Designed as a test track 100 years ago, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted its first race before a single brick had been laid
By Donald Davidson
It has been suggested – raising a few eyebrows in the United States – that it was the opening of the Brooklands track, south west of London, in 1907 which inspired the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, initial discussion that a huge test track should be constructed for the benefit of the fledgling automobile industry somewhere close to the Indiana capital likely took place as many as four years before that.
While the city of Indianapolis was never the centre of the early automobile industry, as has sometimes been erroneously stated, it did rank second for a while, and with more than 40 different makes operating there at one time or another, it briefly did produce more automobiles than Detroit.
Indianapolis was a hive of activity, with company heads, engineers and agents – as dealers were then known – regularly gathering at a downtown restaurant to discuss the trials and tribulations of everyday motoring. The biggest challenge, they agreed, was the ability to test. Technology had resulted in potential speeds progressing rapidly from a bare crawl to 30, 40 and 50 miles per hour and beyond. Unfortunately, it was virtually impossible to exercise such speeds. With nobody having anything close to a testing facility, companies had been using the open road, and while some states had begun appropriating funding for road development, Indiana was not among them. The dirt-surfaced thoroughfares were either quagmires in the rain or bone-shaking washboards in the dry.
Generally holding court at these gatherings was an extraordinary gentleman named Carl Fisher, who sadly has been all but forgotten. A pioneer in bicycle and automobile sales, it was Fisher who declared that what was needed was a huge track with long straights and sweeping turns, enabling unlimited speeds. Energy and enthusiasm had lifted Fisher from humble beginnings into a dynamic showman and impresario while still in his teens, eventually to develop Miami Beach, Florida, into a resort area, and head up the Lincoln Highway Commission for the purpose of building the first drivable highway across the United States.
In regard to the Brooklands claim, a letter written by Fisher appeared in an issue of the weekly Motor Age magazine, outlining his vision for building a track of anywhere from three to five miles per lap. He stated he had been working on the project for three years, even citing two instances of plans which had already been abandoned, due to terrain or the restricted size of the property. The magazine’s cover date was November 15, 1906.
Legend has it that on a return trip from Dayton, Ohio, in the summer of 1908, yet another tyre failure sent the ever-blaspheming Fisher off on one of his harmless tirades, ranting and raving about the state of the roads, the quality of tyres and the automobile industry in general. With him was Lemon H Trotter, a real estate friend who a few days later drove Fisher some five miles north-west of Indianapolis to show him approximately 320 acres of farmland currently up for sale. The land was flat, making it ideal for laying down the track Fisher had been talking about for five years.
Within a matter of days, Fisher had gathered together four friends for the purpose of sharing in the purchase. One soon dropped out, leaving Arthur Newby, a long-time bicycle-racing associate of Fisher who was now the president of the National Motor Vehicle Company; Frank Wheeler, one half of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburettor Company, and James Allison, who a few years later would start the company which would develop into the massive Allison Engineering aircraft engine concern.
The track began to take shape in the spring of 1909, the dimensions being precisely as they are today – two parallel straights of 5/8th of a mile each and a pair of 220-yard straights (at the north and south ends), all linked by four sweeping turns measuring exactly one-quarter of a mile each. The result: a 2.5-mile rectangular-shaped oval.
The original surface was a mixture of crushed rock and tar, which, while perfectly adequate for a sedate drive on a country road, was simply unable to cope with the rigorous punishment inflicted by desperately churning wheels attempting to gain traction.
The track’s first competition took place long before the oval was completed, the US National Championships for gas-filled balloons being held on June 5. It attracted a huge crowd, but unfortunately only about 4000 people were sporting enough to enter through either the one-dollar or the 50-cent gates, thousands more having determined that the greater part of a balloon ascent could be witnessed from outside the grounds.
Following several postponements related to construction, the inaugural track event dates were finally established as Friday and Saturday, August 13-14 for a motorcycle racing programme, and August 19-21 for three days of automobile competition. Ominous Friday the 13th, however, was washed out by rain, pushing the opening to Saturday. The 10-event programme was shortened to eight, of which only seven were held, the track deteriorating so badly that many of the riders withdrew. The second day of competition, originally postponed until Monday, was cancelled completely.
The three days of auto racing the following week were filled with disasters due to the track condition, with five lives being lost, including a driver, two riding mechanics and two spectators. All further programmes were cancelled as, obviously, something had to be done about the surface.
Consideration was given to a concrete surface but then quickly dismissed with the realisation that the sub-zero temperatures of a typical Hoosier winter would have required constant patching of the resulting cracks. With several of the surrounding states at the time having enjoyed success in using hefty 10-pound bricks to pave roads, an arrangement was soon made with the Wabash Clay Company in tiny Veedersburg, Indiana, not far from the Illinois border. In late September, shipments of paving bricks began to arrive by rail, a total of 3,200,000 being required to cover the 2.5 miles. They were laid on their sides in a bed of sand with a small separation deliberately left on each side into which mortar was poured for the purpose of making the surface as strong as possible.
Remarkably, the entire job was completed in only 63 days, and while it was far too cold to conduct the intended racing events on December 17 and 18, several contestants did brave the freezing conditions in order to try for some records. Over what the locals were now calling “the brickyard”, Lewis Strang lapped a 120-horsepower Fiat at almost 92mph.
The new surface, while rough, was much safer. In addition to a summer of private testing, three days of racing at the end of May went off virtually without a hitch with as many as 50,000 people attending on one of the days. For a week-long air display in mid-June, the Wright Brothers brought several aircraft over from the neighbouring state of Ohio. One, flown by 21-year-old Walter Brookins, twice set a new record for altitude, ultimately attaining 4938 feet.
Three days of early-July automobile racing came next, but this time, the crowds were down. The early-September meet was reduced from three days to two, but just as in July, evidently the womenfolk had something in mind for the Labor Day holiday other than attending automobile races. The crowds were down again.
The four partners huddled a day or two later and by September 6, the word was out. A different approach would be taken for 1911. A huge purse of $25,000, plus accessory prizes, was to be posted for one major event, of which $10,000 would go to the winner. After some discussion as to what that extravaganza might be, the decision was made to present something lasting around seven hours, the duration of a typical day’s racing.
And so it came to pass that on May 30, 1911, the track conducted one major motor race, the distance of which was 500 miles.