Indy at 100: 1930-39 a dangerous era
INDIANAPOLIS -- The 1930s started with America plunging into the Great Depression and ended with the United States about to enter the World War II.
But the '30s were a decade when the Indianapolis 500 continued to gain stature and cemented itself as one of the country's top sporting events -- indeed, a national treasure.
The economic state of the nation was not the reason the Indy 500 adopted the so-called "junkyard formula" in 1930 that sought to lower costs for competitors, but it proved to be a lucky stroke of genius for track owner Eddie Rickenbacker.
Always one of the richest purses in motor racing, the Indianapolis prize fund dipped to $54,450 in 1933 -- down from nearly $94,000 a year earlier and the third lowest total in the history of the race. But the 500 continued to maintain full fields, in part thanks to the low-cost, low-tech formula that allowed normally aspirated engines of up to 366 cubic inch capacity. By the end of the decade, a rear-engine car would make its Indianapolis debut (George Bailey in the 1939 race).
The starting field peaked with 42 cars in 1933, but for safety reasons was reduced to 33 entries lined up in 11 rows of three in 1934 -- a tradition that endures through today. From 1933 to 1938, 10-lap (25 mile) qualifying runs were mandated, to the general displeasure of competitors; four-lap qualifications were brought back in 1939 and have remained a unique Indianapolis tradition ever since.
In fact, many of the great Indianapolis traditions we take for granted now were established in the 1930s.
The most significant year in that regard was 1936; not only was that the first time that the champion was presented with the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy, it was the first instance of the winner drinking milk in Victory Lane.
As the story goes, Louis Meyer, the first three-time winner of the 500, sought refreshment from cold buttermilk on hot days. In 1936, following his third and final win at Indianapolis, Meyer's buttermilk chug was mistaken for regular milk by a dairy industry executive and milk was made part of the Victory Lane ceremonies a year later.
Meyer was also the first winning driver to be gifted with the 500 pace car after the race. The Month of May 1936 also marked the first time that drivers new to Indianapolis were subjected to a challenging "rookie test," a procedure still mandated today.
On the track, the '30s started with the most dominant performance in the history of the race as Billy Arnold led 198 of 200 laps. Arnold wasn't even on the entry list at the start of the month of May, but was fortuitously drafted in to take over the car of Harry Hartz, who was recuperating from injuries. Due to major crashes in his last two Indy starts, Arnold retired after competing at the Speedway only five times (1928 to 1932). Yet his victory from pole position in the 1930 race when he was just 24 is unlikely to be duplicated.
Despite his short career as an Indy car racer, Arnold led three 500s for a total of 410 laps, putting him 12th on the all-time list. His 1930 win was the first for a front-wheel drive car.
The 1937 race was another Indianapolis classic. Wilbur Shaw, who was destined to become one of the most significant figures in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was the winner in the closest finish in 500 history to that point. The 2.16-second margin of victory would stand as the race record for an amazing 45 years, finally beaten by the thrilling Gordon Johncock/Rick Mears battle in 1982 that was resolved in Johncock's favor by 0.16 second. Shaw repeated as the Indy winner in 1939 and added a third victory a year later.
The '30s spawned several other great drivers. A two-time pole winner and champion of the 1934 race, Bill Cummings was one of the most consistent Indy car drivers of the era. Cummings started from the top 10 on five occasions and finished in the top six four times, including a third-place result in 1935. Fred Frame led laps at Indianapolis in three of his eight starts from 1927 to 1936, including a race-high 58 on the way to his 1932 win.
With top-four finishes in nine consecutive Indianapolis starts, Ted Horn was perhaps the most successful driver to never win the 500. After finishing second at Indy in 1936 in his second attempt, Horn was third or fourth for the next eight years, completing all but one of 1,600 possible laps in that period. Another notable name who never triumphed in the 500, Rex Mays made 12 Indianapolis starts, claiming pole position four times and qualifying on the front row on three other occasions. Mays led nine different races for a total of 266 laps, but his best 500 finish was second place in 1940 and '41.
Finally, Jimmy Snyder made five Indianapolis 500 starts beginning in 1935, but he was killed in an accident at Cahokia, Ill., a month after he claimed pole position and finished second in the 1939 500. Snyder led three of his races at Indy for a total of 181 laps, including the most (92) in the 1938 race. He was also the first driver to run 130 mph at the Speedway and fastest qualifier for the 1937 race.
The '30s was perhaps the most dangerous decade in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From 1930 to 1934, six drivers, six riding mechanics and an innocent bystander outside the Speedway gates were killed, prompting the sanctioning body of the race (the American Automobile Association) to mandate helmets for 1935.
In 1936, the track's inner wall and a steeply-banked, 10-foot wide "outer lip" that was intended to slow cars before they hit the outer wall (but which often actually served to launch them over it) was eliminated. The Speedway's outside wall was reconfigured to form a 90-degree angle with the 9-degree banking in the turns; the original wall, situated at a 90-degree angle to the ground, remained in place behind the new wall as late as 1992.
In addition, the bricks in several areas on the 2.5-mile track had deteriorated to the point where they were paved over with asphalt. By the end of the decade, only a 600-yard stretch of the main straight remained surfaced in brick.
