Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Home of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing
This famous speedway fittingly has a fascinating history.In 1909, four visionary automotive pioneers in Indianapolis pooled their ideas and their resources to build the Indiana Motor Parkway on the far Westside of town as a proving ground for horseless carriages -- a place to test out the latest improvements and changes in engines, tires, chassis and accessories.
James A. Allison, Carl G. Fisher, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler hoped their facility would help to bolster the state's nascent automotive industry. Little did they expect that their test track would grow to be the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, attracting race cars and spectators from around the world to an iconic competition held for -- thus far -- a hundred years.
These days, of course, it’s not possible to mention Indianapolis without thinking of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the “parkway” was renamed soon after it opened). Indy -- the nickname for both the track and the city -- means auto racing to a worldwide audience (even the category of car raced at the speedway is termed the “Indy” racer).
The first major race at the IMS -- the inaugural Indianapolis “500” -- was held May 30, 1911. The winner was veteran racer Ray Harroun, averaging more than 74 mph in his bright yellow Marmon Wasp. The car is now on display in the Hall of Fame Museum on the Speedway grounds.
This museum, located inside the famed oval track, has the actual winning cars of many of the races, plus an impressive collection of racing trophies, videos, photographs and other race memorabilia. When the track isn’t in use for testing, special buses take visitors on a trip around the famed 2-1/2 mile oval.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently celebrated its centennial with a three-year extravaganza: 2009 was the hundredth anniversary of the track, and 2011 was the hundredth anniversary of the first 500-Mile Race.
The speedway itself is said to be the largest and highest-capacity sporting facility in the world. Although exact figures are a closely-held secret, it’s estimated that 257,000 people can sit in the grandstands. Infield seating raises that capacity to close to a ½ million spectators for the annual 500-Mile Race.
Yet, the speedway didn’t start out with an automobile race. The first contest, held in 1909, was the United States National Balloon championships. Then, there were a series of motorcycle races hosted by the Federation of American Motorcyclists. Automobile racing took over in 1911, and there’s been a 500-Mile race every year (except for a gap during World War II).
The IMS hosted the United States Grand Prix for Formula One for eight years (ending in 2007). Each summer, it hosts the Brickyard “400” for the NASCAR circuit. Another annual race, the MotoGP, part of a motorcycle road racing series, was added in 2008.
James A. Allison’s estate, Riverdale, is now the campus of Indianapolis’ Marian College.
Tony Hulman, a businessman from Terre Haute, purchased the IMS in 1945, and ownership has remained in the Hulman family ever since. Anton H. "Tony" George, grandson of Tony Hulman, was named president of the Speedway in 1990.