- 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
An “Offy” midget racer attained speeds of more than a hundred miles an hour, and the drivers were as serious as any at Indy. The cars were certainly as loud as big racers. “When we were little kids, we could hear them race at Gilmore,” recalled Carmen Schroeder, a race-parts manufacturer. “We lived in the Cheviot Hills and you could hear it all the way from Fairfax. In a way, it was advertising, because then my father started taking us over to see the midget racing on Thursday nights.”
Midget racing was headed for new heights in attendance when the United States entered World War II, but like most other motor sports, it was suspended for the duration. After the war it was poised for major success and seemed like a sure thing: thirty million people went to see midget races in the 1946-47 season. (Forty-one men were killed in those races that year.) New York City embraced the fad when a removable wooden rack was installed in the Polo Grounds, and indoor auto racing became a reality after midget races were made a regular attraction in the Kingsbridge Armory.
But three years later the vogue was on the wane. Perhaps it just ran its course like any other fad, or perhaps people didn’t feel “little” as they once had. American racing became a niche market in the late forties as distinctive new forms found fast-growing support: stock-car racing emerged from the back roads of the South, foreign sports cars backed out of suburban garages for Sunday races in New England, and drag racing established respectable daytime hours in towns across the country.
The Indianapolis Speedway was sorely dilapidated after its hibernation during the war, and developers made plans to subdivide it. The Speedway, however, was the property of Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace and former Indy driver (in 1912, 1914, and 1915). He turned down the offer from the developers and sold the property to Anton Hulman, Jr., a Terre Haute businessman, asking only what he had paid in 1927: $750,000. Hulman salvaged the track from overgrown weeds and managed it to a thriving success until his death in 1977. The Hulman family still owns it and profits handsomely by it, but there is also something of a public trust about the Indianapolis Speedway—part racetrack, part retreat.
Attendance had been lukewarm at the 1940 and 1941 Indy races, but a record crowd filled the stands when racing returned in 1946. Andy Granatelli put license plates on his Indy race car that year and drove it to the Speedway from his shop in Chicago. There was room in those days for such homegrown entries, resulting in ingenious concoctions such as the Fageol Twin Coach, with an engine at each end, and the six-wheeled Pat Clancy Special. In 1961 the laughingstock of the Speedway was an English car, the Cooper-Climax, entered by Jack Brabham of New Zealand. It weighed about half as much as a typical Indy race car, and the engine was situated behind the driver, nothing new in European-style Grand Prix racing.
America has more automobile races than any country in the world—but the single most important is the Indianapolis 500.
The Cooper-Climax may have looked effete, but it placed a creditable ninth, and the laughter died down. Brabham was followed by a wave of Britons determined to teach the Americans how to race cars, and in 1965 a personable Scot named Jim Clark won the 500 in a rear-engine car designed in England with massive support from Ford. The subsequent rush to rear-engine cars rendered old race cars obsolete and forced many owners to build new entries from scratch. Change would never be so rampant at Indy again.
Out of the Second World War and into the jet age, the gulf between America and Western Europe diminished in the subculture of automobiles, as in many other things. If Indy took its British invasion like a spoonful of medicine, other Americans—those racing their own Jaguars, Ferraris, and Porsches—made a weekend pursuit out of becoming as European as they possibly could.
One of the several things that make Europe so diverting is the great race at Le Mans; starting in 1952, America had its own version, conducted, if not through the streets of a French village, then on abandoned airport runways in Florida. The race was Sebring, and it was such a success that for the first time since the Vanderbilt Cup days, an annual event challenged the immense popularity of the Indianapolis 500.
The Sebring Twelve-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance was a demi-copy of the Twenty-four Hours of Le Mans, translated to a 5.2-mile circuit. Though the course has been altered, the race has been staged the same way every March (except 1974) ever since. It is run from 10:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., and the car logging the most miles is the winner; two drivers alternate behind the wheel of each entry. In the fifties the Sebring course included twelve unbanked turns, this way and that. It was a major departure from American oval-track racing, in which the driver, in the bald truth of it, puts the car in high gear and keeps turning left.