Indianapolis 500 by year
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This article discusses the year-by-year history of the Indianapolis 500 race.
- 1 Years
- 2 Eras
- 3 References
The first auto races held the Indianapolis Motor Speedway occur on August 19–21, 1909. After a series of races held in the summer of 1910, it was decided that one large event per year be held. The track founders settled on a Memorial Day event scheduled for a then-fantastic distance of 500 miles (800 km).
1911 to 1919
1911: An accident disrupts the official timing and scoring stand mid-way through the race. Ray Harroun receives the checkered flag first but a few believe Ralph Mulford, classified second, actually won the race. Harroun received the accolades and goes down in history as the winner of the first "International 500-Mile Sweepstakes." Harroun, the defending AAA champion, retires after winning the race in the six-cylinder Marmon Wasp, a car he personally designed. Mulford's claim to victory fizzled and despite some occasional rehashing, is not regarded by knowledgeable historians as a valid claim.
1912: Ralph DePalma's Mercedes breaks its connecting rod after leading 196 laps. Joe Dawson, in a National, wins after leading the only 2 laps of his Indy career. No driver has ever matched DePalma's 196 fruitless laps in the lead, (only not being in the lead for the first two and the last two laps) and only Billy Arnold's 198 lap domination of the 1930 race tops DePalma’s time at the front; Dawson's 2 laps led by a winner would be the fewest recorded by a winner until 2011 when Dan Wheldon was officially recorded as having led only the final lap to win the race (when in reality, Wheldon only led the final 1000ft of the event rather than a "complete" lap).
1913: A five-story, wooden pagoda-style timing and scoring tower on the inside of the main straightaway gives the Speedway an enduring landmark; the style reflects Speedway President Carl Fisher's apparent interest in Oriental architecture. French born Jules Goux drinks six bottles of champagne on his way to a record 13 minute, 8 second victory over second place Spencer Wishart. He averages approximately 10 miles per gallon of fuel — and an unknown quantity of champagne per stop. Goux's victory is the first race, excluding the first, won by a rookie driver.
1914: France takes its second consecutive 500 victory, this time with René Thomas, the first occasion for consecutive rookie winners. Also, in a technological breakthrough, inaugural race winner Ray Harroun, in charge of the United States Motor Company team, develops a fuel-sipping carburetor that runs on kerosene. Driver Willie Carlson's Maxwell chassis proceeds to run the race to an eventual ninth-place finish on a mere 30 gallons; with the price at $0.06 a gallon, Carlson's total $1.80 fuel bill stands as the most economical performance in motor racing history.
1915: Ralph DePalma's Mercedes again begins to slow with connecting rod problems late in the race. This time though he makes it to the finish to win.
1916: Dario Resta wins the race, which was shortened to 300 miles (500 km) due to the ongoing war in Europe. The field of 21 cars is the smallest ever. Later in the year, the Harvest Auto Racing Classic is also held.
1917–1918: Race is not held on account of World War I. Other tracks continue to host smaller events, but Indianapolis voluntarily suspends the race. Though closed to racing, the Speedway is used as an airstrip, serving as a fuel stop between Air Force bases in Dayton, Ohio and Rantoul, Illinois.
1919: With the track reopened after the war, local Indiana-born driver Howdy Wilcox breaks a four-race winning streak by Europeans. There are 19 rookies who start this year's race, the most newcomers in one Indy 500 field (if one discounts the "all-rookie" field of 1911).
1920 to 1929
1923: Despite suffering loss of circulation and blistering in his hands due to shrinkage of his tight-fitting, 'White Kid' gloves, Tommy Milton becomes the first driver to win the race twice (Milton was relieved by Howdy Wilcox for laps 103-151).
1927: Rookie George Souders wins by eight laps, the largest margin since 1913; consecutive rookie winners occurs for the second time. Many racing pundits view Souders' race as the most surprising, 'longest-shot' 500-Mile Race win in history until 1987. Souders becomes the first driver to win the full-500 mile race solo, with neither any relief help, nor a riding mechanic.
