It is hard to understate the impact the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its signature race: The Indianapolis 500, has had on Indiana. It has ingrained itself into Indiana culture as no other event has. For over 100 years, it has held a wide range of events, from hot air balloon races to the iconic Indianapolis 500 itself.
For the first time in about 20 years, I returned to the track to take a tour of it and visit the onsite Museum. Getting to the Museum involves driving underneath the track, in a surprisingly sizeable multi-lane tunnel. Arriving in the infield, you are presented with a large infield, beyond it is the imposing Museum. I headed inside and for $22 I had a ticket to the Museum and a ride on a trailer around the track (complete with a stop at the start/finish line.) The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is famous for its early days of being paved in bricks, now only a strip at the start/finish line remains.
Located just outside of downtown Indianapolis, the track was founded in 1909 on farmland; in fact, one of the farm’s original barns remains at the track today. Today, it is surrounded by suburbs. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway contains an oval, a road course that uses parts of the oval, and even a dirt track in the infield.
There are two ways to take a tour around the track: A bus ride, or the open-air “Kiss The Bricks” tour that takes you around the track on an open-air trailer and makes a stop at the iconic brick-covered start/finish line. Literally kissing the bricks is a tradition for victorious race teams since the 1990s. The tour gets you close to some of the “landmarks” of the Indianapolis Speedway. When the tour made its stop at the start/finish line, I was able to get a great look at the newly-installed elevator platform that raises up the winner’s car, the Pagoda, a tall, distinct building that houses race officials as well as broadcasters, and a glimpse into the garage area.
It is hard to appreciate the size of the track just by seeing it on tv. It is longer than many major oval tracks coming in at 2.5 miles. Standing at the start-finish line and looking towards the previous turn makes it appear to almost disappear into the horizon. To put into perspective just how big the track is, there are several holes of a golf course within the infield of the course compete with water hazards and the branching routes that make up the road course. The shape of the oval stands out as much as its length, with four straights, as opposed to the typical two. There is also very little banking in the corners, especially compared with similar NASCAR tracks like Talladega and Daytona.
As we went around the track; I was blown away by just how big the grandstands are. As you round the final corner to the start/finish line, you become aware of just how many people this track can hold as large grandstands rise on both sides to tower over you. The tour naturally has a stop at the start/finish line, still paved with bricks. Interestingly, the bricks aren’t flush with the track and would undoubtedly be noticeable to racers.
After going around the track, we headed into the Museum through a side door. We were greeted by a cross-sectioned example of the latest Indy car, showcasing the many technologically advanced features of a modern Indy Car. There is also a row of tires, from the earliest tall and skinny tires that looked like they belong on a horse-drawn buggy, to modern wet and dry weather tires. Beyond that was a row of Indy cars and a classic hot rod. The next section was a room with smaller items, including a letter from Enzo Ferrari (in Italian naturally.)
Moving on into the main room, on display were many cars from the Museum’s “vault.” These include both race and non-race vehicles, and some of them had close ties to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Notable cars on display were a Ferrari 250 LM, an early exam of a mid-engine Ferrari, and a Ford GT40. Another iconic race car on display was the 50s era Mercedes-Benz W196. Unique to the W196 is that it is essentially an F1 car with a full body on it, right down to the driver sitting in the middle of it. The body had been added to make it eligible (in its day) for sports car racing, while still maintaining the advantages of an F1 car. The “vault” also included two vehicles owned by Indy 500 super fan Larry Bisceglia. Mr. Bisceglia, who had attended Indy 500 races for decades, was famous for being first in line when the gates opened at the track for the race, even if it meant camping in his vehicle. He was well known enough at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he was given a key for the track, good for any time, and was even presented with a new Ford Van to replace his old, even for the time, DeSoto on the starting line. Both of those vehicles are on display. There are also some non-racing related vehicles there, such as the 1932 Mercedes-Benz owned by Faisal 1: the former King of Iraq.
The Museum’s main section dedicated to Indy cars spans from the first car to ever win the Indianapolis 500 to some of the most recent. The winning car of the first-ever Indy 500, held in 1911, was one of two cars on display that are part of the National Historic Vehicle Register. The first car to win the 500, a 1911 Marmon Wasp was innovative in that it is believed to the first race car with a rear view mirror. The rear view was actually a concession in the name of safety as the car was entered as a single-seater, with no riding mechanic. In the early days of Indy Car, a mechanic was normally required to ride with the driver. One of the riding mechanic’s jobs was to be an extra pair of eyes for the driver. The other car from the National Historic Vehicle Register is a 1938 Maserati 8CTF.
Since the Museum features over 100 years of Indy cars, it is easy to trace their evolution, from a high center gravity and tall tires to today’s low and sleek cars. The main entrance features a large trophy with the faces of Indy 500 winners on the side. In the early years, both driver and riding mechanic are included on it.
One of the unique things about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum is that you can experience the reason for the Museum onsite. There are multiple races throughout the year, but even if there is no race going on, if you are a motorsports fan, there is bound to be something you’ll enjoy. After visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was down to Kentucky’s green hills to the National Corvette Museum, which is the subject of my next blog. You can check out the Speedway’s official website here: indianapolismotorspeedway.com. You can also visit the Museum’s website here: https://indyracingmuseum.org/.