INDIANAPOLIS — Ninety years ago, Carl Fisher opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a gas-filled balloon race. He wanted to hold a car race to promote the growing automotive industry, but the facility on the northwest fringe of Indiana's capital city was cluttered by uncompleted construction work.
Today, Tony George will celebrate the track's 90th birthday with the 83rd Indianapolis 500 on the original 2.5-mile square-oval, and once again the infield is more like a construction site.
More than 350,000 fans are expected, annually the largest single-day collection of sports fans in the world. Nearly 20 million fans have attended the last 82 runnings.
Work on a Formula One course, which next year will be the Speedway's first non-oval auto race since the balloons went aloft in 1909, is underway at a feverish pace.
About the only thing unaffected by the emergence of a 2.61-mile road course (and 36 pitside garages for F1 teams) is the pavement on the old oval, where 33 cars, led by pole-sitter Arie Luyendyk, will take off this morning for 500 miles of high-speed racing.
Also left intact is the 36-inch "Yard of Bricks" at the start-finish line, the only remaining bricks from the track laid in time for the first Indianapolis 500--then known as International Sweepstakes--on May 30, 1911. Many of the original 3.2 million bricks remain in place, beneath the current asphalt surface.
One 1911 driver described the brick track as "clean and smooth as a model housewife's floor."
Ray Harroun came out of retirement to drive a Marmon Wasp to victory at 74.602 mph and set the stage for what became the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." He started from the 28th position, and only Louie Meyer, in 1936, started that far back and won.
Luyendyk is reversing Harroun's path. Instead of coming out of retirement, the 45-year-old former road racer is entering into retirement as soon as the 500 miles are over.
"It might be asking too much to go out with a win, but truthfully I think we're capable of it," he said. "The car has been running great ever since we got here, and I know I have an outstanding crew, so all we can do is wait and see what happens."
If Luyendyk wins, he will join Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford as three-time winners. Only A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears have won four.
Four rookies--John Hollansworth Jr., Jaret Schroeder, Robby McGehee and Wim Eyckmans--will start today's race, bringing to 658 the number of drivers who have appeared at least once. Six rookies have won, the last being Graham Hill in 1966.
Fifty-eight drivers have been victorious, and if anyone other than Luyendyk, Buddy Lazier or defending champion Eddie Cheever wins, the number will grow to 59.
The 33 cars in today's field have the narrowest margin ever between fastest and slowest in four-lap qualifying times. From Luyendyk to Eyckmans, the 33rd slowest, the margin is 3.695 seconds, or 5.078 mph.
By contrast, the difference in 1912 for one lap was 11.96 mph.
This year's race also contains the most educated field in history. Twenty-two of the 33 drivers attended college. Cheever speaks four languages, Luyendyk, a native of the Netherlands, three. Hideshi Matsuda, a graduate of Ryukoku University in Japan, is ordained as a Buddhist priest. Jack Miller is a practicing dentist.
It wasn't too many years ago that a college graduate in the field was as rare as a stock car on the hallowed Indianapolis track.
From 1909 to 1994, only open-wheel, open-cockpit cars were permitted on the track, and for one race only--the Indianapolis 500. The only years there was no racing was when the nation was involved in World War I and World War II.
The track came close to being plowed under after deteriorating during World War II, but Tony Hulman purchased the facility from Eddie Rickenbacker in 1945 for $750,000 and immediately set out to replace the wooden grandstands with a steel structure.
Its most visible landmark was the old pagoda, built in 1912. It burned down in 1916, was rebuilt and burned down again in 1925. Rebuilt again in 1926, it survived until 1957 when a master race control tower was built.
A fifth version of the pagoda is undergoing construction and is expected to be in place for next year's Indianapolis 500. It will be 200 feet high and contain 55,315 square feet.
The first blow to tradition occurred in 1994 when NASCAR Winston Cup stock cars competed in the first Brickyard 400. It was won by Jeff Gordon, who lived in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., while driving as a teenager.
"The mystique, the tradition, the hallowed atmosphere of Indianapolis Motor Speedway just went out the window," said Bobby Rahal, who won the 500 in 1986.
George also changed the complexion at the Speedway when he introduced his own racing series, the Indy Racing League, which led to the exclusion of most American Indy car favorites, such as Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Rahal, Paul Tracy and Robby Gordon, who chose to remain with CART and its FedEx champ car series.