1930 to 1939
1931: 1930 winner Billy Arnold is 5 laps ahead on lap 162 when his rear axle breaks and Arnold crashes. His wheel flies over a fence and hits and kills 12-year-old Wilbur C. Brink, who is sitting in his garden on Georgetown Road. Arnold and his mechanic are injured. Louis Schneider leads the remaining laps.
1933: The largest field to date with 42 starters. Louis Meyer wins after one of the most violent races ever, with five drivers or mechanics killed and several others seriously injured. The standard Victory Banquet after the race is not held, and the predominance of safety as chief concern for race organizers begins 'in force'. Prior to the 1933 race, Howdy Wilcox II (no relation to the 1919 winner) was disqualified when officials found out that he was a diabetic.
1935: The newly introduced yellow 'caution' light, requiring drivers to slow and hold position, makes its first appearance in race, to eventual race winner Kelly Petillo's advantage as many of the late laps are disrupted by rain, neutralising Petillo's race long battle with Rex Mays and Wilbur Shaw.
1937: Wilbur Shaw leads most of the way but must slow late on to conserve engine oil. Ralph Hepburn catches Shaw in turn 4 on the final lap, but Shaw steps on the gas and pulls away to win by 2.16 seconds - the closest finish at that time.
1939: Defending winner Floyd Roberts, driving the same car he drove into victory circle in 1938, dies in a crash coming off the second turn onto the backstretch on lap 107. Wilbur Shaw wins his second 500, driving a Maserati. Interesting fact: The Maserati used by Wilbur Shaw was also used by Bill Vukovich to accomplish his rookie test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
1940 to 1949
1950 to 1959
1950: The Indianapolis 500 was part of the Formula 1 World Championship calendar from 1950 to 1958. A rumor circulated at race morning, that Johnnie Parsons' engine had an irreparable crack. During the race, his hard charging performance sees him leading, and picking up lap leader prizes. At 345 miles (555 km) the rain comes, and Parsons is declared the winner as the race is called at lap 138. Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck film scenes from the movie To Please a Lady during the race.
1952: Bill Vukovich leads 150 laps until his steering pin breaks on lap 192. He stopped the car by brushing it against the outside wall, a move which prevented other cars from becoming involved in the sudden incident. Twenty-two-year-old Troy Ruttman takes the checkered flag, the youngest-ever winner. On the pole for the '52 race was Fred Agabashian's Diesel-powered racer that succumbed to supercharger trouble on lap 71.
1953: On one of the hottest days on record for the running of the 500, Bill Vukovich leads 195 laps and cruises to a win by nearly three laps over 1952 rookie of the year Art Cross. Vukovich wins without relief help in a race that sees one entry being driven by as many as five separate drivers, and suffers the death of driver Carl Scarborough due to heat prostration.
1954: Picking up where he left off, Bill Vukovich wins again by one lap over Jimmy Bryan, after taking the lead for the final time just past the halfway point. Incredibly, for the second straight year one entry on race day is driven by five separate drivers, in temperatures only just below the previous year's record.
1955: After two wins and 485 laps led of a possible 656 (74%), Bill Vukovich is killed on lap 57 after crashing out of the lead. Rodger Ward broke a rear axle and a back marker tangled with him in front of Vukovich, whose car hits them and vaults over the backstretch wall into a car park. Bob Sweikert wins after Art Cross blows his engine on lap 169 and Don Freeland loses drive on lap 179. Sweikert dies in a sprint car race a year later. Interesting fact: Sweikert built the Offenhauser engine that brought him the victory, while his car owner (AJ Watson) was at his wife's bedside while she was in labor.
1956: AAA drops out of sanctioning racing after the 1955 Vukovich crash and public outcry that briefly followed, and the tragedy at Le Mans that same year, so USAC is formed to sanction Indianapolis style racing. Torrential rains flood the facility the week of the race and threaten to postpone, or outright cancel the race. Track superintendent Clarence Cagle pulls off what becomes known as "Cagle's miracle" and has the track cleaned up in time for race morning. Pat Flaherty wins.
