Learn the Fascinating History of the Indianapolis 500

The Indianapolis 500, also formally known as the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, or simply the Indy 500, is an annual automobile race held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana, United States, an enclave suburb of Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not only the home of the Indianapolis 500 but of the Verizon 200, and formerly the home of the United States Grand Prix. It is located on the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, approximately six miles (9.7 km) west of Downtown Indianapolis.

Constructed in 1909, it is the second purpose-built, banked oval racing circuit after Brooklands and the first to be called a ‘speedway’. It is the third-oldest permanent automobile race track in the world, behind Brooklands and the Milwaukee Mile. With a permanent seating capacity of 257,325, it is the highest-capacity sports venue in the world.

Considered relatively flat by American standards, the track is a 2.5-mile-long (4.0 km) rectangular oval with dimensions that have remained essentially unchanged since its construction. It has two 5⁄8-mile-long (1,000 m) straightaways, four geometrically identical 1⁄4-mile (400 m) turns, connected by two 1⁄8-mile (200 m) short straightaways, termed “short chutes”, between turns 1 and 2, and between turns 3 and 4.

A modern, FIA Grade One infield road course was completed in 2000, incorporating part of the oval, including the main stretch and the southeast turn, measuring 2.605 mi (4.192 km). In 2008, and again in 2014, the road course layout was modified to accommodate motorcycle racing, as well as to improve competition.

Altogether, the current grounds have expanded from an original 320 acres (1.3 km2) on which the speedway was first built to cover an area of over 559 acres (2.3 km2). Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, it is the only such site to be affiliated with automotive racing history.

Indianapolis 500 was first held under the title International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race between 1911 and 1915, the inaugural race was won by Ray Harroun, before becoming the 300-Mile Liberty Sweepstakes and then reverting to International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race from 1920 until 1980.

The Indianapolis 500 is considered one of the most traditional and historical races in the world and is also part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport. The American Automobile Association governed the event between its inception until 1955, then United States Auto Club from 1956 to 1997, and the Indy Racing League/IndyCar from 1998 onwards.

the borg-warner trophy on display in the pits of the Indianapolis motor speedway during indy 500 qualifications

Since 1936, each winning driver and team is presented with a small replica of the art deco sterling silver Borg-Warner Trophy, which sees a bas-relief sculpture of the winning driver’s face added to the base. The driver receives a laurel wreath made of 33 ivory-colored Cymbidium orchids featuring burgundy tips and 33 miniature flags interwoven with blue, red and white ribbons in victory lane each year since 1960, and drinks a bottle of milk, a tradition started by Louis Meyer after he won the 1936 race.

2011 500 champion Dan Wheldon, with laurel wreath and drinks milk as part of the tradition

The event celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, and the 100th running was held in 2016. The event was put on hiatus twice, from 1917 to 1918 due to World War I and from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II. Marcus Ericsson is the current champion.

History

Early years

The first “500” was held at the Speedway in 1911 on Decoration Day, May 30, (as it was known from its inception in 1868 to 1967, when federal law made “Memorial Day” the official name), run to a 600-cubic-inch (9,800 cc) maximum engine size formula.

American Ray Harroun was declared the winner, although Ralph Mulford protested the official result. Eighty thousand spectators were in attendance, and an annual tradition had been established. Many considered Harroun to be a hazard during the race, as he was the only driver in the race driving without a riding mechanic, who checked the oil pressure and let the driver know when traffic was coming.

In 1912, the purse was raised to $50,000, the field was limited to 33 (where it remains), and a riding mechanic was made mandatory. This second event was won by Joe Dawson.

After World War I, the native drivers and manufacturers regained their dominance of the race, and engineer Harry Miller set himself up as the most competitive of the post-war builders.

Following the European trends, engine sizes were limited to 183 cu in (3,000 cc) during 1920–1922, 122 cu in (2,000 cc) for 1923–1925, and 91 cu in (1,490 cc) in 1926–1929.[15] The 1920 race was won by Gaston Chevrolet in a Frontenac, prepared by his brothers, powered by the first eight-cylinder engine to win the 500.

In the early 1920s, Miller built his 3.0-liter (183 in3) engine, inspired by the Peugeot Grand Prix engine which had been serviced in his shop by Fred Offenhauser in 1914, installing it in Jimmy Murphy’s Duesenberg and allowing him to win the 1922 edition of the race.

After purchasing the Speedway in 1927, Eddie Rickenbacker prohibited supercharging and increased the displacement limit to 366 cu in (6,000 cc), while also re-introducing the riding mechanic.

