To, at long last, finish this installment #7 of our bicentennial series, a couple of other things during the term of Gov. Thomas Marshall (most notably, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway & the 500):
In 1910, Blanche Scott is credited as the first woman to have flown an airplane solo with her flight taking place on September 6, 1910 in Fort Wayne. (This flight may or may not have been somewhat accidental — her instructor thought he had limited the plane so it could not take off. Some others credit Bessie Raiche with the accomplishment about 10 days later.) Scott had gained some fame by being part of a pair of women who made the first female automobile trip from east to west across the United States. The quaint writing of the New York Times about the automobile trip is a reminder of the condescension women had to face. (It’s still present but fortunately somewhat diminished.) The New York Times, May 17, 2010: “Miss Scott, with Miss Phillips as only companion, starts on long trip with the object of demonstrating the possibility of a woman driving a motor car across the country and making all the necessary repairs en route. Miss Blanche Stuart Scott yesterday started in an Overland automobile on a transcontinental journey which will end in San Francisco.”
And, in 1911, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — which had opened in 1909 — had its very first Indianapolis 500. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the idea of Carl Fisher, who we met earlier in this installment — the bicycle repairman turned auto salesman turned headlight magnate. He thought a track would be a good place to test new automobile technology and race the vehicles in a way that gave spectators a better view than what was going on at the time, driving the cars on makeshift tracks and horse trails. He also saw that Europe currently had the upper hand in automobile technology. He was further inspired by the Brooklands Circuit outside of London with its banked turns. Fisher found a suitable site at the Pressley farm about five miles outside of Indianapolis and convinced James Allison (of Allison Engines), Arthur Newby, and Frank Newby to assist him with the purchase.
Construction of the track started in March 1909. Fisher had to quickly downsize his planned 3-mile (5 km) oval with a 2-mile (3 km) road course to a 2.5-mile (4.0 km) oval to leave room for the grandstands. Reshaping of the land for the speedway took 500 laborers, 300 mules and a fleet of steam-powered machinery. The track surface consisted of graded and packed soil covered by 2 inches (5 cm) of gravel, 2 inches (5 cm) of limestone covered with taroid (a solution of tar and oil), 1–2 inches (3–5 cm) of crushed stone chips that were also drenched with taroid, and a final topping of crushed stone. Workers also constructed dozens of buildings, several bridges, grandstands with 12,000 seats, and an 8-foot (2.4 m) perimeter fence. A white-with-green-trim paint scheme was used throughout the property.
A balloon race in June 1909 before the track was completed drew 40,000 people. (Bill Bryson, in his book “One Summer: America 1927” observed that in the early 20th century almost any sort of spectacle could draw a crowd.) Track conditions for early races became an issue. The first motorcycle race had to be cut short due to concerns about suitability for motorcycles. During the track’s first racing event in August 1909, the track conditions again deteriorated and tragedy ensued:
On the third day of racing, 35,000 spectators showed up to watch the grand finale 300-mile (480 km) race. At 175 miles (282 km) into the race, the right front tire blew on Charlie Merz’s car. His car mowed down five fence posts and toppled dozens of spectators. Two spectators and his mechanic, Claude Kellum, were killed in the crash. Ten laps later, driver Bruce Keen struck a pothole and crashed into a bridge support. The race was then halted and the remaining drivers given engraved certificates instead of trophies. The race resulted in the AAA boycotting any future events at the speedway until significant improvements were made.
To address this problem, Fisher and his partners undertook repaving the IMS with bricks, as a surface that would not fall apart during races — giving the track its moniker, “The Brickyard.” Governor Marshall laid the final brick, made of gold in December, 1909.
In 1910, the track held a multitude of events with races on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends, including several 100 – 200 mile races and many shorter ones. In 1911, there was a shift in marketing focus due in part to the increased crowds the races were drawing. The organizers settled on a 500 mile race with a spectacular purse of $25,000 in gold. (The $25,000 would be worth something like $600,000 today and the 82.93 pounds of gold would probably be north of a million (I don’t know the purity or anything like that.) The length and purse gave the race primacy in the racing world. On May 30, 1911, the first Indy 500 was held with 40 racers and was won by Ray Harroun in front of a crowd of 80,000 in his Marmon “Wasp” race car. Harroun’s car featured a new innovation — the rear view mirror. His win was not without controversy, however. “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.”
Former World War 1 flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker purchased the track from Allison and Fisher in that year as well. During World War II the race was not conducted and the track fell into disrepair. In November 1945, Rickenbacker sold the track to Terre Haute businessman, Tony Hulman.The race has, of course, become a staple of Memorial Day weekend in Indiana with its 100th running having taken place this year.
In the next installment, we’ll cross the centennial line, head into World War I, and probably conclude shortly before the Great Depression.