On May 30, 1911, a field of 40 drivers gathered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500. The 200-lap, 500-mile endurance race has since become the crown jewel of American motorsports, and regularly draws more than 200,000 spectators each year. As we mark the anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500, check out 10 little-known facts about the high-octane event billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The race takes place in the town of Speedway, Indiana.
Construction on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began in 1909 after a group of businessmen bought several hundred acres of Indianapolis farmland for a racetrack and automotive testing facility. The inaugural Indy 500 followed just two years later, and by 1926, the track had spawned such a booming industrial economy that a residential neighborhood called Speedway, Indiana was created in the surrounding area. The town is now home to some 12,000 people and includes four elementary schools named after Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s four original founders: Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler.
Indy 500 cars once included ride-along mechanics.
During the early days of the Indy 500, nearly all the cars were two-seat affairs that included a driver and an onboard “riding mechanic.” While the wheelman negotiated the track’s four treacherous turns, the mechanic monitored gauges and tire wear, made on-the-fly repairs and served as a traffic spotter. They sometimes even massaged the driver’s aching arms and neck as the race wore on. Riding mechanics were mandatory at the Indy 500 from 1912 to 1922 and 1930 to 1937, but teams later abandoned two-man cars after World War II to cut down on weight and improve aerodynamics.
The inaugural race’s winner drove one of the first cars with a rearview mirror.
Of all the drivers that competed in the 1911 Indy 500, only one piloted a single-seat vehicle: eventual champion Ray Harroun. Instead of using a riding mechanic to spot cars behind him, the Pennsylvania native simply installed a 3×8-inch mirror above the dashboard of his Marmon Wasp racecar. His lighter, one-man vehicle crossed the finish line first with an average speed of 74.6 miles per hour, and his newfangled invention has since been cited as one of the first known uses of a rearview mirror in an automobile. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was effective. According to Harroun, the brick surface of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the mirror vibrate so badly that it proved useless for spotting traffic.
WWI hero Eddie Rickenbacker competed in the Indy 500 four times.
Before he became America’s “Ace of Aces” by shooting down 26 enemy planes during World War I, fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker was one of the nation’s most successful racecar drivers. The future Medal of Honor winner made his Indianapolis 500 debut at the 1912 race in a Firestone-Columbus car. He eventually notched three more appearances in 1914, 1915 and 1916, but encountered frequent mechanical troubles and only finished as high as tenth. Despite never winning the 500, Rickenbacker later raised enough money to purchase the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1927. He went on to serve as the track’s president until 1945.
The 1913 winner drank champagne during the race.
In May 1913, French-born rookie driver Jules Goux cruised to victory in the Indianapolis 500 by a healthy margin of over 13 minutes. The winning drive included several pit stops, during which Goux not only tanked up on gas, but also refreshed himself with chilled champagne. Some accounts have the Frenchman and his mechanic downing as many as six bottles of bubbly over the course of the race, but Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson has argued that the two only drank a half-pint during their first pit stop and then a few sips during each of the others. Whatever his blood alcohol content may have been, Goux later told newspapers that, “Without the good wine, I could not have won.”
The 1916 Indy 500 was actually an Indy 300.
Seven Indy 500 races have ended early due to rain, but 1916 marked the only year that the event was intentionally shortened. Worried that spectators were growing bored with six-hour marathon races, the speedway’s owners scheduled the 1916 race for just 300 miles, or 120 laps around the 2.5-mile track. Driver Dario Resta claimed victory in the compressed race, which included a tiny field of just 21 cars. The race was then canceled for two years during World War I before returning to its traditional 500-mile length in 1919. Interestingly, while Resta is the only driver to win an “Indy 300,” 1995 champion Jacques Villeneuve is often credited with completing an “Indy 505.” The Canadian was given a two-lap penalty early in the race for passing the pace car, but rallied to victory despite driving 5 miles farther than the rest of the field.
The tradition of the race winner drinking milk goes back 80 years.
After becoming the Indy 500’s first three-time winner in 1936, racer Louis Meyer famously guzzled his favorite drink: a bottle of chilled buttermilk. A milk industry executive saw a photograph of the celebration and arranged to have future winners repeat it, and it wasn’t long before milk became a mainstay in the Indy 500’s victory lane. Today, the American Dairy Association even asks drivers ahead of time whether they would like whole, two percent or skim milk in the event that they win the race. The tradition is serious business for race fans. When Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi broke rank and drank orange juice following his 1993 victory, he was widely booed by spectators.
It took over four months to determine the winner of the 1981 race.
May 1981 brought one of the most contentious races in Indy 500 history. Along with a horrific crash by Danny Ongais and a pit lane methanol fire that left driver Rick Mears with severe burns, the race also included a disputed finish between legendary wheelmen Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti. Unser crossed the finish line first by more than five seconds, but was retroactively issued a one-lap penalty for illegally passing cars during a caution flag, making Andretti the race’s new winner. Unser and his car owner Roger Penske appealed the decision, however, kicking off a lengthy series of hearings by the United States Auto Club. On October 8, USAC finally rescinded Unser’s penalty after concluding that the foul should have been called during the race and not after. Much to Andretti’s chagrin, Unser was crowned Indy 500 champion for the third time in his career.
The race has claimed more than 60 lives—including one person who wasn’t even at the track.
Thanks to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s unforgiving corners and average speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour, the 500-mile race has earned a reputation as one of the deadliest events in motorsports. Riding mechanic Sam Dickson became the first fatality after he was thrown into a fence during a crash in inaugural 1911 race, and since then some 60 drivers, mechanics and spectators have died as a result of on-track accidents and debris. One of the worst tragedies came in 1931, when a wreck by race leader Billy Arnold sent a stray tire flying out of the racetrack and across a street, where it struck and killed 11-year-old Wilbur Brink as he played in his front yard.
The Indy 500 trophy includes sculptures of the winners’ faces.
Winners of the Indy 500 don’t just get their name inscribed on the race’s historic Borg-Warner Trophy—they also get their likeness permanently sculpted onto its sterling-silver base. The tradition dates back to 1936, when the Borg-Warner Automotive Company spent $10,000 to build the art deco-style trophy. The 5-foot-4-inch prize now includes more than 100 portraits of past champions, and it has even been enlarged on two separate occasions to make room for more faces.