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Inside the IMS Photo Vault: Indy 500 history is preserved through photos in the extensive archive

IMS Photo Vault
Posted at 5:56 PM, May 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-09 19:46:27-04

SPEEDWAY, IN — Pictures capture priceless moments in Indianapolis 500 history. From glass negatives taken in the early nineteen-hundred’s, to Images of Amelia Earhart at the Speedway, in 1935, over five million images live on here inside the vault at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

IMS Archivist, Joe Skibinski, dedicates his life to finding, preserving, and digitizing all the photos of past Indy 500’s.

“So, you’ve got thirty-five-millimeters, four by six film, and then the slides.”

There are so many historic pictures over the years, the binders nearly burst open with two hundred fifty pages of slides inside of each binder.

“It adds up quite a bit,” Skibinski said. "He said a little under one hundred-thousand photos have been digitized so far. “Some of these negatives are deteriorating, so trying to get those archived now before they’re lost just to time."

Along the way, Skibinski said he and the team find hidden gems, like an image of Mario Andretti in 1969 drinking the milk in Victory Lane that was once thought to be lost.

“It’s kind of just been kind of lost until now," Skibinski said.

“Nobody thought that photo existed,” IMS President Doug Boles said. “Those photos always turn up something new. They always turn up a different look at a car going through a corner differently, or a celebrity who’s standing with a racecar driver from back in the pre-World War Two days even."

Boles said he values these Speedway treasures, “The thing that makes the Speedway so special is its history right and when you know that all of that history is captured through photographs, really dating back to the time that the speedway was first being constructed, it is pretty amazing.”

"It’s also, amazing that not many people know this exists," Boles said. “We get a lot of calls from folks who say I think my dad, or my grand-dad or uncle was a riding mechanic in the thirty’s, but for the vast majority of our fans, I don’t think they have any idea that this is here."

In this fireproof, temperature controlled, vault, once you start looking at the old photos… you don’t want to stop.

“Now that we’re here right now, I’d like to pull out the 1998 book and look through. That was the first year that I was here as a team owner,” Boles said.

So Skibinski searched for the binder and found it.

“Actually, there’s our qualifying photo with us in it,” said Boles pointing to his photo. He said, “(I’m standing) there next to Jim Harbaugh, when we qualified for the 1998 Indianapolis 500.”

“There you go wow, the first set, we find it right," Boles said.

Experts like Skibinski sift through these stacks of binders and vaults fast, almost as if they know exactly where to look.

IMS Photo Vault
Behind the scenes of the five million plus pictures inside the IMS vault from previous Indy 500's.

"How many times do you think you've gone through all of these photos," WRTV Anchor Megan Shinn asked Skibinski.

“I haven’t gone through all of them once yet, but I’ve been through quite a bit of it," he replied.

There’s so much Indy 500 history we don’t even know, but through this work no image’s left behind and history from Greatest Spectacle in racing remains in the future.

Inside the vaults they watch everything from the moisture, to wearing gloves when handling fragile films.

The Indiana Historical Society has quite a few old Indy 500 photos too. So, between both of them, there’s not much that’s happened at the Speedway that hasn’t been captured on film.

Fun fact, you can visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and buy copies of the historic images you saw as well.