- 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.
Within one year of the Times-Herald races, New York City’s Cosmopolitan magazine staged a fifty-two-mile run, and then, in July 1896, the Rhode Island State Fair sponsored the nation’s first track event at Narragansett Park. Spectators giggled at the sight of automobiles chugging around a track meant for horses, but eventually the popularity of track racing in America would far outstrip that of road racing. It can even be said that the fans arrived before the sport did: in 1899 Hiram Percy Maxim drove a Columbia car from Hartford, Connecticut, to a race he’d entered in Branford, about thirty miles away. He arrived hours late, hoping just to see the finish. As he drove up to the track, everyone in the grandstand was cheering wildly, and a man ran over to the Columbia. “He urged me to hurry right up to the starting line,” Maxim wrote thirty-eight years later, “explaining that the crowd had been waiting all afternoon for me so they could have a race!” Maxim looked across the track and saw a little Stanley Steamer waiting forlornly at the starting line. They gave each other a tough race, and the Columbia won.
Before another decade was out, however, track racing in America had been established with a kind of grinding hucksterism. A year’s schedule for a typical race team, circa 1909, started in California, with stops at the Los Angeles Motordrome and the Golden Gate Park road race. It then migrated to the Midwest, to compete at the Indianapolis Speedway, at the Elgin Park (Illinois) Road Race, and in meets on horse tracks throughout the region. By late summer the team was on the East Coast, entering hill climbs and other races as it drifted South toward Savannah and the Grand Prize races held there in the autumn. After that the drivers convened on the flat sands of Florida for beach racing before moving back West and picking up races along the way to California to start all over again.
If the first age of American automobile racing belonged to tinkerers, the second belonged to wealthy sportsmen. Their exploits were covered in sporting journals next to the yachting and fox-hunting news, whether they were dashing around the world in their new toys, like Mr. and Mrs. Charles Glidden, or competing as amateurs in Europe’s burgeoning road races, like Foxhall Keene. Charles Glidden had made a fortune in the telephone business, and from 1905 to 1913 he devised and sponsored the Glidden Tours, an extremely influential series that tested nearly every aspect of automobile performance except speed. Keene, the scion of a New York banking family, was an accomplished horseman and sailor in addition to being a race driver. In a 1906 race his giant Mercedes caught fire, but he stayed aboard in hope of getting to the pits; people who witnessed it recalled the sight of Keene driving madly with one hand as he patted out the sparks in his mustache with the other. The fire, however, was even quicker than a Mercedes, and he finally had to pull over. Starting in 1902, many of the swells of auto racing came together in the winter for some very serious fun at Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach in Florida. The specialty was straight-line racing on the hard-packed sand, between two cars or one car against a time clock. “From all stand points,” said one leading participant, Samuel Stevens, “those of sport, speed, and safety, this competition is undoubtedly the acme of motor sport.”
Stevens was a millworks owner from Rome, New York; by 1904 he already had need of a seven-car garage, fully equipped and tended by a master mechanic. Stevens was a good customer for Benz cars, and when he bought a Rolls-Royce in 1907, the Rome Daily Sentinel reported it on the front page. In 1906 Stevens was present at Ormond Beach when a terrible ruckus broke out. A French factory driver named Victor Hémery had brought four new Darracq racers to the sands, intending to try for an all-time speed record, but after a raging dispute with the judges, he was not only disqualified but arrested. For the sake of the record attempt, Sam Stevens purchased all four Darracqs on the spot; he drove one to a minor victory and trusted the two-hundred-horsepower flagship car to Hémery’s riding mechanic, Victor Demogeot, who made a fabulous record at better than two miles per minute.
As the sheer novelty of auto racing wore off, outside observers grew outraged at the death and violence common to the sport. It was called commercial murder, spectacle on a par with Roman gladiator fighting and feeding Christians to hungry lions. Exact figures do not exist, but a casual reckoning finds more than fifty deaths that occurred in American races in 1908. Small-time promoters provoked public opinion by advertising races with headlines such as 20 DAREDEVIL DRIVERS IN THRILLING SPEED DUELS—THE FIELD VS. DEATH—WHICH WILL WIN?
