Nothing stays the same, and in racing as in elsewhere, time marches on. But before we move on and settle into the future of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series under the control of Roger Penske, I feel it’s important to look back and pay homage to 74 years of Hulman-George ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
I could easily write 100,000 words about the great moments that have occurred at 16th and Georgetown since Tony Hulman purchased the Speedway on November 14, 1945. However, narrowing the list to the top five or six is a very difficult task. Nonetheless, here is my best effort to encapsulate what I feel are the most important and groundbreaking events of the Hulman-George era at IMS.
Race Day, 1946
It might not have been the most memorable race in history, and few fans today are likely to remember that George Robson won the race just five months before being fatally injured in a crash in Atlanta. But the fact Tony Hulman and his team were able to put on a race at all in 1946 was nearly miraculous and a sign of the Speedway Savior’s unfailing dedication to the track and the 500.
Upon completing the purchase of the Speedway just six months before the 30th running of the Indianapolis 500, the Speedway that most in the area had just assumed would be leveled and turned into a housing development, Hulman, Wilbur Shaw, and their crews started in to resurrect the dilapidated and neglected track. Weeds and trees had overtaken nearly every inch of the facility, and Mr. Hulman himself was not sure if the popularity of the event would carry over following the war that had consumed the world for the past five years. Even after announcing the race would continue in 1946, entries trickled in slowly with only six entries having been received by the end of February.
As construction efforts ramped up, so too did the entries. Eventually, 56 entries were received and construction plowed along according to schedule. George Barringer would be the first driver to take to the rehabilitated Speedway oval in a test on April 24. As per custom, the doors to the Speedway were officially opened on May 1, although practice hours were reduced to only 4:00 – 7:00 pm each day for the first ten days and only participants and media were allowed within the facility. Finally, on May 11, fans were allowed in and practice schedule resumed to an all-day affair.
As frequently told my Mrs. Mary Hulman, no one was quite what to expect on race day or if fans would turn out as they had done before. Any such worries were quickly alleviated on race morning when traffic on 16th Street stretched miles in each direction, and it was obvious the Indianapolis 500 was back and embraced, perhaps even more so after the war than it had been before.
The race itself wasn’t particularly memorable as Robson led from lap 93 to the checkers, driving the first six-cylinder car to victory since Ray Harroun in the inaugural running. But the importance of simply running the race and ushering a new era – what many consider the Golden Era – of the Indianapolis 500 is undeniable. Tony Hulman’s devotion to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was on display immediately upon purchasing the track, and that devotion continued through the next two generations of his family. And it all started with that race in 1946.
Founding of USAC
New fans of Indy car racing might not understand just how significant USAC was to Indy car racing and the Indianapolis 500. Though it is today still considered the pinnacle of short-track, open-wheel racing for midgets, sprints, and championship cars, the United States Auto Club was, for nearly 25 years, the open-wheel racing championship in the United States, and its very existence allowed the Indianapolis 500 to continue past some of racing’s most turbulent times.
From the founding of the Speedway until 1955, the Contest Board of the American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned the Indianapolis 500 as well as midget, sprint, championship, and stock car races. However, given the violent nature of automobile racing and the many fatalities the sport incurred over the years, people were beginning to question whether the sanctioning of auto racing was truly in line with the mission of AAA and its push for automotive safety.
It all came to a head over a 12-day period in 1955. On May 30, two-time defending Indianapolis 500 winner Bill Vukovich was fatally injured attempting to win his third 500 in a row. He was one of the country’s most popular drivers and had dominated Indianapolis since 1952, nearly winning that race before winning back-to-back races in 1953 and 1954. His passing was undoubtedly the most significant loss to occur at IMS over its 46-year history and cast a pawl over the entire racing community.
Just 12 days later, on June 11, the most horrific auto racing accident in history happened during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes collided with another car and was hurled into the packed grandstand, instantly taking the life of Levegh and 83 spectators. Another 180 fans were injured. It was the darkest days auto racing had ever faced.
