May 27, 2011


One Hundred Years of the Indy 500: A century ago, the first Indianapolis 500 race started in high excitement and ended in a muddle (Charles Leerhsen, June 2011, Smithsonian magazine)

The men of the early 20th-century motor press sometimes referred to the 13th circuit of an automobile racecourse as “the hoodoo lap,” not because more bad stuff happened then, but because they fervently wished it would. Coming at that point, a wreck would play nicely into the tabloid trope that superstitions are not to be flouted, and it would give a long car race some much-needed narrative cord. And so it was on May 30, 1911, as several dozen reporters leaned forward anxiously to watch the 40-car field for the first-ever Indianapolis 500-mile race power past the starting line for the 12th time and roar yet again into turn one.

They weren’t a bad lot, the newspapermen who had come to the two-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway to cover the event, but they required—and by some standards of judgment deserved—all the help they could get. Many by then had been in Indianapolis for a month or more, pumping up the importance of the Speedway and the coming sweepstakes—the longest race ever contested on the track—via the dispatches they filed for their far-flung dailies. They had recorded the arrival of virtually every “sweepstakes pilot” in the race, especially Ray Harroun, driver of the No. 32 Marmon “Wasp,” an Indianapolis-built car and the only single-seater in the race. (All the other drivers traveled with “riding mechanics,” who manually pumped oil and swiveled their heads constantly to check for oncoming traffic.) They interviewed drop-by celebrities like Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb and “noted songstress” Alice Lynn, investigated the burgeoning supply of counterfeit $1 general admission tickets, and scrambled for stories about the Indianapolis house cat that “deliberately committed suicide” by jumping from a sixth-story window, the downstate chicken with 14 toes on its left foot and the rumored sightings of a PG-rated pervert known as Jack the Hugger. For men accustomed to doing little more on a workday than walking the length of a boxing ring to ask one toothless man his opinion of another, this was arduous labor.

But the 500-mile sweepstakes, when it finally transpired on that surprisingly cool Tuesday morning, wasn’t paying the pressmen back in kind. The race had gotten off to a thrillingly raucous start replete with aerial bombs and a grandstand packed with an estimated 90,000 enthusiasts. People were excited by the amount of money at stake (the winner’s share would be $10,000, an impressive sum in an era when Cobb, baseball’s highest-paid player, made $10,000 a season) and the danger. (In the downtown saloons you could bet on how many drivers, who wore cloth or leather helmets and had no seat belts or roll bars, might be killed.) But with every mile the story line had become more and more scrambled and the spectators more and more subdued. Those charged with describing the “excitement” to an eager audience of millions were feeling the first damp signs of panic. Like every other lengthy automobile contest these experts on baseball and boxing had ever witnessed, this one was damnably confusing. The auto racing tracks of the day simply did not have the technology to keep track of split times and running order once cars began passing one another and going into and out of the pits.

On certain early developments almost everyone could agree. “Happy” Johnny Aitken, in the dark-blue No. 4 National car, had grabbed the early lead, only to be passed, after about seven miles, by Spencer Wishart, a mining magnate’s son driving a squat, gray customized Mercedes said to have cost his daddy $62,000. Eight laps later Wishart (who wore a custom-made shirt and silk tie beneath his overalls) suddenly pitted with a bad tire, leaving the lead to a big brown Knox driven by an unheralded public-school kid from Springfield, Massachusetts, named Fred Belcher. Soon Wishart stormed back onto the course, but into what lap exactly no one, including the judges, could say for certain. The leaders, as mile 30 approached, were starting to lap the stragglers, so the field was a snake eating its own tail. Belcher now found himself running second to a ball of smoke concealing, it was generally believed, the dark red Fiat of 23-year-old David Bruce-Brown, a square-jawed, fair-haired New Yorker from a wealthy merchant family. A class-war theme might be emerging—trust-fund kids versus their working-class counterparts—but then again, perhaps not.

Posted by at May 27, 2011 6:25 AM

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