Commentary

The first Indy races were stockers

Updated: July 25, 2009, 2:40 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Before there was any such thing as an "Indy car," before there was an Indianapolis 500, stock cars were the star attraction at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Most racing enthusiasts' perception of Indy history begins with the image of a purpose-built race car, a "special," driven by Ray Harroun, winning the first Indy 500 in 1911.

But that type of car was the second choice.

In 1909, when industrialist Carl Fisher opened his then-revolutionary track, his interest and his vision lay mainly in stock car racing. For races in the pre-500 years, "the original intent was showing the public, 'Here's what you can buy,'" IMS historian Donald Davidson says.

As a sideshow, an afterthought, "they also had a couple of what they called free-for-all races that were 'run what you brung,'" Davidson says.

Production cars, tightly regulated -- except that headlights and mud guards could be removed, and the rear seat removed and replaced by a big, cylindrical fuel tank -- were what competed in the first auto racing program conducted before Indy's 15,000-seat grandstands during Aug. 19-21, 1909.

But stock car racing exasperated Fisher with -- and here, a century later, you'll get a laugh out of this -- crushing penalties for rules violations.

This July, this week of the 16th Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, is part of the 99th anniversary of stock car racing's downfall as the premier form of racing at Indy.

In the July meet of 1910, "Buick entered cars as 'Marquette Buicks,'" Davidson says. "They entered them as production cars, and they weren't strictly, because only a few had been manufactured, and I think they were basically prototypes."

The sanctioning body of the time, the American Automobile Association, "stripped the team of everything they'd accomplished in this one meet," Davidson continues.

Davidson reads from an AAA bulletin issued later that month: "The Marquette Buicks were not stock cars as defined by the 1910 contest rules. They were not on sale or offered for sale to the public at regular selling agencies in the Buick Motor Co. or the Marquette Motor Co.

"The privilege of competing in the July races at Indianapolis under the name Marquette Buick was granted upon the condition that in the event of successful performances, there would be no advertisement under any other name than Marquette Buick.

"The New York Herald on July 10 referred to them as Buicks," Davidson continues. And so, on or about July 24, the AAA "threw out everything they'd done that weekend."

Disgusted when informed of the disqualification, "Fisher said, 'The public deserves to know that what they've seen on the racetrack was the result,'" Davidson says, and then paraphrases Fisher: "And if the sanctioning body is going to throw them out two or three weeks later, then maybe we should just go to specials, where the specs are freer."

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis Motor Speedway
Getty ImagesCars -- stock cars -- line up for a 100-mile race in 1910.

And there it was: the death knell of stock car racing at Indy, and the signal of the rise of the second choice, the specials, the sideshow free-for-all class, the run-what-you-brung cars later to be known as "Indy cars."

Production cars held on, to an extent, for a little while. Even in the first 500, "32 of the 40 starters were pretty much as the original intent -- production cars and maybe modified slightly," Davidson says.

But the onslaught of specials, such as Harroun's Marmon Wasp of 1911, eventually made fielding production cars futile in the 500.

So stock car racing at Indy died out, forever.

No, I don't mean until 1994, when NASCAR went to the Brickyard for the first time.

I mean forever.

NASCAR hasn't been "stock car racing" for decades. We just call it that, mainly because the more accurate term, "full-bodied car racing," is clumsy.

None of the cars that have raced in the Allstate 400 would be considered remotely stock under the old rules of both the AAA and the short-lived Manufacturers' Contest Association.

The MCA required factory production, for sale to the public, of "25 [units] of the car that is being raced, and 50 automobiles in total," Davidson says.

If that sounds like very few, "remember that nobody had assembly lines except Henry Ford at the time," Davidson says.

Consider the cars entered in Sunday's 16th running of the 400. They all would be ousted by the AAA for exactly the same reason the Marquette Buicks were -- misleading advertising.

Touted as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, the Ford Fusion, the Dodge Charger and the Toyota Camry, Sunday's cars are in fact none of those production models. They all are NASCAR's standard, uniform chassis and body design, aka the "Car of Tomorrow," carrying advertising decals for the Monte Carlo, Fusion, Charger and Camry.

They are not "what you can buy" by any stretch of the imagination -- except perhaps the imaginations of the manufacturers' marketing and advertising people.

The stock car brands, except for Buick, that made Indy's earliest history are long forgotten, the manufacturers long defunct.

It was in a Stoddard Dayton that Louis Schwitzer won the first automobile race at the Speedway, a five-miler. That's right -- two laps around the 2.5-mile track.

It was from a Knox that driver Billy Bourque and his riding mechanic, Harry Holcomb, were flung and killed on that first Indy race day in 1909.

It was from a National that riding mechanic Claude Kellum was hurled and fatally injured, on the third day of that first meet. That same accident killed two spectators, James West and Homer Jolliff.

Most of the blame for the five fatalities was placed on Fisher's misbegotten track surface, tar and crushed stone over layers of gravel.

The surface came apart -- one newspaper account likened driving in those early races to "riding through a meteor shower." Ruts and potholes quickly developed, flinging cars every which way and causing tires to blow.

Maybe the reason the AAA didn't disqualify any cars that first year was that the organization was too busy threatening to remove its sanction from the new track entirely if Fisher didn't do something about the surface.

Paving? There was little knowledge of the process -- there wasn't so much as a mile of asphalt road in all of Indiana -- at the time. Fisher and his partners considered concrete, the surface of the faraway Brooklands track near London. Too expensive, they decided.

They settled on bricks, and Fisher ordered 3.2 million of them installed as fast as possible. In December 1909, racing resumed on what would be known thereafter as the Brickyard.

As Fisher's pavers worked, a child was born on Sept. 26, 1909, in Washington, D.C., and named William Henry Getty France. The third name, Getty, was placed as a sort of talisman on the infant, the rich American Getty dynasty's name intended to bring him great fortune and fame.

He would grow up to be Big Bill France, founder and czar of NASCAR, and careless history would give him credit for the concept of "strictly stock" car racing.

By the time he introduced his form, in 1949, the concept was long forgotten at Indianapolis.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.