In this age of "extreme" reality programming, I want to throw an idea out there: let's take 33 men and women from all across the globe, strap them into scientifically engineered machinery that generates the same amount of G-force as a space shuttle, place them side-by-side at nearly 200 mph and make them race around a 2.5 mile track 200 times. Pretty insane stuff, eh?
Well, that's exactly what's going to take place this Sunday when the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500 takes places in Speedway, Indiana. The Indianapolis 500 is "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing" and represents the oldest and most recognizable automobile race in the world.
However, the multi-million dollar occasion that is one of the Midwestern United States' signature events, has had to overcome death, Depression, World Wars, neglect and several technological revolutions along the way. The vision of a few Indiana businessmen, the Indy 500 has come a long way in the past 94 years.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was founded by a group of businessmen, led by Carl Fisher, in 1908-1909, and the track was built on 328 acres of farmland northwest of Downtown Indianapolis. It was originally built as a year-round testing facility for research and development in the suddenly booming automobile industry, and hosted various small races pitting the automobiles of competing manufacturers against one another.
The first official race was held on August 19,1909 and was only five miles long. It was a bloodbath. The track surface, made of crushed stone and gravel, broke up and caused the death of two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators. In response, 3.2 million bricks were hauled in and the track was resurfaced, giving way to the popular nickname "The Brickyard."
The first Indy 500 took place on May 30, 1911. Ray Harroun topped the field of 40 drivers en-route to winning the inaugural checkered flag, averaging about 75 mph for a race that took him six hours and 42 minutes to finish. He took home $14,250.
The event was an instant success and gained universal attention and recognition. It has been raced nearly every year since then, taking off 1917-18 and 1942-45 because of America's involvement in two World Wars. Until 1994, when NASCAR ran the Brickyard 400 there, the Indy 500 was the only event held at the track.
Auto racing in general witnessed a sharp decline in interest during the Great Depression, but the Indy 500 endured.
As the design and performance of racecars improved, the increasing speed was making the track increasingly dangerous. Between 1931 and 1935 there were 15 deaths, with five coming in one year (1933). As a result, asphalt was applied to the rougher parts of the track in 1936, and by 1941 all but the main straightaway had become blacktop. The remainder of the original bricks were covered in the fall of 1961 - except for the famous "Yard of Bricks" that's still exposed at the start/finish line as a nostalgic nod to the past.
The track has changed owners twice in Indy 500 history, with Indiana businessman Anton "Tony" Hulman, Jr. taking over in 1945. Hulman completely renovated the grounds - now spanning over 520 acres - and into what we recognize today. Hulman passed away in 1977, and his family (now Hulman-George) still owns and operates the facilities today.
In the 1960's, the innovation of the rear-engine racer that had started in Formula One took over the race (the last front-engine winner occurred in 1964). That time period, leading into the early 70s was dominated by such racing royalty as AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti and both Bobby and Al Unser. Foyt became the first four-time winner of the race in 1977 and Al Unser joined him in 1987, becoming the oldest winner in Indy 500 history.
The 1980's opened up the race to a new level of speed demon. Rick Mears topped the 200 mph mark in 1982. In 1989, F1 veteran Emerson Fitpaldi took the checkered flag while registering a 220 mph lap. Finally, Arie Luyendyk won with the fastest average time in Indy 500 history, averaging 186.981 mph over the course of the race.
The '90's were dominated by the second generation of Unser, Al Jr., and Luyendyk (each won two 500s) and most recently Helio Castroneves had made his mark on the prestigious event by winning his first two appearances at The Brickyard in 2001-02, and finishing in second place in 2003. Buddy Rice, who was a late scratch for the race due to a back injury and is being replaced by 1999 champ Kenny Back, is the defending champion.
The Indy 500 has also seen its share of tragedy over the years. In 1955, Bill Vukovich was killed in the 57th lap while defending his back-to-back championships. The 1958 death of Pat O'Connor led to the mandatory rule that all cars must be equipped with rollbars and all drivers must wear fireproof uniforms.
The 1973 race is remembered as the worst in Indy 500 history. It was postponed twice due to rain, and at 72-hours became the longest race in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. It was also the deadliest Indy 500 since 1937 as three drivers and a crewman were killed. Also, a bizarre 12-car accident spilled into the stands and injured 13 spectators.
The Indy 500 is the oldest auto race in the world, and remains an American institution. This Saturday millions of people will watch in wonder at the bizarre and death-defying spectacle that has been a tradition for almost a century. And no matter how much auto technology and culture has changed over that time, the Indy 500 is now and forever will be the crown jewel in the auto racing calendar.