The specter of “commercial murder” has haunted and hampered American racing ever since, but no event inspired as much outrage as the Vanderbilt Cup race of 1910. The quintessential millionaire sportsman, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., brought his enthusiasm for road racing home from Europe, and each October from 1904 to 1910 (except 1907), he sponsored a road race of about three hundred miles on Long Island. It immediately took its place as the most important event in U.S. auto racing, drawing magnificent entries from France (Darracq, Panhard), Italy (Lancia, Fiat), and Germany (Mercedes-Benz), in addition to America (Locomobile, Buick, Alco, Chadwick). It also drew up to five hundred thousand people, and therein lay the trouble.
An avid spectator would awaken at about 3:00 A.M. on the day of a Vanderbilt Cup race and make his or her way through the cool dawn air to a thirty-mile course on western Long Island, defined by Jamaica, Jericho, and Plain Edge. Those nearer to Mr. Vanderbilt’s social status sat in the grandstands erected near Jericho; everyone else just lined up on the course, each spectator a little maddened by the power and its nearness. “It was speed you could feel as well as see, speed that burned your cheeks,” one Vanderbilt Cup fan, George Trevor, explained. As soon as a contestant approached, shouts of “Car coming!” traveled through the crowds. As Trevor described it, “A black spot in the distance grew bigger as the roar deepened, suddenly took shape. The glaring radiator numerals smashed you in the eye; blue flames spurted from the exhaust vents in the bonnet; gay streamers whipped horizontal by the wind, flared backwards from the helmeted heads of driver and mechanic.”
In their greed for excitement the Vanderbilt Cup crowds were uncontrollable—and so were most of the race cars.
In their outright greed for such a sight, the Vanderbilt Cup crowds were simply uncontrollable, and so were most of the race cars, flying along in high gear. Wire fences, fire hoses, police, and militia—let alone an instinct for self-preservation—could not keep people off the road. During the 1906 race Vanderbilt himself was compelled to drive the course in his white Mercedes, imploring people please to stand back. The cars bore down on the packed roadway, and the crowd would part just before them; once a car went by, people fell in for a second look, a reporter noted, as though they were drawn in by the suction of its passing. Perhaps this reckless bravado was due in some part to the Vanderbilt Cup’s being known (in an era known for hard drinking) as a day for hard drinking among both spectators and drivers.
Most years the Vanderbilt Cup featured great racing, and the victory of a Locomobile in 1908 gave America its first success in international racing circles, but the constant danger was insupportable. Four people were killed and twenty-two seriously injured in 1910, the last year the Cup was held on Long Island. Three people had already lost their lives when Joe Dawson, leadine the race in his yellow Marmon, came in late for a pit stop, sobbing and eerily oblivious of the crew’s work on the car. When the stop was complete, fans shouted for him to drive on, but Dawson sat motionless, tears running through the grime on his face. Crewmen stood back uncomfortably, and the manager hardly knew what to do, as valuable seconds and then minutes slipped by. Finally, when Dawson confessed in anguish that he had killed a man on the course, the manager verified with the judges that the man had not, in fact, been killed. Dawson snapped out of his hysteria and continued the race beautifully, finishing in second place by only twenty-two seconds.
By occupational definition, race drivers harbor no fear for their own lives, but in many affecting instances they put the safety of others above all else, crashing their cars to avoid a disabled car or driver. It must be added that the same drivers have always been just as capable of behavior less noble. In one Vanderbilt Cup race, Lewis Strang was so far back in the running, so futilely engaged in the race, that he made his own game of trying to bump Foxhall Keene into the gutter. Drivers were known to throw wrenches at each other and to carry brooms that they dragged behind to kick up dust for pursuers. When George Robertson was accused once of throwing a wrench, he explained with some dignity that he would never throw a wrench when a handful of bolts was just as effective and less valuable.
