May 30, 2006

Today In Automotive History

1911 Indy 500 sees first winner

Ray Harroun won the inaugural Indianapolis 500, averaging 74.6mph in the Marmon Wasp. The Indy 500 was the creation of Carl Fisher. In the fall of 1909, Fisher replaced the ruined, crushed-stone surface of his 2.5-mile oval with a brand-new brick one. It was the largest paved, banked oval in the United States. Fisher then made two decisions vital to the success of the Indy 500. First, he determined to hold only one race per year on his Indianapolis Motor Speedway; second, he elected to offer the richest purse in racing as a reward for competing in his annual 500-mile event. By the second year of the Indy 500, 1912, it was the highest-paying, single-day sporting event in the entire world. The purse alone guaranteed that Indy would attract the media's undivided attention. Add to Fisher's marketing tactics the fact that European racing suffered from an absence of major events due to the ban on public road racing, and you have the ingredients that made Indy instantly successful. The media attention, in turn, meant that the best drivers in the world would come to Indy to make their reputation. Manufacturers acknowledged that a car bearing their name would mean millions in free advertising. It's a simple formula by today's standards, but in Fisher's time the risk of putting so much money down was rarely taken. In the very first race at Indy, Harroun's Marmon became nationally recognized. The car was owned, built, and entered by the factory, and Harroun drove as a hired employee. Among the Marmon Wasp's novel features, it is cited as the first car fitted with a rear-view mirror. But if the Indy 500 was responsible for attracting the industry to racing, it was even more responsible for creating racing as an industry. In 1911, the typical race car was built off the chassis of a big luxury car. They had huge four-cylinder engines. Instead of the heavy body of the luxury cars, the race cars were fitted with "doghouse" bodies that just covered the car's engine and cockpit. The floorboards were wood boards, the wheels were made of ash wood, and the seats were metal buckets bolted firmly to the floorboards. The cars were equipped with rear-wheel drum brakes only. Bolster tanks, like tubular sofa bolsters, held the oil and gasoline. Due to the ill-fitting pistons, gaskets, and valves that comprised the cars' innards, the best cars dropped nearly a dozen gallons of oil on the brick racetrack over the course of the 500-mile event. So these cars, equipped with no suspension, raced at speeds near 80mph on a brick track covered in oil. Only a decade later in 1922, nearly all the cars that started the Indy 500 were purpose-built race cars. All of them carried aerodynamic bodies, with narrow grills and teardrop-shaped tails. Knock-off wire wheels made for quick, efficient tire changes, and the new straight-sided tires lasted much longer than their early pneumatic counterparts. The best cars were equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes and inline 3.0-liter V-8 engines made of aluminum. The cars were smaller, lighter, more efficient, and far more expensive. They resembled nothing that could be purchased in a storeroom. Ray Harroun's speed of 74.6mph would have finished him 10th at the 1922 Indy 500. It wasn't the speeds that had changed so much as the driver's control over the car. Racing, at least partly because of Indy, had become a sport rather than an exhibition. In the mid-1920s, the Miller and Duesenberg cars took racing to another level. Indy became what it is today, a high-paying event for the world's most expensive cars.

Posted by Quality Weenie at May 30, 2006 07:03 AM | TrackBack

A great race this year! One of the benefits to living down here is getting to watch it on tv and enjoy it all, without baking in the sun.

Rookies are getting better and better! And Danica set the bar high for this years rookies!

Posted by: Lee Ann at May 31, 2006 03:07 PM