First races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Let’s go to the races: the first races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 19 – 21, 1909
Let’s go to the races! Or, at least, take a look at the first races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 19 – 21, 1909. These were the precursors to the Indy 500, aka “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Start of 1909 Wheeler Schebler Trophy Race

Start of 1909 Wheeler-Schebler Trophy Race
Copyright © Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Many believed that these events would be the greatest automobile track program of the season. Here are a few reasons for this expectation :

  • Famous drivers such as Louis Chevrolet, Harry Stutz, Ray Harroun, Barney Oldfield, Ralph Mulford, Lewis Strang, William Bourque, and Bob Burman guaranteed that sparks would fly.
  • Competing manufacturers included Buick, Fiat, Jackson, Stoddard-Dayton, Chalmers-Detroit, and Knox. Indiana manufacturers were represented by Apperson, Marion, Marmon, and National.
  • Prizes for the events exceeded $25,000.
  • Indianapolis automotive manufacturers Presto-O-Lite, G&J Tire Company, and Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company donated major event trophies.

Motor caravans steadily descended on Indianapolis from most of the principal cities in the Midwest in the days preceding the events from August 19-21. A large group left Chicago’s lake front on Wednesday and followed a trail of pink and white confetti through Hammond, Crown Point, Rensselear, Lafayette, Frankfort, and Kirklin on the 200-mile, eight-hour trip to Indianapolis. Free parking facilities included 10,000 marked spaces for cars and 3,000 hitching posts for horses and carriages. Other spectators made arrangements with railroad and interurban officials for transportation to the main gate.

The price of admission was quite reasonable. Infield admission was 50 cents with bleacher seating at no extra charge. General admission was $1 for seating in a substantial portion of the grandstands. Numerous box seats were available for an additional $1.50.

The two grandstands were filled to their 15,000 capacity long before Thursday’s program starting time. Late arrivals were directed to the infield via two pedestrian bridges. As the race cars prepared for the first event, numerous spectators crowded onto the main straightaway bridge for a better view of the action below. It took some time before order was restored.

The entrants for the first event, a five-mile sprint race, lined up at the starting line with their engines roaring and clouds of smoke belching from their exhausts. It took two attempts before the starter sent them on their way. Louis Schwitzer of Indianapolis, driving a Stoddard-Dayton, took the lead on the first lap and won with an average speed of 57.43 miles an hour.

The Buick team of Louis Strang, Bob Burman, and Louis Chevrolet quickly outclassed the entrants in the second event. Chevrolet’s win set a new 10-mile world record of 66.93 miles an hour. Ray Harroun won the last 10-mile event driving a four-cylinder Marmon.

Thursday’s feature event, the 250-mile Presto-O-Lite Trophy Race, began at 2 p.m. Again Buick team mates Burman and Chevrolet took the early lead. It wasn’t long before they started lapping the field. This became a problem as they drove through a blinding storm of oil, dust, and sharp-edged stones as they passed each straggler. As they completed their 30th lap, some track officials were concerned if the race could go the full distance because the track was showing signs of rapidly deteriorating.

Track conditions continued to grow worse. While Arthur Chevrolet was leading the race on lap 52, he attempted to pass Tom Kincaid driving a National and a flying stone shattered his goggles. With pieces of glass in one eye and dust in the other he pulled to a stop on the infield safety apron. On lap 58, William Bourque’s Knox hit a chuckhole at the start of home stretch. The car made a half-somersault and landed upside down. Bourque was pinned under the wreckage and his riding mechanic Harry Holcomb was thrown against a fence post. Both died from their injuries.

Bob Burman took over the lead and was later challenged by Fred Ellis, driving a Jackson, and Tom Kincaid. Burman’s winning speed was 53.77 miles an hour, with an elapsed time of 4 hours, 38 minutes, 57.4 seconds.

While spectators where heading to gates, worried officials discussed the advisability of canceling Friday’s events. Speedway management was able to convince the AAA Contest board that they could take corrective measures to fix the track.

A crowd of over 25,000, even larger than on the first day, turned out for Friday’s program. The track conditions lived up to the Speedway’s promises.

Louis Strang in his Buick won the day’s first event, a five-mile race, with Harry Stutz in a Marion finishing third. Charley Merz and Johnny Aitken both drove Nationals to first and second place in the five-mile, free-for-all race. In a 10-mile, free-for-all event, Len Zengal in his “Big Six” Chadwick set a new American record for the distance. Merz and Aitken both won additional 10-mile events.

Strang won the 100-mile G&J Trophy Race with an average speed of 64.74 miles an hour, leading almost all the way and setting American records for all of the 10-mile intermediate distances from the 20-mile mark to the finish.

Attendance for Saturday’s program was more than 35,000. Every available bit of space was filled to capacity and autos were parked for more than half a mile along the home stretch.

Eddie Hearne driving a Fiat won the 10-mile Amateur Championship race. Tom Kincaid in his National won the 15-mile free-for-all event. There was no overtaking Barney Oldfield in his 120-horsepower Benz racer when he shattered the world’s track records for all 5 mile increments in the 25-mile free-for-all event.

Nineteen of the world’s most powerful cars started in the 300-mile Wheeler-Schebler Trophy Race, the feature event of the three-day program. Johnny Aitken’s National quickly roared into the lead. Herbert Lytle in an Apperson was running in second place at the end of 50 miles when the car hit a rut at the start of the southwest turn. The car darted straight across the track toward the infield and buried its nose in the soft dirt at the edge of the track. Joe Betts, his riding mechanic, was thrown clear. Neither Lytle nor Betts were injured, but this was an indication that the track was starting to deteriorate again.

After setting the pace for 105 miles, Aitken dropped out of race with a cracked cylinder head. This put Bob Burman, the winner of Thursday’s 250-mile race in the lead with Ralph DePalma in his Fiat following closely behind. Burman was leading by a large margin at 150 miles when he also retired from competition with a cracked cylinder head. At this point Lee Lynch driving a Jackson assumed the lead.

By this time, a number of drivers who had dropped out of the race were reporting on the rough track conditions and poor visibility. Then what everyone had feared happened. About 200 yards beyond where Lytle encountered his trouble, the right front tire on Charley Merz’s National blew out. The big racer climbed up the embankment and plowed through a group of spectators momentarily turning up-right with Merz clinging to the wheel before landing upside-down in the soft creek bed. He crawled from the wreckage unaided. Riding mechanic Claude Kellum was not so fortunate. He had been thrown form his seat and was killed instantly. Two spectators were dead and several others were injured.

As this information was being delivered to the starting line, Bruce Keen’s Marmon hit a chuckhole on the southeast turn and was thrown against one of the large timbers supporting the pedestrian bridge. James Schiller his mechanic was taken to the field hospital with scalp lacerations.

Upon hearing of this incident, starter Fred Wagner and other officials decided to stop the race. Lynch was awarded first place with 235 miles completed with an average speed of 55.61 miles an hour. Trailing in order were DePalma, Stillman and Harroun in Marmons, Oldfield in a National, Stutz in a Marion, and DeHymel in a Stoddard-Dayton.

Like many auto races, a morbid few gathered around the wrecked cars of Merz and Keen. But the majority of the shocked spectators headed straight for the gates, talking in quiet voices about what they had seen.

In the aftermath of the first races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, officials paved the track with 3.2 million ten-pound paving bricks and constructed guardrails on all four turns. This construction began a legacy that today stages the world’s largest single day sporting event known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” So, the next time you go to the races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway you might think back on what happened in 1909.

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