To drive a race car, especially in the early days, required a rugged physique. The clutch and accelerator pedals were so tight that operating them made drivers limp for hours afterward. Despite their power and heft, race cars could jump skittishly, so a driver had to hold the steering wheel with both hands, except when working the hand brake (which was used more for steering than for stopping). Because there were no windshields on race cars, the driver was buffeted by the wind as well as by flying pebbles, dust, and the occasional handful of bolts.
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.
Because Speedway officials believed that the track design could not sustain the high speeds (averaging eighty-eight miles per hour) that were recorded in the 1919 race, they reduced the maximum allowable engine displacement from 300 cubic inches to 183. Smaller engines were supposed to inhibit high speeds. Meanwhile, the new crop of engineers was waiting, ripe for the challenge. “During the war,” Fred Duesenberg said in 1926, “the Government asked automotive engineers for a powerful engine, so we got together and pooled all our ideas. By selecting the best we had to offer, we finally developed an engine of about 1600 cubic inches which developed 203 horsepower, and we thought we had done a pretty good job. Today, just eight years later, we have produced a motor one-tenth that size which develops almost the same horsepower.”
The inaugural running of the five-hundred-mile race drew ninety thousand fans, and it was an instant tradition.
Louis Chevrolet had already sold out of the company that bore his name when he perfected a four-cylinder engine, the Frontenac, for Indianapolis in 1920 and an eight-cylinder version for 1921. Mr. Chevrolet then focused his talents on producing performance parts for, of all things, Fords. The Duesenberg brothers, who grew up as farm boys in Iowa, did produce a passenger car in the early twenties, but until the advent of the monumental Model J in 1928, production cars were a sideline. Their main diversion was the Speedway, where they won three times, from 1924 to 1927. Their prime competition was Harry Miller, a gentle-spirited man from Culver City, California. From 1922 to 1936 a car with a Miller engine won the 500 whenever a Duesenberg did not. Miller’s design went through a succession of names and evolutionary changes but was still winning at Indy as late as 1976.
On the track the great rivals in the early twenties were Tommy Milton and Jimmy Murphy, both good-looking and all-American. In 1921 Murphy, in a Duesenberg, was the first American ever to win the French Grand Prix (and he was appallingly slighted by the French in the victory celebrations). Back home he put a Miller engine in his Duesenberg car and won the 1922 Indianapolis 500, topping the speed record by 5 mph at 94.48 mph. Murphy started out as a protégé of Milton, but their friendship gave way to years of acrimonious feuding. In 1924, though, when his rival was killed in a race at Syracuse, Milton immediately saw to all the arrangements for Murphy, who had been orphaned as a child and had no close relatives.
Thirty years later Milton described the thoughts of a race driver for Popular Mechanics: “Maybe it is a year or two before you start winning, but you laugh that off some way or other. Then you win a race. All your faith is confirmed. You are the best and from there on out nobody else is going to win. Then Joe Blow comes along and beats you. Well, that was just an accident. But then he beats you again and perhaps a third time. So you cut him in—he’s not as good as you are, but he’s a good driver, too.
“Then some other drivers beat you and you cut them in. You are still the best, but you have had to cut in two or three guys with you. Then those drivers start getting bumped off. It now begins to penetrate your brains that the thing is hazardous and when that happens, you are all washed up as a race driver.” Milton retired as a race driver soon after Jimmy Murphy’s last race.
