INDIANAPOLIS -- It's 1911, the year after the retirement of Indianapolis' idea of speed that came in the form of bicyclist Marshall W. "Major" Taylor. Throughout his career, Taylor was heralded "The Fastest Bicycle Rider In The World."
Taylor capitalized on the bicycle craze of the late 19th Century once they became affordable to all and set national and world records in racing. What made Taylor's accomplishments even more amazing, was that he was an African-American in a time when deep-rooted discrimination and open hostility still existed.
The automobile business was booming in 1911 Indiana, with more than a dozen auto manufacturers calling Indianapolis home. To name a few: Marmon, American and Empire.
More than 40 other car companies operated in other cities around the state.
With a new idea of speed, four businessmen saw a golden opportunity: A few years before, Carl Graham Fisher, along with partners James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler, decided to build the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a testing facility for the rapidly growing industry.
The group originally built the facility with a track made of gravel, limestone, tar, and asphaltum oil, but due to frequent and serious crashes, eventually converted it to an all-brick track. It took 63 days and 3.2 million paving bricks, each weighing in at 9.5 pounds, to complete the upgraded Speedway.
The bricks would be the racing surface for more than 50 years after that, and still today, a 36-inch strip of the original bricks was kept intact at the start/finish line, now known as as the fabled Yard of Bricks.
Three race meets were held in 1910, but in 1911 they took the next step, hosting the first Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.
The race was held in May, a month that conformed to the still rural tempo of Indiana following spring corn planting, to allow local farmers to attend.
Forty drivers qualified for the race.
Ray Harroun won with a time of 6 hours and 42 minutes at an average speed of 74.59 miles per hour while driving the famous No. 32 black and yellow Marmon Wasp, which was built right here in Indianapolis. Harroun had started in 28th position.
Harroun was an employee of the Marmon Motor Car Company, and the only driver who didn't have a riding mechanic to serve as a spotter. Instead, he used what many believe to be the first rear-view mirror on his car.
Just as we have in modern races, there were spills and crashes along the way. It took groups of people to get cars upright and removed from the track and crowds rushed toward wrecks to see them up-close (and sometimes assist). At times, tires fell off while cars were in motion and at one point, a riding mechanic lost his footing, tumbling to the track while others swerved to avoid him. No one was seriously injured.
During each pit stop, each car received a bath of oil and by mid-way through the race, management at the track ordered white sand to be thrown down on the surface to absorb the dripping oil and reduce hazards.
Harroun skillfully navigated all the obstacles to take the first Indy 500 checkered flag, and a prize of $10,000.
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