Indy 500: the oldest and fastest race in the world

  • 04 November 2023
  • 3 min read
  • 4 images
Indy 500: the oldest and fastest race in the world image

Photo credit: IMS Photo, Borg Warner, Phillip Abbott

In 1910, one year after the birth of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a decision was made to pave the entire track with over three million 10-pound (4.5 kg) bricks. This move was undoubtedly a statement of intent to continue the announced 500-mile race for many years to come. However, it wasn’t the most practical choice in case of rain, given the slippery nature of wet bricks. One might wonder if the American tradition of not racing in the rain – a tradition that is gradually fading away – is partly due to the decision to use a surface that’s far from ideal when wet.

Indy 500: the oldest and fastest race in the world - 1 In the first race in 1911, 39 out of the 40 vehicles featured both a driver and a co-pilot mechanic. The winner Ray Harroun completed the Indy 500 in 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds at an average speed of about 120 km/h.

The Indianapolis 500-Mile Race is the world’s oldest continuous race, and its racetrack has become a legend that attracts drivers for its speed and its historical significance. It’s essentially a bowl-shaped track, featuring two straights connected by two double curves and surrounded by a famous concrete wall where, inevitably, some competitors collide. Despite average speeds exceeding 360 km/h over the 500-mile distance, including pit stops for tyre changes and refuelling, the race has made significant strides in terms of safety over the years. This is thanks to cars that provide better protection for drivers and an asphalt surface that replaced the bricks in 1938, ensuring excellent track quality.

Indy 500: the oldest and fastest race in the world - 2 The trophy, which has been presented since 1936 bears the high relief sculpture with the likeness of each driver who has won the race since its inception in 1911. Inscribed are the name of the winner, the year of victory and the average speed.

Indianapolis has some intriguing traditions: the field size has always been set at 33 drivers, making qualifications highly selective. Then there’s the victory toast with milk, the winner’s traditional kissing of the finish line – which is the last remnant of the old brick pavement – and the famous phrase that signals the start, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.” For years, the drivers’ briefing didn’t shy away from discussing the race’s risks, emphasizing that some drivers might no longer be with us that evening. It’s not just American single-seaters that have made history at Indianapolis. In fact, in the pre-war years, Peugeot achieved a series of victories, along with one by Mercedes and one by Delage, as well as two wins by the Maserati 8CTF in 1939 and 1940. Particularly significant was Jim Clark’s famous victory in 1965 with a Lotus, marking the first win for a rear-engine car. Graham Hill repeated the success the following year with a Lola Ford that had a similar design. Even Ferrari tried its luck with its Formula 1 375, modified to meet American regulations, but it was forced to retire due to a hub failure.

Indy 500: the oldest and fastest race in the world - 3 Maserati stands as the only Italian automobile manufacturer to have clinched victory at the Indianapolis 500, not just once, but consecutively for two years in 1939 and 1940.

In 1971, a female driver, Janet Guthrie, competed at Indianapolis for the first time and finished ninth overall in her third attempt. To date, there have been eight female drivers, with Danica Patrick achieving the best result: a third-place finish.

We cannot conclude without noting the extraordinary increase in average speeds over the long 500-mile distance: from 120 km/h in the first edition to over 360 km/h today!

Indy 500: the oldest and fastest race in the world - 4 Jim Clark’s 1965 victory at the wheel of the Lotus-Ford was the first by a rear-engine car.