In the aftermath of the Vukovich and Le Mans crashes, the AAA Contest Board announced on August 3, 1955, that it would be pulling out of racing entirely, citing the two crashes as “obvious” factors in their decision and that they felt they should “no longer be associated with this activity.” This left the Indianapolis 500 and open-wheel racing without a sanctioning body for the first time. Though other solutions were proposed, including sanctioning by the SCCA or NASCAR, Tony Hulman himself took control and founded the United States Auto Club in 1955.
From 1956 until the formation of CART in 1979, USAC reined as the undisputed national championship for open-wheel racing and had entirely under its roof the path to the Indianapolis 500. Small dirt tracks across the country hosted midgets, sprints, and championship cars and often promoted the appearance of driver from the Indianapolis 500 at their events.
Unfortunately, a series of decisions in the 1970s broke the peace, starting with the removal of dirt tracks from the national championship, followed by the banishment of the rear-engine sprint car, and finally its own ego that led Dan Gurney, Pat Patrick, and (ironically) Roger Penske to form CART. By the early 1980s, most of the top-level Indy car teams were running with CART, and USAC struggled to put on a quality show at the championship level. Without getting into the politics, suffice is to say CART won that war even though USAC retained the Indianapolis 500. It was an uneasy truce that ultimately led to the Split of 1996, but for a time, it worked well as both the CART PPG IndyCar World Series and the Indianapolis 500 thrived to never-before (and not-since) seen levels.
Sadly, the upheaval of the 1970s forever broke the link between short track drivers and the Indianapolis 500. No longer did drivers start in midgets, earn their way into a sprint car, and then have a legitimate shot at the Indianapolis 500. Removal of the dirt tracks from the national championship and CART’s greater focus on road course racing led to drivers no longer coming from dirt tracks and ovals but from road racing and foreign countries. Though there have been a handful of drivers since the 1970s to experience success at Indianapolis and in Indy car racing (Tony Stewart and Ed Carpenter probably being the most successful), the link seems to have been forever broken, much to the dismay of generations of drivers and fans.
Nonetheless, the legacy of USAC lives on, and while it has its competitors for short-track racing (World of Outlaws, POWRi, BMARA, STARS, and others), the USAC champions at each level of their open-wheel ladder rightly claim the title of National Champion. The series enjoyed a great resurgence in the late 1980s and through the 1990s when ESPN’s Saturday/Thursday Night Thunder Series broadcast all three levels of racing on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, many of those stars went on to great and legendary careers in NASCAR rather than IndyCar, drivers such at Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and so many more.
Contrary to popular belief, the Cooper Climax that Sir Jack Brabham drove to a respectable-but-not-spectacular ninth-place finish in 1961 was not the first rear-engine car to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. That honor went to George Bailey in 1939. However, when John Cooper was convinced by 1959 500 winner Rodger Ward to bring a rear-engine car to the Speedway in 1960, it started the biggest reshaping and most sweeping era the Indianapolis 500 has seen to date.
Many were still skeptical of the rear-engine cars after Brabham’s performance, but one driver could see the writing on the wall. And he had connections. After qualifying for the 1962 Indianapolis 500 in Micky Thompson’s rear-engine car, Dan Gurney departed the weekend prior of the 500 for the Dutch Grand Prix. There, he approached Lotus founder Colin Chapman about the idea of building a rear-engine car for the Indianapolis 500, strongly feeling it was the way of the future. It took some arm-wrangling and Gurney paying Chapman’s airfare to get him to Indianapolis, but a couple days later, Champan witnessed his first Indianapolis 500 and agreed a low-slung, rear-engine car could make a monumental impression on the event.
As it turns out, Gurney also knew that Ford Motor Company was looking to get into racing at that same time. Later that year, Gurney arranged a meeting of Ford and Lotus and the marriage was underway. The Lotus 29 “Powered by Ford” took runner-up honors in the controversial 1963 finish. Later in the year, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney would start first and second at Milwaukee with Clark winning and leading every lap. The pair would again start first and second at Trenton and lead a majority of the race before both cars eventually dropped out.
