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By Marge Knoth, Author, Activity Professional
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Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State. She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of
Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care. She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials. Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!
In my years traveling and speaking with activity directors, one thing was a constant. “We
can’t get our men involved!” And I, too, struggled with the same issue. I brought a pilot
in to speak to my men, a model boat builder, and others, but the women were usually
the ones who came, not the men. So I began closely observing the behavior of the
male species, not necessarily my residents, and I found a few things that generally
perked up their ears: women (naturally), football, soccer, and cars, more specifically
racing. So today we are going to be sharing about that, not just racing, but the history of
a very famous race, the Indianapolis 500.
With the great race coming up the end of May, hopefully you have time to stir up interest
in your male residents. Why not try pulling facts from the following column and host a
lively men’s gathering? It can be a reminiscence/current event group combined. You
might even hold a week-long “racing week”. Show racing movies, invite speakers to
talk on racing, dress your facility with racing pictures, black and white checkered flags,
and model race cars. And finally, watch the500 mile race together on television. Invite
family members to join you. Impress them with some of the trivia that follows.
So now, let’s go back, way back to 1911, and take a look at this “dangerous” new sport.
The “brickyard” as it came to be known, was filled with no less than 80,000 spectators.
Men, muscles, and machines united in one of the greatest feats ever known to men.
Engines roared and the wooden-spoked wheels ached to turn. Cars without any real
bodies, just box-like hood coverings and gasoline tanks mounted behind the drivers,
lined the starting line. The racers were donned in wide goggles, and with leather
helmets strapped snugly under their chins, they hoped to muffle the blare of the
engines. (Doctors though felt that any speed over 50 mph would surely damage the
hearing.) The green flag waved and the daring racers were off, seeking victory in the
very first Indianapolis 500. Compared with the dangerous accidents often occurring in
road-racing, that first 500 was fairly uneventful. Ray Harroun, driving a six-cylinder
Marmon Wasp made in Indianapolis with a big 32 painted on its side, took the lead in
the 182nd lap and continued to hold it. His car was unusual in that it was a single-
seater while others were two-seaters allowing their mechanics to ride along. Another
original feature was a rear-view mirror he personally fashioned to watch cars behind
him. Little did he know it would one day become standard equipment on all cars. The
checkered flag waved and Harroun had his victory, averaging 74 miles per hour.
For more than ten years men had tested their skills against the speed demon seeking
a new excitement. Prior to the building of the track, most racing was held on winding
roads, swerving around pot holes and avoiding ditches. Many races were held at fairs.
Fans, called railbirds, always gathered to watch, but some of them would be killed as
autos went out of control.
From 1900 to 1914, cigar-smoking Barney O’Field and Ralph de Palma stole headlines
in racing news. O’Field was a real daredevil. In his Blitzen Benz he was noted for
racing not only against fast cars, but horses and airplanes as well. Surprisingly, though,
O’Field never won the 500.
The early cars were not built by racing companies but car manufactures like Maxwell,
Simplex, National, App-erson and Stern and Buick. These companies would soup up
their cars for the racers. Engines, in those days, were twice as large with only a fraction
of today’s horsepower. For example, Bruce Brown, who took third place in that first
500, drove a four-cylinder Fiat with a displacement of 589 cubic inches. At 3000 rpm’s,
it would develop 200 horsepower.
The Indianapolis Speedway was the vision of four enterprising businessmen--Allison,
Wheeling, Newby, and Fisher who put up the necessary $250,000. They purchased
328 acres of good farm land just four miles from the city of Indianapolis and began
construction. The two-and one-half mile-track around the outer circumference
surrounded a five-mile road course in the center. The Brickyard was loosely modeled
after one in England. Without a doubt the raceway was the most elaborate in North
America. It was originally surfaced with limestone and gravel, but the dust stirred up by
the race cars made it nearly impossible for the drivers to see. Eventually it was bricked
, thus acquiring its nickname, the brickyard. The track was surrounded by three miles of
white-washed board fence, and the raceway sported 41 buildings on the speedway
grounds. No less than 3000 hitching posts were provided for fans arriving in horse and
Though the first 500 was not until 1911, the track was actually initiated in 1909 with a
three-day affair beginning with a balloon ascension. Most people , at that time, viewed
racing as mere foolishness, but there were many curious and daring souls who would
turn out for this three-day racing spectacle. A lady reporter dared to ride around the
track with a driver and wrote a sensational article entitled, “Return From Death at 60
Miles Per Hour.”
The first day featured motorcycle racing, but the riders were petrified, being used to
racing on dirt roads. The second and a third days featured auto racing, and huge
prizes were offered. Still the owners were disappointed in the number of spectators.
They put their heads together and determined what they needed was a yearly spectacle
that would draw a huge crowd. They discussed races from 300 to 1000 miles, but they
finally settled on 500 miles for the simple reason that spectators could only sit for about
six hours. The date of May 30 was calculated carefully.
By 1913, it seemed the race was monopolized with foreign cars and drivers. In 1915,
Ralph de Palma averaged 89.84 mph, a record that stood until 1922. Only 300 miles
were covered in the 1916 race due to the First World War in Europe. The 1916 and
1917 races were cancelled altogether. When the race resumed in 1919, American
drivers began to rise up against the foreign competition. Fred Dusenberg and Louis
and Gaston Chevrolet souped up American-made cars like the Monroe and were
successful in their efforts capturing the first three places in that race. The 1920s
brought smaller cars, but their noise made it impossible to hear the bands at the track
playing. Fans were told if they listened carefully, they could hear the roar of the engines
in the background. Henry Ford was the official referee for the 1924 race, and it was
rumored that he personally insured each of the starting 22 drivers for $10,000 each.
The 100-mile an-hour record was broken at the track in 1925. When the Second World
War broke out, once again the track was shut down, this time from 1942 to 1946. It
almost did not re-open. Having fallen in bad disrepair during the war, crews had to
rush to prepare it for the 1946 race. Pre-war model cars were taken from mothballs
and raced. George Robson won that race with the last six-cylinder car used at the
speedway. Eddie Rickenbacker who drove in the 500 five times bought the speedway
in 1927. Tony Hulman’s family bought it in 1945. The track was designed for 85 mph,
but speeds have continued to increase to well over 200 mph. That is a far cry from that
first auto race in 1895 when racers speeded from Chicago to Evanston at an average
speed of 5mph.
Many races have come and gone, but still, hearts of racing fans across the nation beat
just a little faster each Memorial Day when they hear those familiar words, “Gentlemen,
start your engines!”