THE DEBUT RACE AT INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY, ON JUNE 5, 1909, DIDN'T involve motors. Two months before the first auto race, a crowd gathered for the liftoff of the National Balloon Race, whose winner ended up 382 miles away in Alabama.
It all began three years earlier, when Carl Fisher—who would own the track (along with James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler) until '27—proposed the facility in a letter to Motor Age magazine. "American manufacturers ... compete with French cars [in auto racing] without possible chance of winning," he wrote. "I think this is largely due to the fact that American drivers do not have a chance to thoroughly test their cars continuously at high speed."
The original track was a mixture of tar, sand and gravel. After multiple injuries and fatalities during the first auto races, IMS officials spent around $165,000 to repave the track with bricks, deemed a safer option, in December '09. Seventeen months later the first Indy 500, known then as the International Sweepstakes, was underway. Pennsylvania native Ray Harroun took that inaugural race and the $14,250 winner's share. The following year the 500-mile event became the highest-paying sporting event in the world, awarding a purse of $50,000, with $20,000 going to Joe Dawson, who won by more than 10 minutes. Dawson was the last American to reach the winner's circle until Howdy Wilcox did it in 1919, when racing resumed at the speedway after a two-year hiatus during which the grounds were used as a World War I aviation repair depot.
"Racing, it is assumed, is primarily for the purpose of developing and improving the cars in everyday use," wrote the editor of Motor Age in 1919. Maybe it was back then, but the notion of racing for sport was about to get into high gear.