This story is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s 2016 Indiana Bicentennial coverage, which includes our list of the 200 Hoosier Hall of Fame picks, designated throughout in bold or highlighted. For more on this celebration of the state’s first two centuries, click here.
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In 1945, Tony Hulman, chief of the Terre Haute Clabber Girl baking powder and farina empire, bought the dilapidated IMS for $750,000 and then slowly turned it into the venue for the world’s best-attended single-day sporting event, a.k.a. the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
In 1909, Indianapolis was one of the top four car-producing cities in the country, but our roads—still dirt and gravel—would not enable the new Marmons and Coles to reach top speeds. Enter Greensburg head-lamp mogul Carl Fisher and his partners James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler—let’s call them the Four Fathers of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway —who envisioned a 5-mile (later reduced to 2.5) oval topped with brick upon which test drivers could open up the throttle—and perhaps even race alongside one another.
Front-wheel drive. Four-wheel disc brakes. Lightweight aluminum engine parts. Seatbelts. All things we take for granted in our Motown-made cars, invented by necessity at the Brickyard.
In retrospect, Pennsylvania native and engineer Ray Harroun’s installation of the first known rearview mirror on his Marmon Wasp might be an even greater legacy than his inaugural Indianapolis 500 win.
Mario Andretti probably carries the most recognizable name in auto racing worldwide, and, with success at the highest levels of IndyCar, NASCAR, and Formula One, is arguably the sport’s all-time best. Born in Italy and raised in Nazareth, he built his legend at Indy, where he won in 1969, competed for two decades, and spawned a racing-family dynasty now led by son and team owner Michael, and grandson and driver Marco.
David Letterman: Just your classic tale of a local boy who makes good with a late-night network talk show, then invests the fame and money back home with an IndyCar team, which finally earned a 500 win in 2004.
Not only was the elder Wright brother, Wilbur Wright, born and raised in eastern Indiana, but seven years after he and Orville made history at Kitty Hawk, they were a star attraction at a 1910 aviation meet, where they set an altitude record of 4,938 feet—above the Speedway.
Although these two grew up dreaming that their go-carts were taking Turn 4 at the Indy 500, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon ended up in stock cars, showing that Hoosiers could race alongside (and in front of) the good ol’ boys from below the Mason-Dixon, with a combined eight Cup championships. And when NASCAR finally came to the Brickyard, the pair seemed right at home, snatching seven checkered flags between them.
Fittipaldi. Castroneves. De Ferran. Kanaan. A total of seven Borg-Warner trophies shipped south of the equator.
After building the IMS, Fisher developed Miami Beach from flat sand to an oceanfront resort and proving ground for finely tuned human chassis.
So what if a singer from Alabama owned “Back Home Again in Indiana”? Jim Nabors traveled to Indy to belt it out so many times (42), the lyrics ring true for him. Or at least they once did: He has retired to his home on an Oahu Macadamia-nut plantation.
Here’s the story. Of a girl named Florence Henderson. Who left Dale, Indiana, to become America’s TV mom, and then returned to sing at the 500 every year.
In 2007, three-time 500 champ Helio Castroneves unleashed his Victory Lane smile (as well as some fancy footwork) on an entirely different demographic, winning reality TV’s Dancing with the Stars.
Paul Newman came to the IMS to star in the 1969 film Winning, about a down-on-his-luck driver who triumphs at the 500. Newman left with a racing bug that stayed with him for the rest of his life, both as a driver and car owner. Newman-Haas Racing racked up 107 IndyCar victories—but, alas, none at the Brickyard.
Speedway photos courtesy IMS; Gordon photo courtesy Jeff Gordon