For those of you who are flying geeks, fans of the movie “Airplane!” or those just reading this while waiting out a delay at O’Hare — Happy National Aviation Day! Here on #SpeedRead, we’ll admit that this day wasn’t always circled on our calendar, but with the first Red Bull Air Race a little more than a month away (Oct. 1-2, get your tickets here), our minds are on the skies.
Of course, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is what it is thanks to terrestrial motorsports, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t had some hardcore aviation history, plus nods to airplanes and pilots in our major events. Here’s a Friday Five with some IMS flying mojo.
1. The Racing Capital of the World — for planes. From June 13-18, 1910, IMS hosted the first licensed aviation meet in the U.S., with 35 events featuring pilots trying to set records in altitude, distance and speed. Orville and Wilbur Wright and their team of six planes and expert pilots were the headliners. Orville Wright was the first to take off, and later another of the Wright pilots, Walter Brookins, flew to a world-record altitude of 4,384.5 feet.
2. Hey, isn’t that guy? … The above photo is of one of the planes from that 1910 meet, and the pilot is Ray Harroun. We recall him coming back to IMS in 1911 and having success in some big automobile race.
3. The great Eddie Rickenbacker. How’s this for a life: four-time Indianapolis 500 starter, World War I flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner, air transportation pioneer.
We remember Rickenbacker for those four “500” appearances (from 1912-16 with a high of 10th in 1914) and his time owning IMS (1927-45), but there were fewer bigger names in 20th-century aviation. How much do you think he would have enjoyed the Red Bull Air Race?
Incidentally, the above picture is a cool shot of Indy from yesteryear, in 1937 near the Veterans Memorial Plaza obelisk.
4. Andretti Airways. Airlines have sponsored Indy 500 cars over the years, from Arizona Apache Airlines in 1964 (with Bill Cheesbourg) to Jack Adams Airplanes in 1969 (Jim McElreath) to Northwest Airlines in 1992 (Scott Brayton), just to name three. In 1968, Mario Andretti’s ride was with Overseas National Airways. Alas, it wasn’t a great one — a piston failure after two laps handed Mario the only last-place finish of his “500” career.
5. Speed meeting speed. Chuck Yeager became the first to break the speed of sound in 1947, then decades later the retired Brigadier General in the United States Air Force drove the Pace Car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1986 and 1988. There haven’t been many Pace Car drivers for which the ride was far slower than their day jobs.