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The Making of a Landmark: The Early Designs of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

This weekend is a bit busy in Indianapolis with the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 kicking off on Sunday, May 26. The home of the race since 1909 is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (or "IMS"), a 2.5 mile oval track located on the west side of Indianapolis in the town of Speedway.

The IMS was completed in 1909 and hosted a variety of small motorcycle and car races before undergoing various upgrades in 1910. In 1911, the first 500 mile race was held, and, aside from some intervening world wars, the race has been held every year since. In that time, the track and the IMS facilities have undergone numerous upgrades, although the oval footprint of the track has remained the same. In 2000, the oval was modified with the construction of a road course on the interior of the oval, meant to cater to Formula One racing. While the Formula One came, it did not last long and the road course has since been modified on a few occasions to host motorcycle races, and IndyCar road races.

While the IMS oval is now an iconic part of Indianapolis, the original designs for the track were far from this simplistic. An early design included a spaghetti bowel of track on the interior of the oval:

Indianapolis News, January 19, 1909

The above image appeared in a Indianapolis News article detailing the commencement of the construction of the future IMS. At the time, clearing of the ground, formerly a farm owned by John Pressley, had just begun and actual construction was to begin by February 15, with an ambitious completion date of May 1909. The above plan would have allowed use of the oval by itself, or for the racers to branch off onto the infield course. North is to the left in this image, with turn one being on the bottom right, and the site of the future Pagoda can be seen just before entering turn one. However, here it is labeled "Judges Stand." You can view the full clipping of this article here. The article also mentions that the IMS was to illuminated so that 24 hour events could be held on the track. While there were some experiments with lighting the track, the results were not ideal and the plans were abandoned. 

The outside oval and the infield course was to make a 5 mile race course. However, by May 1909, plans had changed, and the Indianapolis News reported that some of the infield track had been removed and the course simplified. The change was at least partially attributable to the need to have space for grandstands in the interior of the oval, and by this time, the outside oval was nearly completed.

Indianapolis News, May 22, 1909

An aerial artists rendition of this plan is available in the Indiana Historical Society image archives:

Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

The IMS opened for its first races June of 1909, although the racing vehicles were hot air balloons. In August, the track hosted its first automobile and motorcycle racing, but only in the oval, which had been completed, while the infield course was not.

Over the next several years the oval course was the focus of racing, and the in-field track was not completed. However, the dream was still alive. In October of 1915, the IMS's director of publicity, Fred Wellman, unveiled a plan to revamp the IMS with new features, including improved parking and grandstands, a new scoring system, and a new, yet strangely familiar, track plan:

The Indianapolis News even inset Mr. Wellman's photo into the diagram of his plan. The News was also quite effusive with these new plans for the IMS, stating that the designed was "[d]eveloped with great conservatism, it yet bristles with radial and striking innovation, It virtually combines in one track all the advantages of speedway, road and dirt track racing minus their defects and locate them so they are visible in their entirety from a tremendous sweep of grandstands." The "Wellman Method" of track construction was to be quite innovative.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wellman's time in Indianapolis was limited. In January 1916, the Indianapolis News reported that Wellman had been hired by the Cheltenham Advertising Agency of New York to take a position in Detroit as advertising manager for the Olds Motor Works. This, and the cessation of racing at the IMS due to World War I, meant Mr. Wellman's plans faded and the well known oval we see today remained the main course for racing at the IMS.

Additional References

Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Birthplace of Speed,, accessed May 23, 2019

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