106 years ago this week 80,000 spectators gathered to watch the first Indy 500 in history. The race was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, a giant in the early auto industry. Fisher’s Presto-O-Lite factory supplied headlamps to every car manufacturer in the United States.
In 1909, Fisher and three business partners opened the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a safe place to test the limits of new automobiles. The 2.5 mile oval track was one of the first built specifically for car races.
After two years of experimenting with different racing schedules, Fisher and his partners chose to concentrate on one 500-mile event to be held around Memorial Day every year. The Indy 500 was the only authorized race on the track from 1919 to 1993, when the marketing strategy changed.
When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway first opened, it was paved with a mixture of gravel, tar and crushed stone. This rough surface proved hazardous, popping tires and spraying many drivers with hot, oily tar. For safety’s sake the track was resurfaced with 3.2 million bricks, giving rise to its nickname, “The Brickyard”. Today the speedway is paved with asphalt, except at the start-finish line, where a ceremonial three-feet-wide line of bricks remains.
Ray Harroun drove a Marmon ‘Wasp’ to victory in the first Indy 500 with an average speed of 74 miles per hour. Sounds funny today, when 75 mph is the speed limit on many U.S. Interstates. Harroun’s prize was the princely sum of $10,000.
Carl Fisher and his business partners owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1926, when—after refusing a lucrative offer from a real estate developer—they sold the race track to World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, himself a former race car driver.
Photo of Carl Fisher by Bain News Service, NYC–The Library of Congress