First Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Carl G. Fisher and three colleagues built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and sponsored the first auto racing in the United States. This modest investment and dangerous venture led to the building of a brick track, the venue of the first Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day, 1911. As a result of this event, auto racing quickly gained popularity in the United States.

Summary of Event

When auto racing began in France in the late nineteenth century, it was considered a sport for rich young men because they were the only ones who could afford to buy automobiles. The first officially recorded auto race was held in France in 1894: It stretched approximately 70 miles, from Paris to Rouen, and the competing cars traveled at less than 12 miles per hour. The following year, a much longer race was held, beginning in Paris and ending in Bordeaux. The year 1906 saw the establishment of the French Grand Prix, which included drivers from several European countries. Auto racing’s reach also extended to Great Britain in that year, when an English aristocrat built the Broadlands Race Track on his property. Automobiles;racing Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sports;automobile racing [kw]First Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Aug. 19, 1909) [kw]Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, First (Aug. 19, 1909) [kw]Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, First Auto (Aug. 19, 1909) [kw]Indianapolis Motor Speedway, First Auto Race at the (Aug. 19, 1909) [kw]Motor Speedway, First Auto Race at the Indianapolis (Aug. 19, 1909) [kw]Speedway, First Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor (Aug. 19, 1909) Automobiles;racing Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sports;automobile racing [g]United States;Aug. 19, 1909: First Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway[02460] [c]Sports;Aug. 19, 1909: First Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway[02460] [c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 19, 1909: First Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway[02460] [c]Transportation;Aug. 19, 1909: First Auto Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway[02460] Fisher, Carl G. Allison, James Wheeler, Frank Newby, Arthur

Inspired by the races at Broadlands, Carl Fisher and three other investors, James Allison, Frank Wheeler, and Arthur Newby, made plans to build the first American track for automobile racing. The men bought 328 acres of land on the outskirts of Indianapolis, Indiana, where they intended to make a test facility for racing cars. The men also planned to hold periodic races on the track in order to introduce the public to the new and fast-growing automotive industry and to lead the way in advancements that would ultimately lead to both modern motor racing and modern automobile design.

The new 2.5-mile-long rectangular speedway consisted of four turns that were highly banked and joined by long, straight stretches of track. The speedway’s original surface combined crushed rock and tar, but this substance tended to break apart during races and posed significant dangers to drivers, and it was quickly replaced with more than three million paving bricks. The bricks were placed in sand and secured with mortar to make a more stable and safer racing surface. This change was completed in December of 1909 and led to the track’s nickname: the Brickyard.

The first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway took place on August 19, 1909. It was a short, two-lap, 5-mile race that drew a crowd of more than twelve thousand spectators and opened three days of auto and motorcycle races. Although the races were relatively short, there were numerous accidents and six deaths involving drivers, mechanics, and spectators. The number of accidents, injuries, and deaths in both the automobile and motorcycle races at this inaugural event led the track’s owners and managers to make significant changes to the track’s surface. Afterward, Fisher and his partners continued to refine and improve the events at their racetrack. In December of 1909, shortly after the track was repaved with bricks, extremely cold weather forced the cancellation of a planned series of races scheduled for that month and forced the owners to wait until May to begin racing on the new surface.

As a result of low attendance at the newly resurfaced track, Fisher and his colleagues decided to present a much larger and more ambitious plan. The first 500-mile race took place on May 30, 1911, and it immediately became a major fixture in auto racing. Indianapolis 500 Less than two years after the first motor racing took place at Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held its first 500-mile race in front of an audience of eighty thousand. Forty drivers competed, and the winner, Ray Harroun, averaged just under 75 miles per hour to win the race in a little less than seven hours.


In spite of its early difficulties, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway became the home of what is now known as “the greatest spectacle in racing.” The sport went through a series of changes and improvements in the years after the speedway’s first winner completed the 200-lap race. As a testament to the sport’s appeal, racing at Indianapolis survived a series of difficulties, including track disasters and deaths, the Great Depression, organizational feuds, and many advances in technology. With a seating capacity of more than four hundred thousand, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway became one of the best-attended venues in sports.

By the end of the twentieth century, the speedway began to make some significant changes to its schedule and policies. In 1994, Tony George, the speedway’s president, welcomed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) to Indianapolis by adding the Brickyard 400 to the speedway’s schedule. Four years later, George again made history by adding Formula One racing to the list of races held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the first U.S. Grand Prix was held at the historic track in 2000. Women began to make a significant impact on the sport when drivers such as Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, and Danica Patrick were accepted as race competitors. In 2005, Danica Patrick made history in her rookie season by leading the Indy 500, a first for a woman driver at the speedway.

Since the first successful 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both the race speeds and popularity have experienced significant increases. The Indy 500 came to be considered the most prestigious race in the sport, and the speedway was widely recognized as the most famous track in the world. With race speeds regularly topping 200 miles per hour in races at the beginning of the twenty-first century and with the increased status and popularity of Indy 500 winners, this event has earned its reputation and fame. Automobiles;racing Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sports;automobile racing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, William J. Sports in the Western World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Discusses the influence of a variety of sports, including auto racing, on the development of Western cultures. One chapter deals specifically with the history of auto racing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fisher, Jerry M. The Pacesetter: The Untold Story of Carl G. Fisher. Fort Bragg, Calif.: Lost Coast Press, 1998. Biography of the primary creator of the Indy 500. Details his relationships with such men as Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Eddie Rickenbacker.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, James A., and Thomas F. Saal. American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed. New York: McFarland, 2004. An excellent resource that covers the history of auto racing from its beginning in France. Discusses the different kinds of automobile racing and the people and events that make the sport one of the most popular in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Rich. Indy: Seventy-Five Years of Racing’s Greatest Spectacle. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A thorough history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that traces its existence from 1909 to 1991. Includes numerous pictures, race results from each year, and a wealth of technical information about the sport.

American Automobile Association Is Established

First Tour de France

First Grand Prix Auto Race

Number of U.S. Automakers Falls to Forty-Four

Categories: History