Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The early history of
Indianapolis Raceway Park


This article originally appeared in the Classic Racing Times (CRT), and is offered for those who do not subscribe to CRT. The author encourages readers to visit the CRT website at http://www.theclassicracingtimes.com/ and consider subscribing to CRT.

The original plans for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), announced in February 1909, called for an outer 2-mile banked 50-foot wide track and an inner 3-mile road 25-foot wide course which when connected would result in a five-mile course. In March 1909 after the purchase of additional property along Crawfordsville Pike the plans changed to a 2-1/2 mile long oval with an inner 2-1/2 mile long road course.  
This 1911 newspaper drawing shows the
intended IMS layout with infield road course

Construction crews rushed to complete the facility in time for the inaugural racing events, a motorcycle meet on August 13 and 14 followed by the first automobile races held between  August 19 and 21 1909. During those disastrous first races the track surface treated with 235,000 gallons of coal oil mixed with gravel failed badly, and the planned construction of the inner 2-1/2 mile road course was superseded by the necessity to re-surface the oval track with bricks. 

The IMS infield was used as an aircraft repair and training facility during World War One and then in August 1929 the Speedway’s second owner, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker opened a 9-hole infield golf course designed by native Hoosier course architect William Diddel. In the latter 1990’s an infield road course was built at IMS to allow the track to host the 2000 United States Formula One Grand Prix. 

Anton ‘Tony’ Hulman who bought and rehabilitated the once-dilapidated Indianapolis Motor Speedway after World War Two, dreamed of transforming the Speedway into a multi-use racing facility but at that time he viewed that the construction of a road course inside the big oval was not feasible.  Instead Hulman assembled a group to build Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) east of the town of Clermont, a six-mile drive from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Crawfordsville Pike.

IRP’s articles of incorporation were signed at the downtown Indianapolis Athletic Club and filed at noon on November 9 1959. In addition to Hulman, who was the IRP Inc. Chairman, the group was comprised by fourteen businessmen who each invested at least $5,000 up to a maximum of $25,000.

The incorporators included United States Auto Club (USAC) President Thomas Binford who was named IRP’s President, two-time Indianapolis ‘500’ champion Rodger Ward, broadcaster Charlie Brockman as secretary, car owner and promoter extraordinaire J.C. Agajanian, car builder A.J. Watson and New Bremen (Ohio) Speedway owner and promoter Frank Dicke as vice-president.  

The roster of the remaining investors who were all board members was comprised of engineer and USAC official Rhiman Rotz, Connersville physician Dr. Gerald Watterson, Howard Fieber, an Indianapolis insurance executive, construction executive Lee R Ford, former steel executives John H. Holliday and  Charles Harvey Bradley Jr., attorney Robert D Morgan, and James H. Coover.   

The centerpiece of the site located in Lincoln Township in Hendricks County was to be a ½-mile oval track, which the group initially was unsure would be dirt or paved. Other IRP features included a 10,000 seat grandstands, a 4,300-foot drag strip and a 2-1/2 mile road course. In an interview with the Indianapolis Star, Binford explained the plan called for the oval track to be banked a maximum of 12 degrees on the turns and be at least 60 feet wide.  Binford added “that all the most modern safety precautions will be made a part of the plant including super-strong guard rails at least four feet high.”

“We’re not seeking the fastest auto racing track in the United States," Binford emphasized, "Instead, we want to have the safest and most competitive," and said that plans were for an oval with long straightaways and relatively tight turns. "We don’t want them to be able to run flat-out all the way around like they can on some tracks," Binford said "we want a multiple groove race track-we want them to have to accelerate and decelerate so that driving skill will play a greater part."

Binford said that construction would start as soon as zoning clearance was obtained from Hendricks County authorities with the target date for the opening racing program in mid-June of 1960 or July 1 at the latest. However before the $780,000 construction project could begin the group had to settle a lawsuit filed in Hendricks County Superior Court by Alvin and Henryetta Haverkamp owners of a trailer camp on an adjoining 130 acre parcel. On April 8 1960 the Haverkamp suit was withdrawn after IRP officials promised that there would be no night racing.

On April 15 1960 the group closed on the final 140 acres of property and Binford stated in an Indianapolis Star interview  that construction at Raceway Park was due to start in 30 days on the now 5/8-mile flat oval track and the dragstrip. Binford clarified that the new plan was to eventually build grandstands to accommodate 40,000 fans, but to start with a 12,000 seat grandstand and parking for 10,000 spectator cars.

During the winter of 1960-61 IRP Incorporated made flurry of announcements. First, IRP would also promote races at the ½-mile dirt oval New Bremen Speedway with Frank Dicke named to manage both tracks. In November 1960 IRP vice-president Lee Ford signed an agreement with Wally Parks of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) which made IRP the permanent home for the NHRA U.S. Nationals beginning with Labor Day weekend 1961. Finally, Joseph L. Quinn Jr. the IMS Safety Director was named the director of racing and Robert H. Humphrey was named the superintendent of grounds and the drag strip manager.
This is the layout of IRP

Indianapolis Raceway Park’s first event, a Sports Car Club of America Indianapolis regional race, held on Sunday April 17 1961 was less than successful. The sports car racers were greeted by a snowstorm with 40 mile per hour (MPH) winds which delayed the start of racing for four hours while the track crew cleared ice and snow from the course. On the fifth lap of the first 10-lap race of the day, Andrew Barnes flipped his Turner sports car on the main straightaway (the drag strip) but was unhurt.