Although the 500's safety record improved in the second half of the 1930s, the decade ended in tragic fashion when defending Indianapolis champion Floyd Roberts was killed during the 1939 race. Three months later, the man credited as the spiritual founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was dead as well as Carl Fisher, aged 65, passed away in a Miami hospital.
With World War II under way in Europe, the future of the Indianapolis 500 was cast into doubt as the calendar turned to 1940. And while the race would shortly enter a four-year sabbatical due to America's participation in WWII, an exciting new era was looming on the horizon thanks to a most unlikely savior.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
95TH INDIANAPOLIS 500-MILE RACE
It's time for the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500, but it's the number 100 that counts in 2011. This is the 100th anniversary of the running of the first 500, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Centennial Era celebration is in high gear.
Indianapolis 500 Home
Race Day, May 29• Blount: The thrill and agony
• Hinton: Oh yeah, Indy is back!
• Oreovicz: Bad day for power teams
• McGee: What a capper to 100 years
• espnW: A roller-coaster ride for Indy women
• Gallery: 100th anniversary of the 500
• Recap: Wheldon wins a stunner
• Watch: Full highlights
• Watch: Full booth analysis
• Watch: Wheldon so thankful
• Watch: Hildebrand crestfallen
Saturday, May 28• Blount: Hang on to your hats!
• Hinton: Back again in Indiana
• ESPN.com staff: Our podium predictions
• Racing Live! Indy 500, Sunday, noon ET
Carb Day, May 27• Blount: The weekend's best race is ...
• Hinton: Foyt legend still strong in 2011
• Gallery: A.J. Foyt, A Racing Life
• Hinton from 1991: The last ride of A.J. Foyt
• Hinton on the Field of the Century front row
• Hinton's Indy 500 Field of the Century: Row 1
• Oreovicz blog: Ganassi team leads Carb Day
• espnW: Patrick's mom, Bev, enjoying ride
• Blount blog: The way Mario Andretti sees it
• Ed Hinton chat wrap
• John Oreovicz chat wrap
• Podcast: Brent Musburger previews the race
• Podcast: Helio Castroneves is ready to roll
• SportsNation: Indy 500 predictions
Features• Oreovicz: Breaking down the field of 33
• Blount: Bumping Junqueira saved jobs
• James: Women find a niche in IndyCar
• SportsNation quiz: All-time lap leaders
• Indy 500 preview photo gallery
• James: No stopping Simona
• Blount: Indy shows NASCAR how it's done
• James: Women drivers carving a niche
• Oreovicz: Danica dodges Bump Day disaster
• James: A stormy day at the track for Danica
• Oreovicz: Wild and wacky Pole Day
• Oreovicz: Month of May primer
Practice And Qualifying• Danica makes 500 field
• Carpentier crashes in Sunday practice
• Tagliani wins Indy 500 pole
• Briscoe crashes in Saturday practice
• Di Silvestro cleared to race
• Castroneves tops speed charts
• Tagliani leads Friday at over 228 mph
• De Silvestro waiting for medical clearance
• Power leads Thursday practice
• De Silvestro burns hands in crash
• Rain scrubs practice again Wednesday
• Weather limits practice Tuesday
• Tagliani turns month's fastest lap Monday
• Opening Sunday washed out
• Opening day starts fast
Indy 500 Field Of The Century• Hinton: The method in our list
• Row 1: Foyt, Lockhart, Vukovich
• Row 2: Ma. Andretti, Mears, A. Unser
• Row 3: Shaw, Jones, DePalma
• Row 4: Meyer, B. Unser, Rutherford
• Row 5: Ward, Johncock, Fittipaldi
• Row 6: Rose, Unser Jr., Milton
• Row 7: Clark, Mi. Andretti, Villenueve
• Row 8: Luyendyk, Hill, Harroun
• Row 9: Castroneves, Franchitti, Montoya
• Row 10: Ruby, Donohue, Sullivan
• Row 11: Flaherty, Kanaan, Hurtubise
• The Social Pioneers
Indy At 100• Indy at 100: 2000 and beyond
• Indy at 100: Tony George reigns in the '90s
• Indy at 100: 1980s had stars, foreign cars
• Indy at 100: Speed and safety in the '70s
• Indy at 100: A time of change
• Indy at 100: The '50s golden era
• Indy at 100: WWII puts racing on hold
• Indy at 100: 1930-39 a dangerous era
• Indy at 100: 1920-29 a roaring time
• Indy at 100: 1911-1919 was pivotal
• Indianapolis Motor Speedway timeline
More• Indy 500 front row chat wrap
• John Oreovicz chat wrap
• Danica not tipping hand on future
• Foyt, Mears, Unser top "greatest" fan poll
• Scott Speed joins Dragon Racing
• A.J. Foyt will drive Indy 500 pace car
• China's Ho-Pin Tung eyes Indy 500
• Indy 500 to honor Tom Carnegie
• Buddy Rice heading back to Indy 500
Indy 500 Rewind• 2010 Flashback: Dario's all the way back
• 2009 Flashback: Castroneves wins again
• 2008 Flashback: Quiet Dixon makes noise • 2007 Flashback: Franchitti comes up big
• 2006 Flashback: Hornish gets his "Holy Grail"