Say “Indy” and even many sports fans who don’t follow auto racing know it means the Indy 500 or, officially, the Indianapolis 500.
On Monday, the 100th running of the Indy 500 is scheduled. The one-hundredth: That’s a lot of fast left turns and rubber on the track affectionately known as the “Brickyard.”
“It’s really something special. It’s known all over the world,” Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner, said from his Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home before leaving for Indianapolis. “It has so much character. There is an aura about it.”
The annual Memorial Day weekend race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway attracts crowds estimated at more than 300,000. The track actually is in Speedway, Indiana, just outside the Indianapolis city limits.
Andretti, 76, remembers his first qualifying run at Indy in 1965.
“Everything was happening too fast,” he said. “When I was pulling out of the pits, I realized there were 200,000 people looking on. I thought, ‘I better pay attention to what I’m doing.’ I’d never performed in front of so many people by myself. It was quite daunting.”
Ray Harroun, a native of Crawford County in northwest Pennsylvania, won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, averaging 74.602 miles per hour (119.36 kilometers per hour). No races were run from 1942 through 1945 during World War II.
AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears have won the most Indianapolis 500s: four each. Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose are three-time winners.
Roger Penske, a Lehigh graduate, has the most Indianapolis 500 wins as a car owner, with 16.
A Philadelphia-born driver, Cavino Michele “Kelly” Petillo, won the 1935 Indianapolis 500, one of nine Indy races for Petillo.
The speedway was built by four businessmen for use as a testing facility for Indiana’s growing auto industry. In 1909, when the track opened, a Hershey bar cost 2 cents, a bottle of Coca-Cola 5 cents and a box of Kellogg’s corn flakes was 10 cents. The United States population was 90 million.
In 1927, a group led by World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker bought the speedway for $700,000. Rickenbacker’s group ran the speedway until 1945 when, in disrepair, it was almost sold to real estate developers. Wilbur Shaw brokered a deal to sell the track to Tony Hulman, a Yale-educated businessman from Terre Haute, Indianapolis, for $750,000. Hulman turned the speedway into a world-class facility. He died in 1977 at age 76.
When the speedway opened in 1909, the original track surface of crushed rock and tar was covered with 3.2 million bricks. Asphalt was gradually added, then in 1938, the entire 2.5-mile (4.0-kilometer) track, except for the middle of the front straightaway, was paved with asphalt.
In 1961, the remaining bricks were covered with asphalt, except for a 36-inch strip at the start/finish line. When Dale Jarrett won the third NASCAR Brickyard 400 in 1996, he kissed the bricks, launching another Indy tradition.
The Indianapolis 500 is not what it used to be on the national scene, but it’s still important. The Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 are the two biggest races in the United States.
Several factors have led to Indianapolis 500’s diminished status. Into the 1980s, the Indianapolis 500 was still a huge national event. Before it was televised live, it drew large audiences in movie theaters. Fans at Memorial Day picnics would tune in the radio broadcasts.
With the arrival of cable television and then the Internet, there were more distractions. Then, in 1994, Hulman’s grandson, Tony George, then the speedway’s chief executive offider, announced plans for a series called the Indy Racing League. Two years later, the Indianapolis 500 competed against a Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) 500-mile race at Michigan. Many observers believe the IRL-CART split opened the door for NASCAR to establish itself as America’s premier racing series.
The speedway is not a place for the timid: It’s estimated that 73 people have died there, including 42 drivers. The death list also includes mechanics, spectators and track workers. The last driver to die at Indianapolis was Tony Renna, during an October tire test in 2003.
Five drivers named Andretti have started 70 Indianapolis 500s: Mario leads the family with 29 starts, then there are sons Michael (16) and Jeff (3), grandson Marco (10) and nephew John (12). Despite only one win among them, Mario’s 47 years ago, they keep coming back.
“We look at the positive side, the amount of laps led, especially Michael and I,” Mario said. “Everyone knew we were there. We had a great time doing that. Some things we couldn’t control. I’m proud I dominated the race more than once, Michael the same way. We have to be satisfied with that.”
Mario ranks third in laps led at Indy with 556, behind Al Unser Sr. (644) and Ralph DePalma (612). Michael is 11th with 431 laps led.
Canadian James Hinchcliffe earned this year’s pole in dramatic style, a year after he almost died in an Indianapolis crash the day after qualifying ended. On the final qualifying run, Hinchcliffe was clocked at 230.760 mph (369.22 kph). He edged American Josef Newgarden at 230.700 mph (369.12 kph).
Those speeds are a long way from Ray Harroun’s average race speed of 74.602 mph (119.36 kph) 100 years ago. From Harroun to Hinchcliffe, 100 years of Indianapolis racing, drama, tradition and heartbreak.