Though the front-engine roadsters held on a couple years longer with Parnelli Jones and AJ Foyt claiming victories in 1963 and 1964, the future was here. Lotus finally broke through with Jim Clark driving the Type 38 in 1965, and a front-engine car was to never again find victory lane at Indianapolis.
It’s hard for many, myself included, what the Indianapolis 500 was really like before the rear-engine revolution. In my mind’s eye, it’s a race that is still in black and white. I still love to hear the old roadster thunder by with their four-cylinder Offenhauser engines pushing them around the Speedway at over 150 mph, and it’s always interesting to imagine where the race would be today if USAC had banned the rear-engine cars from IMS as they did with their sprint car series. As it is, they were allowed to make their mark, and they have forever changed the Indianapolis 500 and Indy car racing.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network
We as IndyCar fans love to complain. I’m as guilty as anyone. One of our favorite targets is the TV broadcast (though I think we can all acknowledge there is less to complain about with NBC at the controls, right?). However, what if there was no TV to complain about? What if IndyCar races weren’t even on TV? For many years, decades even, that was exactly the case. The only way to follow the Indianapolis 500 was through radio. Enter the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network.
Founded in 1952, the IMS Radio Network was another creation of Tony Hulman, though it was Sid Collins who came to him with the idea. For many years, dating back to 1922, a variety of networks had covered the 500, usually reporting the beginning and end of the race with a handful of updates scattered throughout the day.
Starting in 1939, the Mutual Radio Network began coverage of the race and would continue to broadcast the race until 1950. Substantially increased advertising fees in 1951 led to the withdraw of Mutual, and IMS president Wilbur Shaw had to make a last-minute deal with local station WIBC to broadcast the race. The WIBC broadcast was delivered to only 25 stations, but the broadcast was considered a great success.
For 1952, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was officially launched, using the same early- and late-race broadcast format Mutual had used for many years and utilizing on- and off-air talent from WIBC. By 1953, other radio stations in the Indianapolis area voiced concerns that only WIBC personnel were being utilized. In response, the IMS Radio Network started using on-air talent from each of the five Indianapolis radio stations. As the lineage of WIBC and it’s successor entities (Emmis Communications and WFNI) continues today as the flagship home of the IMS Radio Network, so too does the tradition of diversification of on-air talent from a variety of local Indianapolis radio stations.
The IMS Radio Network grew quickly. After starting out with 25 stations in 1952, the list grew to 130 stations for 1953, the first year for flag-to-flag coverage of the race. By 1955, the race could be heard in all 48 states. At its peak in the 1970s and ’80s, the network boasted a list of over 1,200 stations carrying the race, and Sid Collins often said the race could be “heard anywhere in the world where English is spoken.”
For many people around the United States, listening to the Indianapolis 500 on radio is as much of a Memorial Day tradition as cookouts and swimming pools. Generations of Americans have grown up listening to the great Voices of the 500 describe the on-track and off-track action. There have been countless moments of jubilation and a spattering of tragic highlights through the Network’s 68-year history. (I wrote about some of my favorite IMS Radio Network highlights last May.) Simply put, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network took the Indianapolis 500 to places and homes it had never been before and directly contributed to its stratospheric rise in popularity in the Post World War II era.
Popularity of the radio broadcast began to wane somewhat when live television moved in in 1986, but for many, listening to the race via radio is the best way to experience the spectacle. In fact, if you are at the track during the race, it’s really the only way to stay apprised of what is happening around the track in real time.
From the very beginning, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been about innovation. From Ray Harroun’s first rearview mirror in 1911 to the first track caution lights in 1935, developments in racing fuel and trackside medical facilities, IMS has led the way when it comes to pushing for safety reforms in auto racing.
Alas, the biggest racing innovation in the last 50 years (with a tip of the cap to the HANS device) was developed under funding from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Hulman-George Family.
The first work on “soft walls” came in 1998 when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway installed the first version of the Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System (PEDS) Barrier along the inside wall of Turn Four. While the theory was sound, a vicious August 1998 crash by Arie Luyendyk in an IROC car proved the system wasn’t completely thought through and ready for full implementation. The barrier likely spared Luyendyk from devastating injuries, but significant design flaws exposed by the crash showed PEDS was not the solution for oval racing walls.
