Strong, stable leadership has been a hallmark of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than 100 years, as only three groups/individuals have owned the facility since it was built in 1909.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in the spring of 1909, the result of a creative vision of Carl G. Fisher and his three partners in the venture, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler.
The track’s original purpose was to serve as a common testing facility for the rapidly growing local automobile industry. With dozens of companies like Marmon, Cole, National, Marion, Overland and American Underslung operating in and around the city limits – Stutz and Duesenberg would come later – Indianapolis had, by 1908, risen to fourth in the country in terms of numbers of automobiles produced. By 1913, it would rank second.
Indiana roads were generally not yet developed, and automotive technology had increased so rapidly that many passenger vehicles had become capable of greater speeds than any dirt road would permit.
Recognizing that something far more substantial was needed for testing purposes, local businessmen Fisher, Allison, Newby, and Wheeler joined forces to build a huge “motor parkway” on which long straightaways and gradual turns would permit any automobile to be stretched to its fullest extent. In addition to private testing, they reasoned, occasional automobile racing events in which the entrants were the manufacturers would give the general public an opportunity to witness competition by stripped-down versions of the same vehicles one could purchase from the showrooms for personal transportation.
The founding partnership was spearheaded by Fisher, a Greensburg, Ind., native who would eventually develop Miami Beach from swamplands into an exotic resort area. Later, he would form the Lincoln Highway Commission, which built the first drivable highway across the United States.
Fisher’s partners in the track project were Newby, head of the prestigious National Motor Vehicle Company; Wheeler, of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor firm; and Allison, who six years later started the operation destined to become the massive Allison Engineering Company.
While IMS was built in 1909, Fisher’s vision of such a facility was outlined to the general public as early as November 1906 in an issue of Motor Age magazine. A detailed letter that he wrote appeared in the magazine, describing the advantages of a circular track of 3 or 5 miles over the traditional 1-mile fairgrounds ovals of the time.
In autumn 1908, Fisher and his friend Lem Trotter drove from Indianapolis to Dayton, Ohio, in an automobile. It was a tough trip, as the rough roads required numerous stops to repair punctured tires. Frustrated, Fisher insisted that his proposed track would help solve the problems of low-quality tires and automobiles.
A day or two later, Trotter and Fisher went for another automobile ride from Indianapolis, this time about 5 miles northwest of the city into the countryside. They arrived at the corner of the Crawfordsville Pike and a little cart track that eventually became Georgetown Road and saw four adjoining 80-acre tracts that were for sale.
The outgoing Fisher then convinced the flamboyant Wheeler and more reserved Allison and Newby to become his partners in the purchase of the land. The land was purchased in December 1908, with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company officially formed March 20, 1909.
Fisher originally wanted the track to be a 5-mile oval, but his plan was modified to feature a 3-mile, rectangular-shaped oval, with a 2-mile road course inside that when linked to the oval would create a 5-mile lap.
New York civil engineer P.T. Andrews, who was hired to oversee the project, said a 3-mile outer track was possible on the available land but that the outside of the straightaways would be so close to the edges of the property that there would be no room for grandstands.
Andrews suggested an outer track of 2.5 miles would fit perfectly. The road course section was abandoned soon after grading began at the site in March 1909, leaving the 2 .5 miles that became the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, The Greatest Race Course In The World.
In 1927, American World War I flying ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his associates purchased the Speedway for $750,000.
The Speedway fell into disrepair from 1942-45 when it was closed during America’s involvement in World War II. But then the most prosperous and longest period of IMS ownership began in 1945.
In this era of mergers, takeovers, buyouts, and bankruptcies, it’s close to an anomaly that the Hulman-George family still owns and operates the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1945.
Until the modern era of major league sports, it was quite common for one person to buy a team, run it for a number of years and then hand control to his or her descendants. But the advent of television and the ensuing tremendous hike in team monetary value as cities across the country and wealthy business people eagerly bid for ownership has reduced the family-run operations to a scant few.
On Nov. 14, 1945, Terre Haute, Ind., businessman Tony Hulman purchased the famed but rundown 2.5-mile racetrack located 5 miles from downtown Indianapolis for $750,000 at the urging of Wilbur Shaw, who won three of the last five Indianapolis 500 Mile Races held there before the U.S. entered World War II. Hulman bought the track from famed Rickenbacker and named Shaw as its president and general manager.
The Speedway remains under family control, with chairman Mari Hulman George, Hulman’s daughter, and her three daughters on the Speedway board. Many of Mari Hulman George’s grandchildren also work in a variety of roles at IMS.
After he purchased the track, Tony Hulman immediately embarked on a massive renovation project of the dilapidated facility, with the track re-opening in time for the 1946 Indianapolis 500.
That legacy of facility improvement has continued under the Hulman-George family’s stewardship. The most ambitious project since the construction of the track in 1909 took place from 1998-2000, when the Pagoda control tower and Pagoda Plaza, pit-side garages and a road course that included portions of the famed oval were built.
Other world-class events also have been added to the facility since the early 1990s NASCAR raced at IMS for the first time in 1994, and the Brickyard 400 quickly became one of the marquee events of stock car racing. Formula One returned to America for the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis from 2000-07, and MotoGP motorcycle racing came to a new, 2.621-mile road course at IMS for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP in 2008-09. It’s a fitting return for bikes, as the very first motorized event at IMS was a motorcycle race in August 1990’s.
NASCAR raced at IMS for the first time in 1994, and the Brickyard 400 quickly became one of the marquee events of stock car racing. Formula One returned to America for the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis from 2000-07, and MotoGP motorcycle racing came to a new, 2.621-mile road course at IMS for the Red Bull IndianapolisGP in2008-09. It’s a fitting return for bikes, as the very first motorized event at IMS was a motorcycle race in August 1909.
FAST FORWARD TO 2019.
On November 4, 2019, a day in which so many spoke of celebration, rejuvenation and 10-year plans, Tony George sat on the fourth floor of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center on the brink of tears. Not all of them sad, but certainly not all of them from excitement.
Monday morning, Hulman & Company, the 170-year-old family business, and the ownership of its most prized possession had reached an end. So it wasn’t surprising to see George force back tears as he spoke of the sale of IMS, the IndyCar series and IMS productions to auto-racing mogul Roger Penske and his Penske Entertainment Corp.
In fact, with what the series and the track had meant to countless hordes of Hoosiers and other race fans since George’s grandfather bought IMS in 1945 – the photo finishes, the pageantry, the generations of mothers and fathers passing down their love of racing to sons and daughters – it would be more surprising if George had remained stoic.
The sale from one landmark company in the world of auto racing to another at an undisclosed price came together in a matter of six weeks, according to George. He waited until the 2019 IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca to reach out to Penske. The IndyCar team owner, who has won 18 Indianapolis 500s since his first entry in 1969, said he’d never dreamed of the prospect until that exchange of emails.
“There’s been discussions over many decades since I’ve been around here,” Penske said. ‘Is the track for sale? Is it not?’ but I’ve been so head-down in the racing part of it that I never thought of being a track owner. It’s always something that maybe was a faraway dream, but it sure is a dream come true today!
So now there is a new owner and a new direction for the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway to chart!
And now you know the rest of the story!
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!