29, 2016. There’s nothing like the Indy 500 in any other sport, in history, tradition, size, and purse. It truly is The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Photos by Momentcaptured1 and Ted Van Pelt


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