Commentary

Indy at 100: 1920-29 a roaring time

Updated: May 15, 2011, 11:16 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- By the time racing resumed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after World War I, the Indianapolis 500 was already a renowned sporting event, attracting an international entry of drivers and cars and a crowd of more than 100,000.

Carl Fisher's dream of building a proving ground that would put machine and man to the ultimate test had become a reality. And even in those early days of the Speedway, the men in charge struggled to rein in the burgeoning technology of the rapidly advancing automotive industry -- and the speed and danger that resulted from it.

Speed versus safety would remain a common theme at Indianapolis over the next century as rule-makers combated the brightest engineers of the day. Then as now, the easiest way to reduce speeds was to mandate smaller and smaller engines. From an initial limit of 600 cubic inches (9.8 liters) for the inaugural "500," displacement was restricted to 450 CI (7.4 L) in 1913 and cut again to 300 CI (4.9 L) in 1915.

When the pole speed for the 1919 race rose to nearly 105 miles per hour, engine size was reduced to 183 cubic inches (3.0 L) in 1920, and a further cut to 122 inches (2.0 L) was mandated just three years later -- mirroring regulations established in Europe for Grand Prix racing.

[+] EnlargeEddie Rickenbacker
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesWorld War I hero Eddie Rickenbacker went from driver to owner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1920s.

Despite ever decreasing engine size, power and speed continued to rise, spurred on by developments such as the supercharger and high-octane "Ethyl" gasoline. By 1927, despite being restricted to tiny, 91 CI (1.5 L) engines, cars were averaging more than 120 mph for their four-lap qualifying runs -- an Indianapolis tradition established in 1920.

By the mid-20s, the Speedway was a successful business entity. But its driving force -- Carl Fisher -- was beginning to suffer a decline in fortunes. A massive hurricane leveled South Florida in 1926, including an extravagant "board track" Fisher had constructed in Fulford-by-the-Sea, forcing the entrepreneur to halt his Montauk, N.Y., project in order to focus on rebuilding Miami Beach. By then Arthur Newby had retired and was in poor health, and like Fisher, James Allison's interest in running the Speedway had waned.

So when Eddie Rickenbacker -- the decorated war hero and former racer -- asked Allison if he would be interested in selling his Allison Engineering firm, Allison countered by offering Rickenbacker the opportunity to acquire the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It took Rickenbacker several months to come up with the funding -- the believed asking price was around $700,000 -- but by the summer of 1927, reportedly with assistance from General Motors, Rickenbacker was able to take control of what became known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation. His ownership of IMS would span more than two decades.

The founding fathers of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway left a lasting mark on the city of Indianapolis. Led by Fisher, who harbored a dream of creating a "horse-less city," he and his partners began acquiring land near the track in 1912. What soon became known as Speedway City featured an industrial complex separated by Main Street from a residential area. The Town of Speedway was incorporated in 1926 and it continues to function independently of the city of Indianapolis, with its own water works, police and fire departments. It even has its own school system.

In fact, Speedway's four elementary schools are named after Fisher, Allison, Wheeler and Newby, and Allison Engineering still maintains a massive production facility within a mile of IMS.

With auto racing becoming established as a worldwide sport, the first generation of true racing stars cemented their status in the 1920s.

The extreme danger of motorized competition in that era meant that driving careers were often short. These men were true daredevils, unaffected by the specter of death that constantly loomed over auto racing.

Perhaps the brightest star of American racing in the 1920s was Frank Lockhart, who was just 25 years old when he was killed attempting to set the land speed record in Ormond Beach, Fla., in 1928. By then he had made a pair of Indianapolis 500 starts, winning the race in his first attempt in 1926.

He started from pole position in 1927 and led the most laps in both of his "500s," for a total of 205 laps in two years. He was also the first driver to break the 115- and 120-mph marks in qualifying.

Tommy Milton
Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesTommy Milton was the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 twice.

Another driver with a brief but spectacular Indianapolis career was Ray Keech, who completed all 400 laps of his two Indianapolis 500 starts, finishing fourth in 1928 and winning in 1929. Sadly, Keech perished in a racing accident in Altoona, Pa., just two weeks after his Indy 500 triumph.

George Souders also excelled in a two-year Indianapolis career. In 1927, he became one of eight drivers to win the "500" on his first attempt, and a year later he finished third. Souders led both races for a total of 67 laps, and unlike many of his peers, retired from driving before the odds could take his life.

Tommy Milton's victory in 1923 made him the first two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, the first coming two years earlier. Milton finished in the top five in half of his eight Indy starts and qualified on pole position for his 1923 victory. His 1923 win was also notable because he led the most laps (128), setting the record for most times led in a single race with 13 -- a record that would stand until 1960.

Not all Indy stars actually won the great race. Harry Hartz made six starts in the "500" between 1922 and 1927 and, despite never crossing the line first, compiled an amazing record. Hartz finished second four times and fourth twice in that seven-year span, and though he never claimed pole position, he never qualified lower than fourth. He remains the only driver who finished second three times who never won the race.

The international flavor of the Indianapolis 500 in the 1920s is perhaps best illustrated by Jimmy Murphy. He finished fourth or better in four of his five Indianapolis 500 starts, topped by victory in the 1922 race.

Murphy led the most laps (153) in that 1922 race and became the first driver to win from pole position. What made the win more notable is that Murphy did it in the same Duesenberg (refitted with a Miller engine) that he drove to victory in the 1921 French Grand Prix, which was one of only two triumphs by an American driver in an American car in the history of Grand Prix racing.

A top star of his era, Murphy finished third at Indianapolis in 1923 and '24 but was killed in a racing accident in Syracuse, N.Y., in September 1924.

Despite the fleeting nature of racing careers in the sport's early years, the Indianapolis 500 had already earned in its first 20 years the reputation of being a race in which legends were created.

Although many changes would impact the sport and the Speedway itself in decades to come, the Brickyard's tradition of star-making power would continue to endure.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.