Little Bits of History

Start Your Engines

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 30, 2010

Ray Harroun's Marmon "Wasp" on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. (Photo by The 359)

May 30, 1911: Ray Harroun travels 200 times around the 2 ½ mile track at Indianapolis, becoming the first winner of the brand new International Sweepstakes. The track was built two years earlier on 328 acres of farmland just northwest of Indiana’s capital city. The race itself took nearly seven hours to complete with the “Marmon Wasp” averaging a stunning 74.602 miles per hour. The purse for the race was $14,250. While that may not seem like much, it is about $333,000 in 2009 USD. We know the race today as the Indianapolis 500.

The race has been held each year with the exception of the two world wars when it was suspended. The prize monies have increased over time. In 1957, the purse first topped $100,000 and just twelve years later, it topped $200,000. By 1989 the first place prize topped $1 million.

The lowest average speed was the first year the race was run. Technology advanced steadily and speeds increased – to a point. The highest average speed for a race winner was 185.981 mph set in 1990 by Arie Luyendyk. Tom Sneva broke the 200 mph mark for a lap in 1977 during qualification while Rick Mears finally broke the barrier during the race in 1982.  AJ Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears have each won the race four times.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all fun and games. Forty drivers have been killed participating in the event. Fifteen drivers have been killed on race day and another 25 have died during practice and qualifying laps. Thirteen mechanics, six spectators, and one man outside the track who was struck by a wheel flying over the fence have also been killed. Fortunately, because of many safety improvements, most crashes do not result in fatalities. The limit for number of cars on the track is 33, earlier races sometimes had more. The most cars to finish the race were 26 in 1911 when 40 cars started the race.

“Every race I run in is in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. Indy is the most important thing in my life. It is what I live for.” – Al Unser

“Winning the Indianapolis 500 is a dream come true. Winning for a second time might be more than I could stand, but I’m willing to take that chance.” – Dan Wheldon

“Auto racing is boring except when a car is going at least 172 miles per hour upside down.” – Dave Barry

“I watched the Indy 500, and I was thinking that if they left earlier they wouldn’t have to go so fast.” – Stephen Wright

Also on this day:
In 1989, the
Goddess of Democracy was displayed on Tienanmen Square.
In 1933, Sally Rand’s
fan dance premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair.

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