The Indianapolis 500 is the world’s largest annual, single-venue, one-day sporting event.
Its cavernous grandstands seat more than a quarter of a million, while its infield viewing areas can swallow another 150,000. It’s immovable and irresistible at the same time. CART in the 1990s undoubtedly had the better overall product, but Tony George’s IRL had the Indy 500 and so its ‘victory’, though not the work of a moment, was inevitable. Even the mighty Roger Penske couldn’t prevent it.
It’s hard to imagine, therefore, Indy’s hard times. Famous World War I fighter ace and racer Eddie Rickenbacker guided it through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and three-time winner Wilbur Shaw and local businessman Tony Hulman revived the dilapidated, weed-strewn venue after WWII. (There was a genuine threat that it might become a housing development.
But its greatest struggle, naturally, was its birth. It took foresight and faith – plus $220,000 – to convert four 80-acre tracts of unprepossessing, sometimes boggy, farmland at the junction of an unmade road and a cart track into a 2.5-mile, four-turn speedway. A tiny railway station, used by local farmers, was the only hint of the future expansion of Indianapolis, five miles east, and its transportation system.
The racing began – with gas air balloons – in June 1909. Motorbikes and automobiles followed in August – and the track’s surface of crushed rock and tar crumbled under the pressure. In response, 3.2 million of mainly Culver Blocks were laid and mortared in just 63 days: the Brickyard was born. Still, it might have been blown down.
A trio of three-day, multi-race events – based around Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day – were held in 1910. The first was a success; the second, held in searing July heat, less so; ditto the third, held in shortening September days and clashing with a huge parade downtown. This surfeit of competition was in 1911 wisely consolidated into a single Memorial Day race with a headline-grabbing prize fund and distance: $30,000 and 500 miles.
The first of these hit the spot: 40 cars and 80,000 spectators. By the time of the second, however, cracks were beginning to show. America’s sprawling automobile industry had embarked on a bumpy journey. It was merge or bust for many pioneers. Even some of those who had competed at Indy in 1911 could neither afford nor see the sense of repeating the exercise. Just 24 cars started.
The track’s primary purpose had been to provide a scientific testing site for Indianapolis’s car manufacturers. Already, however, it was clear that Detroit was pulling away in the race to become Motown, and that overt manufacturer support, though important on and off down the years at Indy, could not be relied upon. Suddenly, the track was a sporting venue first and foremost. What it needed more than anything, therefore, was an epic drama to spread the word, to cement its place in the public conscience.
That’s precisely what it got.
Ralph DePalma was an Italian immigrant (from agricultural Puglia in the south). A barnstorming dirt-track racer, he was fast, consistent, likeable and quotable, and often unlucky at the Brickyard. Think Mario Andretti. His Simplex had led briefly at Indy in 1911 before finishing sixth, but his performance of 1912 was of an entirely different order.
Driving a 1908 13-litre GP Mercedes, he took the lead from Fiat’s “Terrible Teddy” Tetzlaff on the third lap and held it until the 198th (of 200). For three laps the Merc had trailed smoke because of a broken con rod that finally punched a hole in the crankcase. Thinking they were on the last lap, and knowing that they were far in the lead, DePalma and his Australian riding mechanic Rupert Jeffkins began to push their crippled leviathan.
They were still a few hundred yards from the start/finish line when Joe Dawson, a 22-year-old Indianan driving for local manufacturer National, put himself back on the lead lap. Told that actually he still had another lap to complete, the exhausted DePalma’s first act after calling a halt to his Sisphyean task was to warmly congratulate a disbelieving Dawson on his victory.
The race had another trick in its tail for DePalma. Only the first 12 cars to complete the full distance were eligible for prize money. Ralph Mulford, munching on a sandwich as he nursed his much-delayed Knox to the finish, crossed the line two-and-a-half hours after Dawson yet won $1200 for 10th place. DePalma won zip for 11th.
In the short term, the press thus had great heartbreaking and uplifting stories to file. In the medium term, it had a hero upon which to ‘hook’ future stories. And in the long term, the 500 already had the necessary folklore for it to become ‘America’s Race’, to see it through the tough times.
DePalma’s trials and tribulations at Indy kept typewriters and jaws rattling until 1925. He led 612 of his 1594 laps – only Al Unser Sr, who contested 27 500s compared to DePalma’s 10, has led more – yet he won only once: in 1915, at the wheel of a 1914 GP Mercedes snuck out of Europe on the eve of hostilities. Even his victory was not without drama: another clattering broken con rod causing him late-race palpitations but not ultimate heartache this time.