Photos from the First Indy 500 in 1911

Magnificent panoramas of the first running, part of the Bretzman Collection at the Indiana Historical Society, capture the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a century ago.
If officials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are correct, an estimated 350,000 fans will attend this year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. And if the Pew Research Center is to be believed, 64 percent of Americans now carry smartphones with cameras. That means as many as 224,000 spectators will have the ability to capture photographic images of the historic race. If each of those fans snaps just five—a conservative estimate—it adds up to more than 1 million photos. That’s almost as many pictures as there are Kim Kardashian selfies!

This wasn’t always the case, of course. Relatively few photographers shot the action at the first Indianapolis 500, on May 30, 1911. One of these was Charles Bretzman. Born in Hanover, Germany, in 1866, Bretzman emigrated to the United States at the age of 19. He settled first in New York, where he found work in a photo studio. He then traveled the country, eventually landing in Chicago in 1894. Six years later, Bretzman moved to Indianapolis, where he opened his own photo business and worked as a staff photographer for three city newspapers. According to Bretzman’s granddaughter, Margaret Dexter, Bretzman “ranked with the best of the best.”

As the first official photographer of the Indianapolis 500, Bretzman captured several black-and-white photographs of the first running of the event. (Incidentally, Bretzman also photographed IMS co-founder Carl G. Fisher and dozens of other local luminaries.) Thanks to the Indiana Historical Society, four of these images—gigantic panoramas, largest measuring nearly five feet across—can now be viewed online in digital form, part of the Bretzman Collection.

The first of these images depicts a bird’s-eye view of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day from what appears to be Turn 1, with the grandstands, infield garages, aerodrome, parking area, and surrounding countryside visible.

The second image features the starting lineup—which, for that first race, consisted of 40 rather than 33 cars—on the main stretch, flanked by a grandstand on the left and the pits on the right. Also shown: Two spectator structures that predate the famed IMS pagoda. Notice the lack of protective fencing (!).

In the third image, a sampling of the 80,000-plus spectators take in the action from the fourth turn, some in the north grandstands and others from their own vehicles. Some race fans in the north infield, showcased in the fourth image, appear somewhat more debauched—particularly the gentleman to the right of the rutted roadway who appears to be unconscious.

These magnificent images offer more than a fascinating glimpse into our past. They also reveal the talent of a photographer who might otherwise have been lost to history. “He ranked with the best of the best,” says his granddaughter, Margaret Dexter. “I’m just thrilled that they’re being unearthed and given their due.”

Photos in this article have been resized and cropped. To see full images, follow the links above.