A slightly improved version of the system, PEDS-2, was installed a year later. While it was a step forward, it still didn’t perform as hoped. When Hideshi Matsuda impacted the updated barrier in 1999, further design flaws were exposed and the barrier was ultimately removed.
IMS quietly began working with the University of Nebraska Midwest Roadside Safety Facility to develop a product that lessened impact forces but neither caused the car to rebound violently back into race traffic or absorb so much energy that the car dug into the wall and spun viciously. It took a few years of development, but in 2002, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced the SAFER Barrier would be installed in all four turns prior to the opening of the Speedway.
The first real test of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier came courtesy of Robby McGahee on Opening Day of the 2002 Indianapolis 500. Late in the day, McGahee lost control of his Dallara and backed into the Turn 3 wall with massive force. In what many observers felt would have previously lead to severe back injuries, McGahee was able to walk away from the accident with relatively minor impacts.
Before long, both the Indy Racing League and NASCAR mandated that all oval tracks on which the series raced would be required to install the SAFER Barrier by 2006. The device is credited with saving the lives and bodies of countless drivers since 2003 and is widely lauded as the greatest single safety enhancement in the history of auto racing.
1998 Track Renovations & Modernization
It probably isn’t unfair to say the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a tendency to get stuck in the past and perhaps not evolve as quickly as it probably should. While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was still the most hallowed racing ground in the world, by the late 1990s, it was starting to show its age and was long in the tooth.
With the launch of the NASCAR Brickyard 400 being a major financial success, and in spite of spending millions of dollars to support the fledgling Indy Racing League, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway looked to continue to diversify its portfolio and opened their checkbook to bring Formula 1 back to the United States after a nine year absence. In 1998, a massive two-year construction and renovation project was announced in conjunction of the US Grand Prix coming to Indianapolis in 2000. It would be the biggest construction project at the Speedway since Tony Hulman brought the facility back to life in 1946.
The most visible aspects of the construction were the design and placement of a 2.605-mile interior road course that utilized portions of the oval’s main straightaway, Turn 1, and south chute and a new, state-of-the-art Pagoda that was built in place of the Master Control Tower, which had stood over the start-finish line since 1956.
While the original road course design was panned as being gimmicky and not particularly racy, several iterations since have produced a fairly competitive racing circuit that now hosts the NTT IndyCar Series and the Road to Indy support series. Some purist still bristle at the thought of a road course within the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but given that it was in the original design for the track as far back at 1908, even the traditionalists shouldn’t get too up in arms about it.
While it seemed massive and somewhat out of place at the time, the massive and modern Pagoda now graces the scenery of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a beautiful, striking, and cohesive manner, paying architectural homage to both the original scoring pagodas that stood before to 1956 and Master Control Tower that stood since. Seemingly every person who walks onto the grounds has a picture of the iconic building and its image gives fans an unmistakable memory of IMS. While the old steel-and-glass Master Control Tower certainly was an advancement of its time, looking at images of the facility now without the Pagoda makes the panoramic seem, shall we say…, primitive.
Other changes as part of the 1998 construction included a massive, four level media center built behind the Tower Terrace overlooking the north end of pit road and the front straightaway and new garages built specifically for Formula 1 along the pit road south of the Pagoda. Fan enhancements included removal of the ancient “video” boards that had been installed prior to the 1986 500 and placement of modern video displays throughout the facility.
Minor updates and rehabilitations have taken place since the 1998 construction project, most notably a complete repaving of the oval in 2004 and several annual changes to enhance the fan experience. But the Speedway has yet to see a construction project that rivals the scope and cost of the project enacted for Formula 1’s return. That project really brought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into the 21st century and most of those aspects have stood the test of time for now over 20 years.
This list is not and could not possibly be exhaustive of all the milestones and memorable moments of the Hulman-George Era. I’d love to hear from you about what you feel are the most significant moments, milestones, or developments in American open-wheel racing resulting directly or indirectly from the 74 years of stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by the Hulman-George Family. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.