Everyone knew something terrible could happen. The track was not suitable for an automobile race. The drivers complained to the officials and the promoter, but it was too late. The promotions were in place, the tickets were sold, and the crowd was arriving. The old show business adage held true: “The show must go on.”
And we know how it ended: in the death of a driver. Cars flew through the air. The drivers blamed the track, the officials, and the promoter. And the promoter was new to the game. He had a rich history of promotion, but no real history in promoting a race like this. He was vilified in person and in print. The news organizations wrote scathing editorials about the evils of racing, comparing it to bullfights and Roman gladiators. There was even talk of banning this kind of racing. And the track was unsuitable for this kind of racing. The drivers, the ones risking their lives, had been spot on with their criticism. The track had problems with its design.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The place was Indianapolis in 1909. Carl Fisher, one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was the promoter. As an automobile salesman and the owner of Prest-O-Lite, a headlight manufacturer, he was well known for his outlandish publicity stunts. He was a true entrepreneur, risking his own money to build a track and host races. He didn’t know much about promoting a big time race, but he knew how to excite the crowd.
The track design was unsuitable for racing. It was a blend of creek gravel, crushed limestone, and taroid. The track came apart with sharp bits of stone flying through the air, hitting cars and injuring drivers. Dust created a huge visibility problem. And a channel appeared in Turn One, creating a huge bump for the cars and leading to one car becoming airborne.
What was the human toll? In 1909 five people died at IMS: one driver, two riding mechanics, and two spectators. The lieutenant governor of Indiana lambasted the track and suggested that the governor call a special session of the legislature to debate a ban on auto racing. The race was fodder for the people who thought they knew best. And there are always people who think they know best.
But the Speedway survived, and the Indianapolis 500 began in 1911. Changes were made to the track and the cars. An evolution in safety began that continues today with the SAFER barriers, HANS devices, and the Holmatro Safety Team. Tracks, cars, and safety equipment will continue to evolve in this most dangerous of sports.
And now we have Las Vegas. And the drivers’ concerns. And Randy Bernard. And the media. And a track that had “no limit” to the speed or racing lines. And like 1909, there will continue to be a gnashing of teeth and a jerking of knees. But IndyCar and the Speedway will survive. The IndyCar series will evolve, as will the media and the fans. And evolve they all must. In this most dangerous of sports, we cannot excise danger; it is inherent. The steely-eyed missile men who pilot these rockets will continue to do so with a full understanding of the risk involved. And the ghosts that follow us will continue to whisper in our ears. They will always be there, the famous and the forgotten, asking if we are doing all we can to keep the sport safe, asking if we remember their sacrifices. And like always, we have a choice to listen to the whispers or ignore them. The historian George Santayana said it best: “Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The choice to remember belongs to us all.
1. This link will take you to the IMS site that shows a core of the track at the Speedway and explains how the track has changed over the years. Informative. http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/history/35450-Track-Surface-History/
2. For a very well researched and informative narrative about Carl Fisher and the years leading up to the first race, read Blood and Smoke by Charles Leerhsen. His descriptions and quotes from the 1909 debacle make you realize how safe we are today. The images I used were recounted in his book. Much of the same information can be found in Al Bloemker’s book 500 Miles to Go. A link to this free e-book can be found at indycarbuzz.com
3. Stephen Wylder wrote an interesting historical perspective regarding the post-race responses in 1909. I found the lieutenant governor information here. http://www.examiner.com/history-in-indianapolis/aftermath-of-1909-indy-races