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How the Indy 500 Came About

Sunday, the annual Indianapolis 500 race will be held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The speedway is celebrating its "centennial era" from 2009-2011, so this race is not officially referred to as "the 94th", even though that is the number of the event. Some races were skipped during wartime. The three-race, two-year celebration commemorates the opening of the speedway in 1909 and the first 500-mile race in 1911.

With a seating capacity of 257,325 people, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest stadium in the world. In its 100-year history, only Brooklands in England was ever bigger (and it closed in 1939). Germany tried to build a bigger stadium for Nazi party rallies, but the construction of the 400,000-seat Deutsches Stadion was interrupted by World War II and it was never completed. The chariot racing venue Circus Maximus in ancient Rome could hold as many people, but hasn't been used in quite a long time. Image by Rick Dikeman.

Carl G. Fisher caught the first wave of the automobile industry. He owned a bicycle shop, but went on to open what many consider the first automobile dealership in the US. He and his partners bought 328 acres to open a vehicle testing facility near Indianapolis. Fisher is pictured second from the right; Henry Ford is on the left.

The 2.5 mile track was first paved with crushed stone and tar. This proved to be a mistake as soon as racing began.

The first day of car races at the new speedway in August 1909 ended with two deaths during one five-mile race. By the end of the weekend, one driver, two mechanics, and two spectators were killed. Fisher had to replace the crushed stone surface to make the track safer, so 3.2 million paving bricks were installed. The speedway therefore earned the nickname "the Brickyard". A few of these stones are still on the track.

The Indy 500 was born to accommodate the spectators. Fisher and his partners calculated the maximum amount of time people would be willing to spend at the track to arrive at the 500 standard. They figured seven hours would be the most they could ask for, and that meant 500 miles at the speeds of the day. The first 500-mile race held at Indianapolis was on Memorial Day in 1911. It was officially called the "International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race", a name kept until 1919.  Forty cars participated in the race. Thirteen laps in, a multi-car pileup occurred, and for a time no one was keeping track of who was ahead! The eventual runner-up Ralph Mulford crossed the finish line first, according to some accounts, but was directed to take three "safety laps" to ensure he completed the requisite 500 miles. In the confusion of the race, little attention was paid to the number of laps each car completed in what order.

The declared winner of that first 500-mile race was Ray Harroun, driving a car he designed, the 6-cylinder Marmon Wasp. His car engendered even more controversy, as Harroun drove without a passenger. Yes, race car drivers at the time normally had a mechanic with them, to monitor the vehicle performance and keep tabs on the other drivers.  But Harroun, a 29-year-old automotive designer, used a newfangled gadget he invented called a "rear view mirror", and his car didn't even have a passenger seat!

Speedway founder Carl Fisher went on to other big projects. He spurred the construction of America's first transcontinental road, the Lincoln Highway, in order to bring people to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. The road was dedicated in 1913. Fisher then turned his attention to building the Dixie Highway from Indianapolis to Florida. But why would anyone want to go to Florida? Fisher worked to make the state a tourist destination by buying swampland and developing it into Miami Beach. Fisher sold his share of the Indianapolis track to Captain Eddie Rickenbacker in 1927.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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