Two laps later an errant Alfa Romeo racer spun in the pit area and crashed into a parked Corvette. At that point Chief Steward Duke Knowlton called the day’s racing program complete and declared Bill Andrews the winner in his Morgan. Knowlton told reporters "we hated to have to cancel it, but we didn't want to press our luck.  It got so bad the drivers couldn't see in front of them even when it wasn't snowing because the muddy water from other cars was coming up in their faces.”

The new facility scheduled its grand opening known as the “Pre-500 Speed-O-Rama” from May 27 to May 29 1961. Advance advertising promised fans the chance to see “Drivers . . . Champions . . . Record-Breakers!”   

First up on Saturday May 27 were drag races held on the 7000-foot dragstrip with entries that included Ralph and Bob Musick’s “Musicmaker” 290-cubic inch non supercharged dragster which held the NHRA B/Dragster record at 145.16 MPH, as well as Ray Goodman’s 170 MPH supercharged Chrysler- powered ‘Tennessee Boll Weevil,’ and Mickey Thompson’s “Attempt,’ a four-cylinder supercharged Pontiac Tempest-powered dragster. Making a special static appearance was Dr. Nathan Ostich’s “Flying Caduceus,” the world's first jet propelled land speed car. 

The following day, Sunday May 28 the 5/8-mile oval which was still a dirt surface, opened with a United States Auto Club (USAC) 30-lap ‘big car’ race that featured such stars as Elmer George, Leon Clum and Bob Wente racing for a $5700 purse.  A total  of 30 drivers which included Indianapolis 500-mile race starters AJ Foyt, Roger McCluskey and AJ Shepherd signed in for time trials along with such established big car stars as Chuck Hulse, Alvin 'Cotton' Farmer, Johnny White and Rex Easton.

The program nearly spelled disaster for two of the ‘500’ drivers that day. McCluskey a 30-year Indianapolis rookie set quick time in qualifying with a best lap of 27.57 seconds but during the second 8-lap heat race McCluskey lost control in turn three hit the outside wall and the car rolled over twice. Roger escaped with bumps and bruises but the H-O-W #4 car was finished for the day.

On the first lap of the feature AJ Shepherd, scheduled to start 14th in the Memorial Day Classic, crashed the Sterling Plumbing #55 car but escaped injury. Two days later at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Shepherd and McCluskey were both involved in the spectacular six-car chain-reaction crash on the main straightaway that wound up with Jack Turner flipping his roadster high in the air.

A.J. Foyt, whose car carried the number 1 as the 1960 USAC Eastern 'big car' series champion, led 29 laps of the feature and won $819 as he finished ahead of Hulse and Bob Cleberg who drove in place of Jim Hurtubise.

On Monday May 29 the USAC stock car division invaded the IRP 5/8-mile dirt oval for a 90-lap contest. The defending USAC stock car champion, Paul Goldsmith, was on the grounds but not in action as he was qualified for the Indianapolis ‘500.’  

Likewise, ‘500’ starter Bill Cheesbourg chose not to drive his 1959 Ford, and entrusted it to 1956 500-mile race winner Pat Flaherty. USAC stock car regular Don White won $623 as he led 69 laps in his 1961 Ford ahead of Ernie Derr’s 1961 Pontiac. Shortly after the completion “Pre-500 Speed-O-Rama” races, the oval received its now-familiar covering of bituminous asphalt. 

The 15-turn 2-1/2 mile IRP road course hosted its first professional race a month later for the Hoosier Grand Prix USAC Road Racing Championship which was run in twin 100-mile heat races. The entry list included road racers Augie Pabst, Ken Miles, Bob Holbert and Bill Krause as well as such 500-mile race stars as Rodger Ward, Lloyd Ruby, Ebb Rose, Jimmy Daywalt, and Len Sutton.

Ruby who drove Frank Harrison’s Maserati 450S won the first heat over Miles and Pabst, and then Pabst in the Scarab Mark II won the second heat ahead of Ruby and Pabst was declared the Hoosier Grand Prix overall winner based on the lowest elapsed time.

The first few years for IRP Inc. were financially difficult; the company lost $54,000 before depreciation and interest in 1961 followed by a loss of $16,000 in 1962. In 1963, IRP turned the financial corner with a net profit of $46,000 before deductions for depreciation and interest.  

IRP Inc. continued to operate the facility and added appearances by the USAC championship cars and midgets until the facility was sold to the NHRA in 1979.  Under NHRA’s ownership there has been tremendous investment the addition of NASCAR racing and the facility’s annexation by the town of Brownsburg in the facility now known as Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.  


1 comment:

  1. Being the son of a driver of that era (Chuck Hulse, yes I use an assumed name online) I was fortunate to see many of the different tracks USAC raced on back in the day. My dad had just had a most frustrating month of May failing to make the 500. Driving a new Kurtis built roadster KK500J he had the speed to make the field but a "comedy of errors" started on the first day of qualifying which included the magneto falling off the engine getting up to speed, the seat coming loose on his next attempt and getting caught up in an accident not of his own making on the last weekend.
    The month ended up on a bright note as he teamed up with The Morales brothers and drove their McCluskey built, 220 ci Offy powered sprint car called the "Tamale Wagon" to a second place finish behind Foyt, after starting 8th on the dirt at IRP in 1961.
    I was nine at the time and remember Mcklusky's crash and A.J. Sheppard's protest after spinning on the first lap. However, what I remember most, besides my dads impressive run was the dust. Midway through the feature we couldn't see either turn from the starting line.
    Just one of the many memories I have from growing up the son of a USAC race car driver from the 50's and 60's.