7:26pm

Sat May 28, 2011
Author Interviews

The Indy 500: Born Out Of 'Blood And Smoke'

On May 30, 1911, a literal multitude swarmed into Indiana with all the subtlety of the eighth plague of Egypt. Dozens jammed into hotel rooms. Those who couldn't fit slept in hallways and on the streets. The Indianapolis Sun described the horde as "speed-lust kings and queens, trimmed in gold and perfumed with gasoline and lubricating oil."

On that day, the Indianapolis 500 was born. This weekend, the race celebrates its centennial, and the speed-lust kings and queens are still there, now in even greater numbers.

Indianapolis attracted 90,000 for the inaugural race. Today, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can hold around 400,000 for the race, making it the largest sporting venue in the world.

But 100 years ago, says Charles Leerhsen, the author of Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500, the race was the first of its kind.

"It was kind of the first time in the history of organized sports that you had that kind of Super Bowl feeling where a town turned itself upside down fro a sporting event and people were wondering at that," Leerhsen tells Weekend Edition Sunday's Liane Hansen.

At the time, the world speed record in an automobile was 141 miles per hour, says Leerhsen. "The average speed of the race turned out to be closer to 75 miles per hour. But the key thing to remember about early auto racing is that the manufacturers had the speed thing down before they had the brakes thing down. And it was a wild period because you could go very fast but stopping, as my friend Jackie Mason likes to say, that's up to you."

That speed, and the absence of precedent, were elements of what drew so many fans to the first Indy 500. But for the race's founders, the 1911 race wasn't a sure thing.

"It was kind of an attempt by the promoters to salvage a faltering speedway. The speedway had been open for two years before that and they'd presented a program of car races. No one knew what auto racing was; they were figuring out as they went along,"

At first, Leerhsen says, organizers stuck to what they and the crowds knew. "They did it on the horse racing model. You saw 8 or 10 races and they were all relatively short and the same cars would come back out on the track two or three times and it was kind of boring to people," he says. "Carl Fischer, the founding president, got the idea to have one long, crazy race. It was the longest ever on a track except for a couple of novelty marathon 24-hour races. And one thing that was attractive about it was that the longest race meant that it was also the most dangerous race ever accomplished."

The thrill that came with that risk was certainly part of the appeal.

"As I say in the book," Leerhsen says, "it wasn't so much death that people wanted to see but they wanted to hang around in its titillating possibility. And in those days when there was a car accident in a race the crowd would run out on the track and the race would continue. And there would be men and women out there, they would be ripping off buttons and epaulets from the bodies as souvenirs and the cars would swerve around them. People hadn't quite figured out how to act at sporting events yet."

It wasn't just the fans. The drivers — in open cockpits without windshields — sometimes threw things at each other.

"They were very competitive. And I have accounts that I found, this one guy who was accused of throwing monkey wrenches at his fellow drivers as they came up alongside him, and he said, 'Nah, those cost too much money. I throw nuts and bolts. I keep them in a bucket here.' And of course that could kill you," Leerhsen says.

According to the author, among the cars at the 1911 race were a number of brands still around today: Mercedes, Fiat and Buick, to name a few. Other makes included Marmon, Knox and Amplex. Looking at photos of these cars today (even keeping in mind the relatively slow speeds they could attain) the apparent danger to the driver is immediately magnified.

Leerhsen describes the cars as looking like soap-box derby cars, "the cars in the Little Rascals movies."

"The driver sat way high up in the seat. And he had no seatbelt and no windshield. That hadn't been perfected yet," he says. "No hard helmet and no roll bar. And tires were in a very primitive state, so tires would explode. The cars would frequently turn over and the first thing that would hit the ground was the driver's head. It was an insane occupation.

"There were two types of drivers in those days. One was the rich kids, the Ivy League kids who were eventually going to go on to a life in their father's bank or brokerage, and they wanted to sew their wild oats before they did that. And the other group was a kind of sad group of farm kids and blue-collar guys who just were looking for a way to escape the farm or the factory and they were willing to risk their lives to do this."

Leerhsen says that for most early automobile races, the young men would face death for a tiny purse. But at the first Indy 500, there was real money to be made.

"The total prize was $25,000 and the winner got $10,000," Leerhsen says. "And that got people very excited. The idea of people risking their lives in a car race for money — we kind of have to put ourselves back in that era when sports was a new thing and what wasn't done before, that you would get a substantial amount of money for playing a game or being in a car race. It made everyone kind of giddy and it felt kind of depraved in a way."

The drivers knew there was a possibility that not all who started the race would end it. The night before the race, Leerhsen says, they would pool money for wives who were made widows the next day.

"Only one man died in the first Indy 500 and about six others were hospitalized and that was considered a huge success and sort of a Disney movie version" of racing during the era, Leerhsen says. "It was a very hazardous activity to participate in."

After all the preparation, the gamble by the promoters, the tens of thousands of fans, the possibility of death and — let's not forget — 500 miles of actual driving in cars that look like soap-box derby racers, complete with crashes and blown tires, the winner of the first Indianapolis 500 should be one of those names that lives on in history, one of the undisputed icons of 20th century sport. Except, well, there's some dispute over who actually won.

"The speedway will tell you one thing. A man named Ray Harroun is down in the record books," Leerhsen says. "He drove a Marmon 'Wasp' and he was declared the official winner."

This last October, Harroun's car was lined up with 32 others belonging to prominent race winners. But the controversy persists. Another driver, Ralph Mulford, insisted until his death in 1973 that he had actually won. For an event of this size, even in the early days of racing, the promoters must have known the result would have been crucial. How could they have botched it?

"The problem was that the track didn't have the technology to keep track of 40 cars over a race that would be six hours and 42 minutes long," Leerhsen says.

The confusion piled up.

"At about 10 minutes [into] the race no one could say any more who really was first, second or third," Leerhsen says. "And then at about 200 miles there was an accident. A car spun out, got near the judges' stand, and all the judges ran for their lives. And for somewhere between 10 minutes and an hour — accounts vary — no one was officially keeping tabs on the race. So it was chaos and insanity and in the end the trophy was thrust into the hands of a guy who happened to be driving a car that just happened to be made in Indianapolis and made by a guy who was a good buddy of the president of the track."

Call it speed without brakes. Maybe, after all the madness of the opening race, that's the only way it could have ended.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.