European incursions

European manufacturers, gone from the Indianapolis 500 for nearly two decades, made a brief return just before World War II, with the competitive Maserati 8CTF allowing Wilbur Shaw to become the first driver to win consecutively at Indianapolis, in 1939 and 1940.

It was not until the Indianapolis 500 was removed from the World Championship calendar that European entries made their return. In 1963, technical innovator Colin Chapman brought his Team Lotus to Indianapolis for the first time, attracted by the large monetary prizes, far bigger than the usual at a European event.

Fernando Alonso was the most recent active Formula One driver to race at the Indy 500-mile race, in 2017. Before that, no active F1 driver had competed in the Indy 500 since 1984.

World Series

After foreign cars became the norm, foreign drivers began competing in the Indianapolis 500 regularly, choosing the United States as their primary base for their motor racing activities. Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, Italian Teo Fabi, and Colombian Roberto Guerrero were able to obtain good outings in the 1980s, as was Dutchman Arie Luyendyk. 

In 1993, reigning Formula One World Champion Nigel Mansell shocked the racing world by leaving Formula One for CART. While he came in only third in the 500, he won the 1993 CART championship. Foreign-born drivers became a regular fixture of Indianapolis in the years to follow.

Despite the increase in foreign drivers commonly being associated with the CART era, four of the first six Indianapolis 500 winners were non-American drivers.

2008 Indianapolis 500

Centennial Era

In 2009, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began a three-year-long “Centennial Era” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the track (1909), and the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500 (1911).

As a gesture to the nostalgic Centennial Era celebration (2009–2011), tickets for the 2009 race donned the moniker “93rd 500 Mile International Sweepstakes”.

It is the first time since 1980 that the “Sweepstakes” title has been used. In May 2009, the ordinal (93rd) was used very sparingly, and for the first time since 1981, was not identified on the annual logo.

Instead, in most instances in print, television, and radio, the race was referred to as the “2009 Indianapolis 500”. Since the race was not held during the United States’ participation in the two World Wars (1917–1918, 1942–1945), the advertised Centennial Era occurred during the 93rd to 95th running.

To avoid confusion between the 100th anniversary, and the actual number of times the race has been run, references to the ordinal during the Centennial Era were curtailed.

In the 2014 meeting, the road course became part of the race meeting for the first time. The GMR Grand Prix Road course event, and the three upper tiers of Road to Indy, participated in road course events at the Speedway during the first week of activities.

Six years later, in 2016, the race celebrated its 100th running with about 350,000 in attendance.

In 2020, the race was delayed for the first time from its usual Memorial Day running to August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no audience in attendance, so as to comply with pandemic guidelines. The road course race was moved to the NASCAR weekend in July (which led to an IndyCar Road course race added to the NASCAR weekend permanently in 2021), and the support races on the road course moved to its own September weekend.

As races were cancelled because of local restrictions, the Speedway added two more road course races in October as part of the Intercontinental GT Challenge meeting, where attendance was capped to 10,000 per event.

Indianapolis 500 winners

Hélio Castroneves, A. J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser all hold the record for the most Indianapolis 500 victories, having won the race four times each.

There have been six drivers who have achieved three victories at the event: Dario Franchitti, Meyer, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Wilbur Shaw, and Bobby Unser.

A total of five drivers have won the race twice in succession but none have claimed three or more consecutive victories. Shaw was the first driver to achieve consecutive wins when he finished first in the 1939 and 1940 races.

Castroneves holds the record for the longest period of time between his first Indianapolis 500 victory and his last, a span of two decades. He won his first Indianapolis 500 in the 2001 edition and his last (to date) at the 2021 event.

Juan Pablo Montoya had to wait the longest time between his maiden victory at the 2000 race, and his second win followed 15 years later at the 2015 event. Troy Ruttman is the youngest winner of the Indianapolis 500; he was 22 years and 80 days old when he won the 1952 event.

Al Unser is the oldest winner of the Indianapolis 500; he was 47 years and 360 days old when he won the 1987 race.[11]

As of the 2022 event, there have been 74 race winners in the 106 editions of the Indianapolis 500.

the wasp driven by ray harroun in the indie 500

The first winner of the Indianapolis 500 was American racer Ray Harroun in 1911. The most recent winner of the Indianapolis 500 is Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson in the 2022 edition. There have been two editions, 1924 and 1941, where two drivers sharing a car were named joint winners.