The Little 500 will celebrate its 70th running on Saturday night, May 26, at Indiana’s Anderson Speedway.
The event has often been dubbed “The Greatest Short Track Race in the World,” and for good reason. The Little 500 is unlike any other race in the world. It features sprint cars racing for 500 laps on a high-banked quarter-mile asphalt track. It starts 33 cars in 11 rows of three and requires two “hot” pit stops.
In addition, Anderson Speedway is only 45 miles from Indianapolis, giving fans the chance to also attend the Indianapolis 500 the following day.
Sun Valley Speedway, as Anderson Speedway was originally known, opened for business in 1948. The Central Indiana track boasted two nights of weekly racing, featuring AAA midgets and track roadsters of the Mutual Racing Ass’n. The track, which has 18-degree banking, hosted large crowds during its inaugural season.
Track owner Joe Helpling envisioned a unique event modeled after the Indianapolis 500. Helpling was confident the event would be a fan-favorite and he planned to stage it on Memorial Day weekend. The only problem was getting a sanctioning body to buy into his idea.
Helpling originally thought he would contact AAA and run the event as a midget race. He quickly decided against contacting AAA because he wasn’t convinced the organization would be interested. In addition, Helpling and AAA were at odds over lineup procedures. Helpling had insisted on numerous occasions that he wanted inverted feature lineups, while AAA preferred straight-up starts. Helpling eventually presented the idea to the Mutual Racing Ass’n to run the race as a 500-lap roadster event.
A meeting between Helpling and Mutual officials was held at the Anderson Hotel in early 1949.
Helpling explained details of that meeting to Mike Clayton in a 1973 interview. “I invited all the officials, drivers and car owners,” he said. “We also had the radio and newspaper people and a big dinner. I had a big 4-by-8-foot plywood sheet covered with paper so you couldn’t see what was on it. I stood that out there in front of everybody. I said, when I get ready I’m gonna tear the paper off this board and you’ll see what’s on it. Don’t say anything. Just read what it says for the next two minutes. Keep repeating what it says. After that we’ll start talking.”
The sign read: FIRST ANNUAL LITTLE 500 — STARTING 33 CARS 500 LAPS TO GO.
“Well, they wanted to change it to 200, 250 or 300 laps,” Helpling said. “They said it would cost $800 for tires and no cars would finish. Then we’ll run bicycles, I said, ’cause were gonna have a Little 500 and that’s the way it’s gonna be. I’m giving Mutual the first chance. Do you want it or not”?
MRA eventually agreed to sanction the inaugural Little 500, which was scheduled for Friday night of Memorial Day weekend — May 27, 1949. This was one night earlier than today’s traditional Saturday before the Indy 500 date. The initial response was overwhelming and additional seating had to be added to accommodate the estimated 6,000 spectators.
Around-the-clock construction of the additional seating wasn’t completed until the day of the event. Ticket buyers came from 22 states, Canada and Mexico.
The first Little 500 Roaring Roadster Classic, as it was advertised featured qualifying under the lights and an exhibition of refueling and tire changing, which was uncommon with the roadsters. The race paid a hefty purse — $5,000 or 40 percent of the gate receipt.
Many feared tires wouldn’t last, so a handful of teams double capped their tires. Tom Cherry all but had the race won when a tire began coming apart. With four laps to go, his tire started flapping wildly and he was black flagged, handing the inaugural Little 500 victory to Sam Skinner.
The race was a resounding success, probably even beyond Helpling’s most optimistic predictions. Twenty-four cars were running at the finish and five drivers went the distance without pitting, including race winner Skinner. The success of the first Little 500 meant the race would continue.