Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Few other venues on the planet can match the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for its history, spectacle and sheer speed, hallmarks since its earliest days. While the famous Indianapolis 500 race may not quite pack the same punch as it did in its heyday, it still remains one of the world's greatest races, filling each May with a sense of drama and intrigue.
The first circuit to bear the name 'speedway', everything about Indianapolis is vast. It has a permanent seating capacity estimated at 257,325, with infield seating raising the total to an approximate 400,000. This makes it easily the highest-capacity sports venue in the world.
Famously, the Speedway promotes that within its perimeter you could fit the Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, Rome's Colosseum, the Kentucky Derby course, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl and entirety of Vatican City and still have room to spare...
The speedway traces its origins to the turn of the last century and the first motoring boom. Indiana businessman Carl G. Fisher first envisioned building a circuit in his home state in 1905 after assisting friends racing in France and seeing that Europe held the upper hand in automobile design and craftsmanship. Sensing that one of the reasons behind this was the lack of permanent testing facilities available for domestic manufacturers, he decided to create something better.
A trip to England's Brooklands banked oval course only served to harden his resolve. Fisher proposed a gigantic circular course of between three and five miles in length, with permanent spectator facilities giving racegoers better bang for their buck. With dozens of car makers and suppliers in Indiana, Fisher proclaimed, "Indianapolis is going to be the world's greatest center of horseless carriage manufacturer, what could be more logical than building the world's greatest racetrack right here?"
Fisher began looking around the Indianapolis area for a site to build his track; he rejected two potential sites before finding level farmland, Pressley Farm, totalling 328 acres about five miles outside of Indianapolis. In December 1908 he convinced James A. Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank W. Wheeler to join him in purchasing the property for $72,000. The group incorporated Indianapolis Motor Speedway company on March 20, 1909 with a capitalisation of $250,000, with Fisher and James Allison in for $75,000 apiece and Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby on board for $50,000 each.
Construction began in March 1909, although by now Fisher had scaled back his plans in order to fit track and grandstands onto the available parcel of land. Regrading for the speedway took 500 labourers, 300 mules and assorted steam-powered machines, but what emerged was a two-and-a-half-mile, nearly rectangular oval complete with dozens of buildings, several bridges, grandstands with 12,000 seats, and an 8-foot perimeter fence.
The track surface consisted of graded and packed soil covered by two inches of gravel, two inches of limestone covered with taroid (a solution of tar and oil), one–two inches of crushed stone chips that were also drenched with taroid, and a final topping of crushed stone.
Racing begins - on two wheels, not four
The first motorsport event at the track consisted of seven motorcycle races under the sanction of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM), on August 14, 1909. Concerns over the suitability of the track surface for motorcycles ended what had been planned as a two-day event part way through day one.
Despite these concerns, five days later 15 teams arrived at the track for practice for the first car racing events. Drivers soon became covered in dirt, oil, and tar and with ruts and potholes beginning to form in the turns. Speedway workers oiled and rolled the track prior to the gates opening to the public, when up to 20,000 spectators showed up to witness the spectacle.
Halfway through the first 250-mile event, race leader Louis Chevrolet was temporarily blinded when a stone smashed his goggles. Wilfred Bourque, driving in a Knox, suffered a suspected rear-axle failure resulting in his car flipping end over end on the front stretch before crashing into a fence post. Both he and his mechanic, Harry Halcomb, died at the scene, becoming the first members of an unenviable club at the Speedway.
Day two proceeded without incident, but on the third day, further disaster followed. During the grand finale 300-mile race, the right front tire blew on Charlie Merz's car. His car mowed down five fence posts and toppled dozens of spectators. Two spectators and his mechanic, Claude Kellum, were killed in the crash. Ten laps later, driver Bruce Keen struck a pothole and crashed into a bridge support. The race was then halted and the remaining drivers given engraved certificates instead of trophies.
