If there is one thing that Indianapolis is known for, it is fast cars running around in circles in May. And the transportation history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can not be denied. The 2.5 mile rectangle in a farm field five miles northwest of downtown was built to test cars in the early days. The four men that created the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company were car people. Carl Fisher and James Allison owned Prest-O-Lite, a maker of headlights and batteries for cars. Frank Wheeler made carburetors. Arthur Newby owned the National Motor Vehicle Company.
I want to go into a little more history before getting into the pre-coverage of what would, decades later, become the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” Carl Fisher wanted to create a place to test automobiles. Local roads were not of sufficient quality, and the new one mile oval track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds was not good enough either. Fisher’s first plan was to create a five mile track at French Lick. (For those of you that have read my article on the routing of the Dixie Highway through Indiana – “Winners and Losers, Routing the Dixie Highway Through Indiana” – know the irony in that plan.) That plan, obviously, did not happen. And so, in 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was born.
We look at the speedway today, and we look at the three (max) races held there every year. In 1910, there were MANY races held at the track. As many as 42 in one three-day weekend. This led to poor attendance, and a plan to have one great big race with a lot of money to the winner. This created the first of what would become the Indianapolis 500.
That “extravaganza” was publicized well. The Indianapolis Star of 28 May 1991, had “a history of the careers of the drivers who will pilot the cars in the 500-mile race at the Speedway Tuesday.” I want to focus on their exploits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The first one mentioned was Ralph De Palma. He started racing on his own in April 1908, even with broken tendons in his arms after a wreck as a mechanicman. In August 1909, he scored four second place finishes with a Fiat stock car. He also won time trials in August 1910 with a 200 horse power Fiat. He also won a ten-mile free-for-all.
The next mentioned was Charles Merz. His first racing experience included crashing through a fence, demolishing his car and narrowly escaping death. That was 4 November 1905. At a race. In Indianapolis. The car company that supplied his racing vehicles was the above mentioned National Motor Vehicle Company. His experience at the Motor Speedway included races in August 1909, May 1910 and September 1910. In these, he either placed first of second. Including running 100 miles “without a stop.”
Robert Burman drove for Benz. His history included driving the very first car built by the Buick Motor Company. He raced several Buick entries across the country. His first experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway included several wins in long races in July 1910. But his cars were disqualified, meaning so were his wins.
“Happy” Johnny Aitken of Indianapolis. He also drove National Motor Vehicles. His list of accomplishments at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is rather long. To the point that his list from 1909 is included to the left. Another list of his exploits is included below that. This doesn’t include his running at the December 1909 sessions at the Speedway.
There are more…I plan on a second post.
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Walter Bedell Smith, Gen. Eisenhower’s Chief of staff, worked at National upon graduating Emmerich Manual Training H.S.