1957: After thirteen years of trying, Sam Hanks finally wins the 500, and then, amidst tears, becomes the second winner, after Ray Harroun in 1911, to announce his retirement in victory lane. Hanks' win comes in a radical "lay-down" roadster chassis design created by engineer George Salih that, with the engine tilting 72-degrees to the right, gives the car a profile of a mere 21 inches (530 mm) off the ground. Salih builds the car next to his California home, and is rewarded with victory as both designer and owner after stepping out on a financial limb in entering the car himself.
1958: A huge wreck in turn three on the opening lap wipes out several cars, and driver Pat O'Connor is fatally injured. Jimmy Bryan goes on to win. Little-known rookie A.J. Foyt spins out and finishes 16th.
1960 to 1969
1970 to 1979
1980 to 1989
1990 to 1999
2000 to 2009
2010 to 2019
During the over-century long history of the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, numerous recognized eras have been established by historians, competitors, and fans. As the race follows the infancy of the automobile through the 20th century, sharp increases in technology, design, speed, and varying levels of popularity, have shaped the eras, which loosely follow decade patterns.
From the opening of the track (1909) and the first 500 (1911), through 1927. Carl G. Fisher and partners envisioned a "proving ground" for the budding automobile industry. The very early years of the 500 saw the track in its original "proving ground" intent, but the competition soon became the primary focus. Numerous makes and models of local, national, and international car companies participated, with the cars more conforming to the original specifications of being essentially stripped-down passenger vehicles. Riding mechanics were the norm (with the noteworthy exception of Ray Harroun in 1911).
After WWI and during the Roaring Twenties, the formula quickly evolved into purpose-built racing machines. Small-block engines (91 cu. in) was the standard, riding mechanics were dropped, and the speeds quickly rose. Peter DePaolo became the first driver to average 100 mph for the 500 miles in 1925. Fisher sold his interests in the track in late 1927.
From 1928-1941. Eddie Rickenbacker purchased the Speedway in 1928, and ushered in a new era. Rules changes were abound, which included such things as the reinstatement of riding mechanics, time trials expanded to 10-lap runs (up from 4 laps), and engine rules which increased displacement and prohibited supercharging. Larger fields were allowed, to as many as 42 cars (up from the traditional 33). The Rickenbacker era coincided with the Great Depression, although the Speedway did not experience significant financial peril, and the engine displacement changes were not in response to the stock market crash.
Several Indy traditions were born during this time, including the first bottle of milk in victory lane, the first presentation of the Borg-Warner Trophy, and the tradition of presenting the race winner with the keys to the pace car. Ended with the onset of World War II (Pearl Harbor). The Rickenbacker Era is considered the deadliest period of 500 history, with 24 fatalities amongst competitors and spectators. In response to the numerous fatal accidents, rule changes and track improvements slowly began to be implemented in the interest of safety.
Post World War II era
From 1946-early 1950s. Immediately following World War II, the Speedway was sold to Tony Hulman. He swiftly renovated the track which had fallen into a state of disrepair during the war years. It is a brief period, marked by a mix of mostly older cars. Auto racing began to rebuild as a sport after being banned during WWII, primarily due to rationing.
By this time, the typical pre-war image of race car drivers as daredevils or reckless stunt drivers had faded away. The legitimacy of the sport recognized on a nation level began to grow.
From 1952 to the mid-1960s. Considered by many as the "golden era" of the Indy 500, it is highlighted by the participation of the front-engined Roadsters. The first "roadster" is regarded to have been built and entered by Frank Kurtis in 1952.
During this time (1950-1960), the Indy 500 awarded points towards the World Championship of Drivers. However, very few European entries even made an attempt to race at Indy.
