IMS Museum: Memory Lane

In November, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum temporarily closed its doors in preparation for an $89 million renovation that will bring the expansive collection and exhibit space up to speed. Fritz Frommeyer was an IMS new hire when the museum’s first incarnation, located outside of the Turn 1 grandstands, debuted in 1956 (it relocated to its current spot in 1976). For the next six runnings of the Indianapolis 500, Frommeyer worked in the track’s publicity department as the original museum came to life, witnessing both the beginning and the end of an era. Here is his trackside report.
The author with one of the first cars on display at the original 1956 Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. Photo courtesy Fritz Frommeyer

AT 16 YEARS of age and fresh from a day in high school, I walked into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s new administration building at 16th Street and Georgetown Road to start my job in the track’s publicity office. It was February 1956, and nothing could top this for a guy like me who loved the place. The aggressive look and sound of the cars, along with the smell of burning castor oil, created an irresistible seduction to the Speedway.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The offices where I worked were in one wing of the building. The opposite wing was set aside for a new racing museum, a dream of IMS owner Tony Hulman. On that first day, I saw just a single car on the yet-to-open museum’s floor, the Maserati that Wilbur Shaw drove to victory in 1939 and ’40, with images of Irish clay pipes painted on its sides as a tribute to owner Mike Boyle. I was getting in on the ground floor of a new endeavor for the Speedway, and I was at the beginning of a five-year stint during which I would see, hear, and do things a diehard race fan like me could only dream of.

One of the highly coveted silver badges that gave the bearer access to the track’s garage and pit area.
Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Things got down to business right away. My first assignment was to handle news releases announcing entries in the upcoming 500-Mile Race. My boss wrote them, typing skillfully with just two fingers, before they were mailed to more than 1,000 media outlets around the country and beyond. I learned all the production steps as I mimeographed, folded, and stuffed the releases into the envelopes I had earlier addressed and run through a Pitney Bowes postage meter. They went into a large canvas mailbag that was taken to the post office.

I also learned to operate a traditional plug-in switchboard, type W-2 wage reports for race-day employees, master a restaurant-quality Bunn coffee maker that often overflowed, and live in a very adult world where race people and other notables zipped in and out of the offices. Frequent visitors were two-time winner Rodger Ward and his wife Jo, who usually had their small dog in her arms. Meanwhile, I watched the nearly vacant museum on the other side of the building gradually fill with historic race cars, including the bright yellow Marmon Wasp, winner of the first 500 in 1911. Trophies and other artifacts were added, and the attraction quietly opened to the public that spring. Karl Kizer, long active in racing, became the museum’s first curator. I will always remember his striking white Jaguar Mark 2 sedan with chrome wire wheels parked behind the office building.

A 1956 photo of former IMS owner Tony Hulman behind the wheel of the Marmon Wasp housed inside the museum. Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

My biggest project came when the Speedway brought race photography in-house from an outside provider. Boxes of 8-by-10-inch and 4-by-5-inch negatives from the early races to the present arrived, and I was tasked with identifying the people in the pictures by looking at the negatives. I’d show them to others in the office when I got stumped. After finishing the identifications, I created a subject cross file on index cards for easy reference to the collection. An independent production company made a film about each year’s 500, and one year, I was given the responsibility of setting it up and playing it for Mr. Hulman. I had experience running a 16 mm movie projector, but that didn’t help me. As Mr. Hulman and I sat alone in the conference room for the showing, the film slowly unwound into a neat pile on the floor as it played instead of being captured by the take-up reel. If Mr. Hulman noticed, he didn’t say so. He thanked me and left the room when the film was over, and, red-faced, I carefully rewound the undamaged film.

During the racing season, some teams kept their cars in the garages at the Speedway, and I’d often take mail that had been delivered to the front office to them. During one of these trips, the garage was abuzz over a Dart Kart built by Mickey Rupp, brother-in-law of leading car builder and crew chief A.J. Watson. Everyone was taking it for a spin around the garage area. I got a turn, too, but drove carefully on the crushed stone surface. Last thing I wanted to do was crash in front of all those race people.

