For over a century, the Indy 500 has been one of the most prestigious motorsport events in the world.
We talk about the success of different cars in different races, but this time we thought we’d talk about the races themselves. Even among the races that could be considered legendary, the Indy 500 is a very old race. It is also one of the most prestigious, and obviously one of the biggest spectacles in the sporting world. Together with Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (both of which will obviously be covered later in this series) it is part of the triple crown of motorsports.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909, and contrary to popular myth, it was not initially paved in bricks. The bricks came later, after the uneven asphalt on the track led to several fatal crashes during the first year. It was decided to repave using bricks, and the first race to be held on the new brick track was on Memorial Day weekend of 1910. The race drew big crowds, but when attendance started to dwindle after that, it was decided that there would be a big annual race held every Memorial Day weekend. Organizers toyed with the idea of a variety of different formats, before finally setting on a race that comprised 200 laps of the 2.5-mile oval track, or 500 miles in total.
So the first official Indy 500 was held in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun, with the result immediately being protested by second place finisher, Ralph Mulford. The source of the complaint car from the fact Harroun drove alone in a lighter-weight single-seat car. The custom at the time was to ride with a mechanic who would monitor oil pressure and watch for traffic coming up behind the car. Harroun decided he didn’t need this, instead equipping his car, the Marmon Wasp, with a device he had invented called a rearview mirror. The advantage of riding alone was soon clear, and it wasn’t long before this became the standard.
We tend to think of the Indy 500 as an almost entirely American race up until just a couple of decades ago, but in fact there were several wins by Europeans in the years before the First World War. There was one after as well, when Frenchman Gaston Chevrolet (younger brother of Louis Chevrolet, for whom the automotive brand is named) won the 1920 Indy 500. There followed a 68-years period when almost every single Indy 500 was won by an American. The only two exceptions are 1965 and 1966, which were won by Brits Jim Clark and Graham Hill respectively.
Jim Clark would go on to win the F1 World Championship the same year that he won Indy, and with Americans starting to become more involved in Le Mans at this time, the world of auto racing seemed to be changing rapidly. But in the end, it didn’t so much, and Americans would go back to winning Indy every year until the Brazilian Former F1 champ Emerson Fittipaldi won 1989. The race is now quite international, and although Americans still win plenty, there is some healthy competition coming in from overseas. As you would expect, the cars have changed quite a bit over the years.
But for some time now, the single-seat "Indy car" formula has remained basically the same, albeit with quite a few tweaks to the details. The cars look, to the untrained eye, not dissimilar to F1 cars, but are in fact smaller, lighter, less complicated and less powerful. A number of different engines have been used, with Indy being one of the only track races to have seen the use of diesel, but today all cars use a 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6 which produces between 550 and 700 horsepower. For a time, Honda was the sole engine provider, and although this is no longer true, it is still the biggest provider.
Indy has seen more female drivers than is typical in most racing, particularly when compared to Europe, but this hasn’t always been the case. Female racers were banned for many years, and female reporters weren’t even allowed into the pits until 1971. But the first female racer to qualify for the race came just a few years later when Janet Guthrie qualified in 1977. Since then Sarah Fisher’s eight completed Indy 500s is the most of any woman. And Danica Patrick led for 19 laps in 2005 and 10 in 2011, her third place finish in 2009 is the highest any female driver has placed.
Women aren’t exactly hugely involved in the sport, but compared to Formula 1, Indy is far less of a boys club. With the increase in international attention, Indy has become, if anything, a more important race than ever. Competition is always fierce and the winner is never a foregone conclusion. Certainly the makings of a great race.