- Historic Sites
Every spring thirty million Americans watch the Indianapolis 500. It’s the nation’s premier racing event and the pinnacle of a glamorous, murderous epic that stretches back nearly a century.
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
May is a month of traditions: of flowers and commencements, of the Kentucky Derby for 117 years and Indianapolis five-hundred-mile races for 81. For an automobile race, Indy is ancient. Back in 1911 it was an all-day affair, as the winner covered five hundred miles in six hours and forty-two minutes. These days winners complete the distance in less than three hours, the same oval unraveling for a driver with the same turns, banks, and exhilarating straights. Everything has been tried in American auto racing in nearly one hundred years, from unabashed blood sport to fine competition—to the delight of manufacturers, promoters, and drivers. And fans. With so much choice and change, fans are the great governing board in American racing, creating some traditions, like Indy, to last.
Eighty-nine entries were collected for America’s first automobile race in 1895, in blithe disregard of the fact that eighty-nine working automobiles did not exist in America in 1895. Intrepid mechanics devoted the whole summer to their workshops, analyzing diagrams in foreign magazines and pulling together parts, creating cars in an era of horses.
The race was scheduled to run on the streets of greater Chicago on November 2, just nine years after Karl Benz had built the first practical automobile in Germany. So novel was the new conveyance—in Chicago, at least—that the race’s sponsors at the Times-Herald launched a preliminary contest to give it a proper name, something more modern than horseless carriage, less French than automobile. The winner was motocycle. By October Scientific American was giving the nation thorough coverage of the preparations, reporting that “the only thing that menaces the success of the contest is the large number of contestants, although it is expected that a considerable number of those who have entered will fail to put in an appearance on November 2.” As a matter of fact, seven cars showed up. Eighteen other entrants begged the sponsors for an extension and thus initiated a secondary racing tradition: the race mechanic in desperate need of just a little more time. In the instance of the Times-Herald race, it was granted: three and a half weeks.
Auto racing differs from other American sports in that practically every spectator partakes in its form every day.
The two cars that were indeed fully prepared on November 2 competed in a consolation match over ninety-two miles. This, the very, very first sanctioned auto race in America, was won by a Benz at an average speed of ten miles per hour, including time lost for electrical problems, pit stops, and “lost road by fault of bicycle guides.”
The real race was staged on Thanksgiving Day, following a three-day storm that made a mess of Chicago with a foot of drifting snow. By race time some of it had turned to slush. Six cars arrived on the Midway for the start at daybreak: a Duryea from Springfield, Massachusetts; the previously proven Benz, entered by private citizens from Decatur, Illinois; a Morris & Salom “electrobat” from Philadelphia; a Sturges electric car from Chicago; and two other Benzes, both entered out of New York City. Under such poor conditions, the average speed was less than five miles per hour. C. F. Carter, the official photographer for the event, later recalled that “the spectators who had been following on foot—now remember, this was an automobile road race and the spectators were following it on foot—yelled as they came to each stalled machine: ‘It’s a good thing. Push it along.’” And the racers did.
The winner was the Duryea, and this victory, as much a triumph over the fifty-four miles of slush as over other cars, inspired genuine respect for the automobile. Scientific American declared, “Undoubtedly, the motocycle has come to stay.” It had, even if the name hadn’t.
Among those who attended the Times-Herald race or followed it closely were P. E. Studebaker, Henry Ford, Alexander Winton, Ransom E. Olds, and Thomas Jeffery, who watched the alsorans break down and assured his son that such frangibility was not necessary. “That can be cured,” he said as they left. Five years later he founded his own car company, Rambler.
Tommy Milton, a champion driver of the twenties, was once asked to describe the start of an auto race. “There is a terrific cloud of dust,” he said, “and a lot of vacuum which is progressively higher toward the rear of the pack. First year drivers, especially, are shocked when they discover that closing the throttle is not accompanied by normal deceleration. It’s a terrific sensation.” From the first it was a vacuum like that which took hold of Americans fascinated by the racing of cars, binding strong personalities and large numbers in its grip.
Racing is a technology in which change is constant; competition and emotion make it a sport. Aside from that, it differs from other American sports in that practically every spectator partakes in its form every day. Driving a passenger car is monumentally different from racing a competition car, obviously—but not obviously to the imagination. Racing in this country has existed not to make heroes out of drivers but to make self-imagined heroes out of every fan.