The 1960s. Sometimes referred to as the "British Invasion" or the "Decade of Innovation." In 1961, Jack Brabham arrived at Indy with the first European, grand prix style, rear-engined machine. Against a field of venerable Offy roadsters, Brabham's car was considered diminutive and underpowered, however, experienced exceptional handling in the relatively flat corners. The mechanical advantages of rear-engined cars were quickly realized, and rapidly began to displace their front-engined counterparts in the starting field. In 1965 Jim Clark won in a rear-engined machine. By the end of the decade, the movement had swiftly and taken over the sport, and by 1969, not a single front-engined car would qualify.
Decade of Legends
The 1970s. After bolt-on wings started being allowed in 1972, speeds quickly climbed. Drivers went from laps in the 160 mph range a few years earlier, to flirting with the elusive and daunting 200 mph barrier. It was both an entertaining spectacle for the fans, as well as a disaster waiting to happen, as safety features were not prepared for the rapid increase in speeds. After a tragic race in 1973, sweeping changes were made starting in 1974, both to the cars and the track itself. Tom Sneva finally broke the elusive 200 mph barrier in 1977.
This era is also associated with the establishment of numerous Indy "legends." Drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, and many others, reached the peak of their respective careers during this period. Future "legends" Tom Sneva and Rick Mears also began their careers during this decade. While the decade was dominated by American drivers and American-based teams, success was not exclusive to just U.S.-based entires. McLaren was among the European entrants that experienced success, and towards the end of the decade, the venerable Offenhauser engine was now being seriously challenged by the British-built Cosworth.
A. J. Foyt became the first four-time winner of the 500, while Janet Guthrie became the first female to qualify for the race. The track itself gained notoriety for increasing attendance, television exposure, and the "Snakepit," a gathering place in the infield for known for revelry.
From 1979-1995. After the formation of CART in 1979, the first open wheel "split" came about and was the focus of the early 1980s. By 1983, a relative harmony in the sport settled, and saw the season of events sanctioned by CART, and the Indy 500 itself sanctioned by USAC. The field would be comprised primarily of CART-based teams and various one-off entries.
The decade saw the concept of "customer chassis" take over the series, as well as exclusive engine leases creep into the competition. Nearly all manufactures were foreign-based, to a point where by 1987, not a single chassis entered was built in the United States. Manufactures such as March, Lola, and Reynard were the chassis of choice, with other more exclusive chassis (Penske and Galmer) also experiencing success.
This period also saw an sharp increase in the number of foreign-born competitors, going from a few as two, to as many as 19 by 1995. While this was a booming period of increasing popularity both nationwide and worldwide, the dwindling number of American-born competitors was an point of contention for some fans and owners. In addition, the feeder series and "ladder" for arriving at Indy evolved from USAC sprints and midgets to predominantly formula-style road racing. Many of the top drivers on the circuit were now moving up from such disciplines as Can-Am, SCCA Super Vee, Atlantics, Indy Lights, and IMSA.
IRL / "Split" Era
From 1996-2007. The IRL was formed in 1996, starting what was considered a "split" in the sport of Indy car racing. Speedway president Tony George founded the series with stated goals of implementing cost saving measures and to increase American driver participation. CART-based teams boycotted the race for four years, considering the move a "power grab" by George, and citing several organizational disagreements.
Popularity in the sport of Indy car racing and the Indy 500 saw a visible decline in attendance, television ratings, and positive media coverage. A new formula of normally-aspirated machines was introduced for 1997, and the "original" or "Old School IRL" era ran to roughly 2002. By 2003, most of the top CART-based teams and manufacturers had defected to the IRL, and likewise the landscape slowly receded back to resemble that of the CART era.
In 2008, the Indy Racing League and Champ Car completed an organizational unification, which marked the first time since 1978 that the sport of Indycar would be contested under a single sanctioning banner. The newly reorganized series would compete under the name IndyCar, and by 2012, would introduce a new formula of chassis and turbocharged engines.
The seeds of unification and the end of the split began as early as 2000, when CART-based teams began crossing over to compete at Indy with the IRL regulars in one-off entries. The unified era can also be traced back as early as 2003, when most of the top CART-based teams and manufacturers defected to the IRL and returned to Indy.