The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built in 1909, was already in its third season of a problem-filled existence when a tremendously successful 500-mile race was presented - almost as a 'make-or-break' event - on May 30, 1911.
The track had been laid out on farmland some five miles northwest of the Hoosier capital. At the time, Indianapolis was among the country's two or three most prolific producers of those newfangled contraptions known as automobiles.
The track was to be a year-round testing facility for private rental. Occasional race meets also would be held. Paying customers - who might be in the market for an automobile - would witness competitions pitting manufacturers' vehicles against one another.
The speedway got off to a rocky start - quite literally - because the original surface of the 2 1/2-mile track was an ill-advised mixture of crushed stone and tar. Motorcycle races and auto races in mid-August 1909 were accident-filled disasters. Thousands of gallons of oil were applied, but the track broke up after several days of spinning wheels churning up blinding dust and fragmented macadam.
A fresh surface was laid that fall. Some 3.2 million paving bricks were shipped in by rail from the western part of the state. The bricks were laid on their sides in a bed of sand on top of the crushed rock and tar, then fixed with mortar.
By the time the job was completed just a few days before Christmas, the nickname 'the Brickyard' already was being applied to the speedway.
Meets were held on three holiday weekends in 1910, but spectator turnouts were disappointing. As many as 42 events in a three-day period made for an overdose of racing so, for 1911, the organizers decided to gamble on a single event of gigantic proportions that would pay a huge purse. They considered a 24-hour race but decided a 500-mile contest would have greater appeal to the public. Such a race would require about seven hours of running time. It could be started in mid-morning and be over before early evening.
Memorial Day was chosen as the date, and a purse of $25,000 was posted for the first 12 cars completing the full distance, $10,000 of which would go to the winner.
There was no limit to the number of cars that would start; 'qualifications' were merely a device for weeding out slow cars. Each entry was given a flying start and required to cover a quarter-mile of the main straight in less than 12 seconds, averaging 75 mph or better. Of the 42 cars that faced the clocks, only two failed to make it. The 40 successful qualifiers were then lined up, not according to speed but in the order in which the entries had been received by the organizers, the first entry starting on the pole.
Track president and founder Carl Fisher felt that 40 cars were too many for the typical standing starts of the day, and that a rolling start at about 40 mph might be safer.
On race morning, with well over 60,000 people present, the first four entries lined up next to a Stoddard-Dayton passenger car, followed by seven rows of five and the 40th starter alone in the back. Fisher led them around for a single untimed lap and pulled over to release the field to the flagman as he crossed the start/finish line - not only the first mass-rolling start for any automobile race anywhere in the world, but quite possibly the first use of a pace car.
Six hours and 42 minutes later, the checkered flag was waved over the hood of a specially built entry from Nordyke and Marmon Co., a local automaker. The race was not without controversy.
While most of the starters were stripped-down passenger cars, a few had been built strictly for competition. The winning Marmon Wasp used a stock chassis, but it was powered by a six-cylinder engine at a time when Marmon offered only a four to the public.
Engineer-driver Ray Harroun had designed its streamlined body, which was so narrow that it accommodated only one centrally located seat. During practice, some rivals complained that Harroun presented a safety hazard by not having a riding mechanic. He silenced them by bolting on what is believed to have been the first-ever rear-view mirror on an automobile.
There was quite a turnover in the field for 1912. Several firms did not return for a variety of reasons. Marmon, after a post-race boost in sales, chose to rest on its laurels.
Pure racing cars quickly came into vogue, built at first by those who also sold cars to the public, then, by the mid-1920s, by racing specialists.
The Indianapolis 500 quickly became a phenomenally successful sporting event, and it was the drivers rather than the cars, who were the stars.
Prize money was doubled to $50,000 in 1912, with $20,000 going to the winner. Accessory-company prizes began boosting the purse to the point where it was flirting with $100,000 by the late 1920s.
The 500 managed to survive the Great Depression, with some greatly reduced purses, and things seemed to be recovering nicely when America's involvement in World War II brought everything to a standstill. The track fell into terrible disrepair during four years of total neglect. Area residents believed it would be razed to make way for a housing development as soon as the war ended.
Instead, Anton 'Tony' Hulman, a businessman from Terre Haute, Ind., purchased the dilapidated property in 1945, and his workers performed major miracles to get it ready for a 1946 race.
Improvements have been made every year since, some quite astounding. They have transformed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into something far beyond the wildest dreams of its founders 90 years ago.
Attendance exceeds 400,000 for race day, with millions more watching on TV and listening on radio around the world. It is the largest, annual single-day sporting event.