One of the people in the office took me under his wing and acted as my mentor. In 1960, I told him I’d like to go to Milwaukee for the 200-mile championship race traditionally held at the Wisconsin State Fair Park after the 500. He lined up a ride for me with people he believed would not lead me astray. Some of the people who hung around the track could be a little, well—rambunctious. We traveled to Milwaukee in a station wagon towing a bright yellow race car set to compete on an open trailer. At the wheel was former champion racer Tommy Hinnershitz, a true Pennsylvania Dutchman who spoke with a heavy accent. He was chief mechanic for the car. With us was also an engineer from Allison. Driving along busy highways with the yellow racer in tow, we captured lots of attention. People in other cars waved, shouted, and gestured at us. I’d never been showered with so much attention in my young life.

Among the cars moved into storage to wait out the museum’s renovation was the 1925 second-place finisher and the race’s first front-drive car, a Miller driven by Dave Lewis. Photo courtesy Fritz Frommeyer

Back at the office, when there was an overflow of museum visitors, I was among those who were pressed into giving track tours in one of the museum’s VW Microbuses. No two tours I gave were the same—I ad-libbed my way around the track, often pointing out marks on the walls and explaining who made them. Bricks still paved the main straightaway back then, and our guests bounced along. Sometimes the ride was a little bouncier as I pumped the bus’s accelerator.

The most surprising of my duties came after the race, when I got to help sort the 33 drivers’ prize-money checks from the Speedway and other donors. We placed the checks in pigeonholes that had each driver’s name thumb-tacked above it. Never had so much money passed through my hands! The total purse in 1956 was a whopping $281,952.

After the 1961 race, I graduated from college and went on with my life. The small museum continued to fill with IMS history. In 1976, 15 years after I left, a much larger museum opened inside the track’s second turn to keep up with a growing collection of vehicles and Indy 500–related materials and artifacts. I can’t count the number of times I’ve visited, escorting friends and family through its displays. And for more than 20 years, I wrote about and photographed selected items from its collection for Vintage Motorsport magazine.

A rendering of interactive exhibits projected for the museum renovation. Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Visiting the museum, you can always count on seeing cars that have gone 500 miles to victory at the Speedway, in addition to others that didn’t quite make it but are groundbreaking in their own ways, including the first front-wheel drive and mid-engine creations. I’ve always been struck by the amazing display of trophies won by ace driver Rudolf Caracciola in the pre-war Grand Prix era, the period when Mercedes-Benz’s sleek Silver Arrow cars dominated the racing world. The silver in those bespoke Art Deco trophies is breathtaking. By far, the most colossal thing I’ve ever seen in the museum is Craig Breedlove’s massive land speed record–setting car, the Spirit of America–Sonic I. It totally eclipses the smallest article I remember being on display: the Pennzoil-yellow toothbrush that celebrated Rick Mears’ 1988 Indy 500 victory.

But as of last fall, the museum’s floors have been cleared of cars and exhibitions as work begins on its third iteration, with a complete reimagining of the space to better inform and immerse visitors in the 500 experience. Included will be seven permanent and three rotating galleries, up-close looks at unique and valuable racing memorabilia, and simulators that give the sensation of driving an IndyCar. The project also includes a STEAM classroom to attract students to motorsports careers and an automotive restoration facility for the museum’s 200 or so vehicles. When the museum reopens in April 2025, Wilbur Shaw’s Maserati will be there, making the new surroundings feel to me like it’s 1956 all over again. I can’t wait.

BACK ON TRACK

A rendering of a car exhibit in the renovated museum. Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The museum’s $89 million capital campaign, The Stories Behind the Spectacle, is funding its first significant renovation in nearly 40 years. It is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) not-for-profit separate from IMS, and the museum is responsible for all fundraising and revenue generation. For more information and to donate, visit imsmuseum.org. Call 317-492-6747 to schedule an on-track tour during the museum’s closure.