- 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
Driving has always been comparable to tightrope walking, in that for each car in each race, there is a perfect line, or groove, that is defined by the handling characteristics of the car, the speed attained, and the contour of the course. Choosing that line is part of the mental strain of the sport, while staying on it is the physical challenge. Coming off the line, as for a tightrope walker, can leave a driver off-balance with precious few chances to recover.
Until the twenties riding mechanics were common to racing, maintaining fuel pressure, helping with roadside repairs, and looking out for hazards. It was a miserable job, statistically more dangerous than driving, intrinsically less glorious. A riding mechanic named Herbert Bailey was one of the few ever to get their names in the papers, in other than the obituary columns. When the pin fell out of the steering gear in his car, Bailey crawled out over the hood and arranged himself on the cranking handle, so that he could hold the steering gear together in his hand. Bailey rode like that for twenty miles, to the next pit stop.
After the debacle of the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup race, the governor of New York banned road racing from his state. The following year, ironically, New York suffered a race tragedy far worse than any associated with the Vanderbilt when eleven people were killed in a single disaster on the track at Syracuse. In following years the Vanderbilt Cup moved to Savannah and on to Milwaukee and Santa Monica, but the very act of moving the outlaw event attached to it a bloody stigma, and its importance petered out. It was, however, fully replaced in significance, and influence, and spectacle; one year after the last Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island came the first Indianapolis 500 race in Indiana.
The Indianapolis Speedway was the first track in the nation built specially for automobile racing, and it was just about as simple as it could be: a two-and-a-half-mile rectangle with four rounded corners, gently banked at 9 degrees and 12 minutes on the bottom portion and 16.66 on the top ten feet. If it seemed as basic in layout as a factory proving grounds, that was because the original backers were Indianapolis businessmen who hoped that it would be used as a great test track, to improve American cars in general and Indiana-built cars in particular.
Drivers were known to throw wrenches at each other and carry brooms that they dragged behind to kick up dust.
The inaugural running of the five-hundred-mile race drew ninety thousand fans, and it was an instant tradition, the one place in the country where race people suffered no reformers and on the one weekend when they could do more than merely watch their sport: they could celebrate it.
A Marmon won the first 500, a fitting victory because the Marmon factory was just across town in Indianapolis. In the second race Ralph De Palma led from the third lap in a light gray Mercedes-Benz. “Without doubt, the Mercedes has the fastest, snappiest pit work,” glumly observed the humorist Gelett Burgess, a visitor in the National car pit. “Our own pit work is pretty lumpy—slow and careless. ‘That isn’t the right rear tire—get the other!’ ‘Does she need any more gasoline?’ ‘What is in that can, gasoline or oil?’ The cans are just alike.”
De Palma took an easy lead, and the National pit crew was resigned, hearing, if not always seeing, the race. “The Lozier’s war cry is harsh and splitting, crackling wickedly,” Burgess noted. “Mercedes makes a ferocious, roaring bark, the Mercer is a hard, even, low rumble.” But when the Mercedes lost power from one cylinder on the 197th lap, the people in the pits all stopped talking and looked up, almost at once. Before anyone in the stands saw anything wrong, the engine was a voice, clearly hoarse. Then, with two laps left, the spectators saw: they saw De Palma and his mechanic pushing the Mercedes in, completely out of the running with just five of the five hundred miles to go. They also saw Joe Dawson zip past in his handsome blue National. He earned twenty thousand dollars for the victory, by far the world’s richest racing prize.
The big paydays and inordinate attention bestowed upon the Indianapolis 500 soon discouraged stock-car entries. Just after World War I four of the nation’s most brilliant engineers considered it worthwhile to devote their talents to Indy cars: Fred and Augie Duesenberg, Louis Chevrolet, and Harry Miller. Perhaps in Europe such men would have worked for the great factories, turning out production sports cars and factory racers. Americans, however, did not want to buy sports racers in the twenties; they wanted to watch lightning cars race and to drive heavy ones home. Race engineers found their livings not in Detroit but at Indy.