The Brickyard is born
It was clear that major change was needed – the AAA announced it would boycott any further events unless the track surface was changed. After considering a concrete surface, the track owners decided to pave the entire facility with bricks after tests proved their durability. Less than a month after the first car races, the repaving project began. Five Indiana manufacturers supplied 3.2 million 10-pound bricks to the track. Each was hand laid over a two-inch cushion of sand, then levelled and gaps filled with mortar. At the same time, a concrete wall 33-inch tall was constructed in front of the main grandstand and around all four corners to protect spectators.
The final brick added to the track was made of gold and laid in a special ceremony by Governor Thomas R. Marshall. During the repaving, locals gave the Speedway the nickname which endures to this day – 'the Brickyard'.
The circuit reopened for testing in December 1909, with speeds of up to 112 mph immediately being reported. Racing returned in 1910, with a series of short races being held over the three main holiday weekends (Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day). By the following year, a change in marketing focus led to a reduction of racing activities to Memorial Day only and the establishment of a single 500 mile race as the signature event. The Indianapolis 500 was born.
A golden age had begun, with names such as Harroun, de Palma, Miller, Chevrolet and Resta winning the early races, with racing only briefly interrupted during World War I, when the circuit served as a military aviation repair and refuelling depot.
Racing returned in 1919 and resumed much as before. In 1926, Fisher and Allison were offered a fortune for the Speedway site by a local real estate developer. They refused, selling instead to former racing driver (and World War One fighter ace) Edward V. Rickenbacker who built the first golf course in the infield.
Speeds grew ever higher and safety concerns once again grew. In the period 1931–1935 there were 15 fatalities and it was decided that a further repaving was required. Asphalt gradually was added to various section of the brick surface, with patches added to rougher sections of the turns in 1936 and all turns being completely paved with asphalt in 1937. In 1938, the entire track was paved with asphalt except for the middle portion of the front straightaway. Changes were also made to the exterior walls to prevent cars being launched over them, while the inside retaining walls were removed from the corners. Other safety innovations pioneered at this time was the mandatory wearing of hard crash helmets, while a yellow caution light system was also installed around the track.
A major fire ahead of the 1941 race, which saw a third of 'Gasoline Alley' burn down, prefaced a period of decline. With the US heavily involved in World War Two, the 1942 500-mile race was cancelled and all racing was banned by the authorities for the next three years. Now virtually abandoned, the Speedway fell into disrepair.
Enter the Hulmans
With the end of the war in sight, on November 29, 1944, three-time 500 winner Wilbur Shaw came back to do a 500-mile tyre test approved by the government for Firestone. Shocked by the state of the facility, Shaw contacted Rickenbacker, only to be told that the circuit was for sale. Concerned that real estate developers may once again begin to circle, Shaw contacted the major motor manufacturers about purchasing the Speedway. All indicated that, should a purchase be made, it would be for private testing only. Shaw therefore began looking for an investor who would reopen the circuit for public racing.
He eventually found Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman, who had made his fortune in the family food and beverage business. Meetings were set up and the Speedway was purchased on November 14, 1945 for a $750,000. Thus began a dynasty of ownership which continued in the Hulman-George family right through to 2019.
Renovations were quickly completed in time for the 500 to be held once more in 1946. It has become an annual fixture ever since. The old wooden grandstands were replaced with steel and concrete structures as rapidly as possible in following years and the heyday years began, first through the roadster era and then following the European invasion of the mid-1960s, who introduced low slung rear engined cars to the race, inventing the basic formula which has remained to the present day.
A new Master Race Control Tower (replacing the 1926 Pagoda), Tower Terrace and Pit Area were built for the 1957 Indianapolis 500, along with a new tunnel under the backstretch. Then in 1961 the whole course was resurfaced, save for a three foot-wide section of the historic bricks at the finish line, which remain today as the fabled Yard of Bricks.