The Indianapolis Speedway was originally paved with bricks to reduce dust, but the scores of other speedways that sprang up in its wake just before and after World War I used wooden surfaces, called board tracks. They were especially popular in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
From the first, racing has been an exorbitantly expensive undertaking, and track racing around the country was curtailed during the Great Depression. With the nation’s businesses in terrible straits, a popular form of racing developed in Los Angeles. As if in a Frank Capra movie, the little guy responded in his own little way to a great big crisis, and the result was midget racing. Half as long as a J-Duesenberg and only slightly bigger than a bread box, a midget race car had a wheelbase of about seventy inches and a weight, including its driver, of not more than eleven hundred pounds. Until the mid-thirties the cars had all sorts of power plants, from motorboat engines to a Duesenberg Eight cut in half.
“You are the best and from there on out nobody else is going to win. Then Joe Blow comes along and beats you.”
Two young Angelenos invented the breed and first tried it out on the Loyola High School football field in 1932. Within a few years the Gilmore Oil Company had built the first speedway devoted to midget racing, on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, and hired Fred Offenhauser to design a decent, dependable engine for the cars.
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.
Raw speed had always been paramount to American racing—Indy, stock car, or drag, all of which were capable of average speeds of more than 130 mph when Sebring was started. “You see,” the great British driver Stirling Moss noted in 1963, “we have an entirely different concept of speed in Europe. It’s relative. You arrive at a 60-mph corner, for example, and try going around it at 61. Then you’ll know what speed is.”
Sebring offered that kind of speed. “Twelve hours of braking, turning, and accelerating,” according to the driver John Fitch. It was indeed an international proposition; in the 1957 running, for example, nineteen makes were represented: AC, Austin-Healey, Cooper, Jaguar, Lotus, MG, Morgan, and Triumph from Britain; Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati (the eventual winner), OSCA, and Stanguelli from Italy; Mercedes-Benz and Porsche from Germany; D.B. and Renault from France; and Arnolt-Bristol and Corvette from America.
The success of Sebring’s Twelve Hours, and similar races, helped garner America’s first Formula One Grand Prix event, held at the course in 1959. Grand Prix racing is Europe’s most rarefied competition, and it has generally been limited to one race per country. The U.S. Grand Prix was a fixture in Watkins Glen, New York, for many years, but it has met with problems in a series of other venues, and no running is planned for 1992.
Stock-car racing has grown into the most popular form of racing in America, in a circuit of races sponsored by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Although there isn’t much that is actually “stock” in a modern stock car, all the entries are nominally based upon GM, Chrysler, or Ford cars. Foreign makes are banned from NASCAR races.
America has more automobile races than any of the world’s other countries or even most of them combined, at over nine hundred tracks and courses and in many dozens of variations on sports-car, stock-car, and championship racing. But the single most important event is the Indianapolis 500.
As many as 400,000 people see it live at the Speedway; at least, that many are present on a race day. For thousands in the infield it is more of a happening than a race, but about 238,000 serious race patrons buy seats in grandstands lining the track, and somewhere beyond, 30 million watch the 500 on television. What they see is a field of artful race cars, to be judged by the miles, and pit crews like corps de ballet, judged by seconds on a ticking clock. The drivers are judged by each other, in strategy, in timing, or in fleet confrontations at the corners.
A. J. Foyt, the first driver to win the 500 four times, suffered a terrible crash in a race in Wisconsin in September 1990. The impact not only shattered his legs but pressed him into the ground; an orthopedic surgeon had to come to the scene to scoop the dirt away, handful by handful. Nonetheless, eight months later Foyt was able to squeeze into an Indy car and start the 500 for the thirty-fourth straight year. It was supposed to be his last race, but afterward he reneged and said that he might be back this year.
After Foyt’s first victory in 1961, his reputation seemed to be sealed, and his family urged him to retire. “Who retires?” the twenty-six-year-old said at the time, in a perfect prophecy of his feelings as a fifty-six-year-old. “Once you’re in it, it’s a way of life. And you go against a lot to stay with it.” Once a year at Indianapolis come three hours that mean that much: 33 DAREDEVIL DRIVERS IN THRILLING SPEED DUELS—THE FIELD VS. LIFE—WHICH WILL WIN?