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The winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500 averaged about 75 mph, less than half the winning speed in today's race. (William Manning / Corbis)

One Hundred Years of the Indy 500

A century ago, the first Indianapolis 500 race started in high excitement and ended in a muddle

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The men of the early 20th-century motor press sometimes referred to the 13th circuit of an automobile racecourse as “the hoodoo lap,” not because more bad stuff happened then, but because they fervently wished it would. Coming at that point, a wreck would play nicely into the tabloid trope that superstitions are not to be flouted, and it would give a long car race some much-needed narrative cord. And so it was on May 30, 1911, as several dozen reporters leaned forward anxiously to watch the 40-car field for the first-ever Indianapolis 500-mile race power past the starting line for the 12th time and roar yet again into turn one.

They weren’t a bad lot, the newspapermen who had come to the two-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway to cover the event, but they required—and by some standards of judgment deserved—all the help they could get. Many by then had been in Indianapolis for a month or more, pumping up the importance of the Speedway and the coming sweepstakes—the longest race ever contested on the track—via the dispatches they filed for their far-flung dailies. They had recorded the arrival of virtually every “sweepstakes pilot” in the race, especially Ray Harroun, driver of the No. 32 Marmon “Wasp,” an Indianapolis-built car and the only single-seater in the race. (All the other drivers traveled with “riding mechanics,” who manually pumped oil and swiveled their heads constantly to check for oncoming traffic.) They interviewed drop-by celebrities like Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb and “noted songstress” Alice Lynn, investigated the burgeoning supply of counterfeit $1 general admission tickets, and scrambled for stories about the Indianapolis house cat that “deliberately committed suicide” by jumping from a sixth-story window, the downstate chicken with 14 toes on its left foot and the rumored sightings of a PG-rated pervert known as Jack the Hugger. For men accustomed to doing little more on a workday than walking the length of a boxing ring to ask one toothless man his opinion of another, this was arduous labor.

But the 500-mile sweepstakes, when it finally transpired on that surprisingly cool Tuesday morning, wasn’t paying the pressmen back in kind. The race had gotten off to a thrillingly raucous start replete with aerial bombs and a grandstand packed with an estimated 90,000 enthusiasts. People were excited by the amount of money at stake (the winner’s share would be $10,000, an impressive sum in an era when Cobb, baseball’s highest-paid player, made $10,000 a season) and the danger. (In the downtown saloons you could bet on how many drivers, who wore cloth or leather helmets and had no seat belts or roll bars, might be killed.) But with every mile the story line had become more and more scrambled and the spectators more and more subdued. Those charged with describing the “excitement” to an eager audience of millions were feeling the first damp signs of panic. Like every other lengthy automobile contest these experts on baseball and boxing had ever witnessed, this one was damnably confusing. The auto racing tracks of the day simply did not have the technology to keep track of split times and running order once cars began passing one another and going into and out of the pits.

On certain early developments almost everyone could agree. “Happy” Johnny Aitken, in the dark-blue No. 4 National car, had grabbed the early lead, only to be passed, after about seven miles, by Spencer Wishart, a mining magnate’s son driving a squat, gray customized Mercedes said to have cost his daddy $62,000. Eight laps later Wishart (who wore a custom-made shirt and silk tie beneath his overalls) suddenly pitted with a bad tire, leaving the lead to a big brown Knox driven by an unheralded public-school kid from Springfield, Massachusetts, named Fred Belcher. Soon Wishart stormed back onto the course, but into what lap exactly no one, including the judges, could say for certain. The leaders, as mile 30 approached, were starting to lap the stragglers, so the field was a snake eating its own tail. Belcher now found himself running second to a ball of smoke concealing, it was generally believed, the dark red Fiat of 23-year-old David Bruce-Brown, a square-jawed, fair-haired New Yorker from a wealthy merchant family. A class-war theme might be emerging—trust-fund kids versus their working-class counterparts—but then again, perhaps not.

The crowd regained its focus and oohed each time a scoreboard worker indicated a change in running order by manually removing and rehanging the car numbers on their pegs. Still, the denizens of the infield press box—more skeptical than the average fan, and with a better perch—couldn’t help noticing that the Speedway’s four scoreboards were usually not in agreement, and that a crew from the timing department was frantically trying to repair a tripwire that had been snapped by who knows which automobile a lap or two back. (The crew succeeded, but the wire was immediately rebroken.) The Warner Horograph, as the Speedway’s timing system was known, was a ridiculously Rube Goldbergesque device involving miles of wire as well as rolls of paper, typewriter ribbon, springs, hammers, telephones, Dictaphones, marbles and hundreds of human beings. Its sheer complexity was impressive, but the Horograph was utterly useless when it came to recording time and keeping track of races. Given such chaos, was it really so wrong to wish for a spectacular accident that would wipe away the early muddle and allow the beleaguered scribes a second chance at getting a grip on the action?

Of course it was wrong, but moral questions wither in the face of a hoodoo, even one conjured by a coven of pasty-faced, ink-stained hacks. Right on cue, the No. 44 Amplex, a bright red car driven by Arthur Greiner and traveling in mid-pack, lost a tire, though accounts vary as to which. The bare wooden wheel hit the bricks hard, causing Greiner’s auto to swerve crazily and veer into the infield, where it plowed through tall meadow grass and began a somersault, only to stop in mid-maneuver, so that it stood straight up, balancing on its steaming grill. The 27-year-old Greiner was flipped from the cockpit like a shucked oyster, with the steering wheel somehow still in his mitts. Riding mechanic Sam Dickson, meanwhile, remained more or less in his bucket seat, one hand planted on the dashboard, the other clutching a leather side-handle, his only restraining device. This was the sort of heart-stopping moment that only auto racing could provide. If the car fell backward, returning to its three remaining tires, he might get nothing worse than a jolt. But if it fell forward, it would drive Dickson’s head into the ground like a tent spike. The crowd fell silent. Dickson tensed. The Amplex rocked on its radiator.

Sensing disaster, scores of spectators began surging over the fence that separated the track apron from the homestretch. This was a common occurrence in the wake of a potentially fatal accident. So eager were some men, women and children to get a closer look that they would risk their own lives by running across a track teeming with racing machines.

In real time, the upended Amplex couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds to fall. And when it did, it fell forward, killing Dickson. As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.” Dickson’s body was taken with dispatch to the Speedway hospital tent and the race continued without interruption, with the drivers swerving around spectators unable to control their morbid curiosity.

Twenty-five minutes later, the invading spectators had been dispersed by Speedway security guards, and the grandstand resumed its distracted rumble. Standing alone over the wreck of Dickson and Greiner’s race car was a 14- year-old Hoosier named Waldo Wadsworth Gower, who had sneaked into the Speedway the day before and spent the night in the pits. In a letter he wrote in 1959, Gower recalled the piercing sadness brought on by the sight of the mangled auto, reminding him of a similar Amplex he had seen being polished to a high gleam two months before at the American Simplex factory in Mishawaka, Indiana. With “a nice shiny coal oil lantern hung on the radiator cap” and the light “of a bright moon,” he wrote, it had found its way to the city of big dreams.

This is all very touching, I thought, while reading the letter, which had been passed along to me by Sam Dickson’s nephew Scott—but I also couldn’t help wonder why this kid was standing in the middle of the infield getting all Proustian instead of watching the race. Gradually, though, as my research deepened, I came to realize that except in moments of crisis very few spectators were following the action. Newspapers and auto-industry magazines noted that for most of the day many seats in the grandstand, though paid for, went unoccupied, and lines at lavatories and concession stands remained serpentine.

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