On October 27, 1977,Tony Hulman passed away after 32 years of presiding over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His family took on the responsibility of preserving his vision and the heritage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Through the 1980s, there was little in the way of significant change, save for the building of 96 new garages in Gasoline Alley in 1986. The first changes to the track itself came in 1993, when acceleration and deceleration lanes were installed and the traditional apron on the inside of the turns was grassed over, effectively narrowing the circuit. These changes were in anticipation of NASCAR racing at the venue and the first Brickyard 400 for the big stockcars was held in 1994.
Road course racing begins
Now under the control of Tony Hulman's grandson, Tony George, the Speedway began a programme of diversification, returning to regular year round action for the first time since 1910. For the 2000 season, a deal was struck with Bernie Ecclestone to re-establish a US Grand Prix on a new 2.605-mile road course, built within the infield and utilising Turn One of the oval course. A 36-bay pit garage building for the Formula One teams was built alongside a brand new Control Tower, modelled (albeit in a much more lavish style) on the original 1926 Pagoda structure.
Michael Schumacher created history on September 24, 2000, by winning the inaugural F1 Grand Prix before a sellout crowd estimated at 225,000. It marked the first time in IMS history that racing cars had travelled past the famous Yard of Bricks in a clockwise direction.
In truth, while all the ingredients for success were undoubtedly in place, Formula One and IMS were never easy bedfellows, with controversy never far away. In 2002, Schumacher tried to stage a dead-heat finish, only to misjudge it and hand victory by 0.011 seconds to his Ferrari team mate, Rubens Barrichello. Then in 2005, problems with disintegrating tyres led to the Michelin-shod teams withdraw after the warm up lap, leading to a processional race of just six cars won again by Schumacher, to the boos of a confused audience. A presentation party has to be hastily assembled after Speedway boss Tony George refused to take part in the podium celebrations.
The Formula One event never really recovered from this débâcle and the 2007 race proved to be the last. For the following year, George agreed a deal with MotoGP organisers for the first bike racing events at the Speedway since the opening weekend in 1909. Modifications approved by the FIA and FIM were made to the former Formula One circuit, bringing the new track to a total of 16 turns. The motorcycle course runs anti-clockwise (as per the oval) and completely bypasses the banking, with a new infield section inside Turn 1 ("Snake Pit complex"). The double-hairpin at the Hulman Straight was replaced with a more traditional esses configuration.
For 2012, a further event was announced, with the Grand-Am sportscar series racing on the undercard to the Brickyard 400. The course used was largely that previously run by Formula One (save for the reconfigured esses), and was again run in a clockwise direction with Turn One of the oval course forming the final turn of sportscar circuit.
Further circuit changes were made in time for the 2014 season to accommodate a reformatted programme events in the month of May. A heavily revised road course was created for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a new race for the Indycars, designed as a preliminary event ahead of Indy 500 qualifying. The revised course was again run in a clockwise direction, though the motorcycle variant will continue to be used in the opposite direction, with a modified 'Snakepit' series of corners inside oval Turn One.
Indy joins the Penske dynasty
In November 2019 a new group headed by Roger Penske, Penske Entertainment, was announced as the new owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar, and IMS Productions. What had once seemed impossible - that the Hulman-George's would sell the facility - had become true. Where Mari Hulman-George had vowed to never let the Speedway out of her family's control, after her death in November 2018 her children began to entertain the idea of a sale, if the right buyer could be found. Tony George approached Penske on the grid at the 2019 Indcar finale at Laguna Seca and a deal was concluded a short time later.
“I think we all realize that as a family and as an organization, we probably had taken it as far as we can,” said George during the announcement of the sale at the Speedway. “Roger, his structure, his resources, his capabilities that he demonstrates, is only going to take this to another level, and that's what we're all about. We’re supporting that continued elevating of this asset and staking a new claim on its future. We, with emotion, are happy to be here today.”
The takeover was finalised in January 2020 and Penske has pledged to devote his initial period of IMS/IndyCar ownership to analyzing and opinion-gathering, before making any significant changes. However, it seems likely that there will be some positive announcements in time which will ensure further and more diversified sucess in the future, safeguarding the prestige of the Brickyard as it continues into its second century.