O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass


STANFORD, Ind. — It was easily one of the biggest parties of the year.

From the moment that the sun began to emerge over the Eastern edge of the city on the first day of 2011, the focus of hundreds of Hoosiers was the celebration of the 100 years of the Indianapolis 500. There were parades, ceremonies, lunches and banquets, speeches, fireworks, and of course one of the most memorable races in history.

The Centennial anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 celebrated an accomplishment of such enormity that it can cannot be overemphasized.

“Indianapolis, May 30 – In the greatest automobile race ever run so far in the history of the industry, the Marmon entry No. 32 won the 500-mile International Sweepstakes to-day from the greatest field that ever faced a starter. The car was driven by Ray Harroun, whose retirement from automobile racing has been periodically announced. The Marmon led for more than 300 miles, but at no time was far in advance of its rivals.”

Thus began the report of the first Indy 500 by the respected industry periodical, The Automobile. Motorsports was still in its infancy in 1911. Although several events had already been conducted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the cars shared billing with motorcycles and hot air balloons.

And while there was an emphasis on speed, the 6 hour and 42 minute event was designed to be a test of stamina and endurance in order to highlight the various automobile manufacturers. From this origin, the Memorial Day Classic grew into a tradition with a stature that is only shared with a handful of other events, such as the Masters and the Kentucky Derby.

The first 500 took place about ten years after Ransom Olds began assembly line production of passenger automobiles, and three years before Henry Ford began his historic assembly line. Times were simpler back then. Entertainment and recreation were found within the neighborhood, and most frequently no far from the front porch. The telephone was being introduced in the cities and farms, and the country’s first commercial radio station was still about a decade away.

The country was mostly rural with the largest populations centered in large cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago. Roads were still very poor, mostly dirt. For trips of some distance, there were very few services and certainly no highways. Much travel was by train, and with its central location, Indianapolis saw 150 trains carrying 30,000 passengers, arriving and departing each day. The city also had one of the best-established electric trolley systems.

The purpose of this description is to demonstrate how much life evolved during this century. Clearly there has been more change in the past 100 years, than at any other time. The changes are momentous, almost unfathomable, when considering the way that the lives of average people have been altered. The period has been marked by new inventions and the birth and growth of technology at an undreamed-of rate.

From radio, to television, digital technology, computers, the internet and now more and more wireless. One of the biggest areas of growth has been that of leisure and recreation activities. As technology advanced, the reach of our options for relaxation grew. Today, it isn’t unusual to have hundreds of different leisure activities to choose from, all within several hours of travel time in an air conditioned car.

Still, hundreds of thousands will converge on Indianapolis for the Memorial Day classic this May 27th, and millions around the world will watch it on television. It is a rite of spring for a large percentage of the fans, and as they return year after year families will return to the same seats that they have been sitting in for generations.

That the Indianapolis 500 has prospered for so many years and through so many changes, is a hugely momentous accomplishment. There were many points where it could have all slipped away, where the race could have become a dusty entry in an encyclopedia under the heading of past sporting events. The stewardship of the event has been meticulous. From Carl Fisher, to Eddie Rickenbacker, to Wilbur Shaw and the Hulman family, each has fulfilled the critical responsibility and not only kept it alive, but built it better and better.

When the 33 cars parade around the Speedway before the start of this year’s race, it will be clear that the event remains as rich and vibrant today as at any time in the previous century. Now, with the historic celebration complete, it’s best to look ahead to an even greater challenge.

Can the Speedway do it again? Will there be a 200-year celebration in 2111? I hope so, but I can’t even start to imagine what that will be like.

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