I wish the speedway had copyrighted the words making the 500 the only race that could use it. NASCAR tracks appear to want people to believe that it originated with them.
We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 88 days to go, IMS Historian Donald Davidson explains another cherished Indy 500 tradition.
More Donald Davidson: Why Indy is a 500-miler | Why it’s 33 cars | More 100 days blogs
While this famous command sounds for all the world as if it would have been intoned from the very earliest days by Carl Fisher holding a megaphone, it apparently was not uttered until either 1949 or maybe 1950, and then almost as an afterthought rather than a planned and much-anticipated feature of the pre-race ceremonies. The beginnings of this ritual are rather clouded and, as with several other traditions, it appears to have evolved, rather than been created.
All the way from the beginning, the signal to start the engines had been the latest in a morning-long succession of aerial bombs exploding at various intervals. The sound of the starting bomb had apparently been the only signal until perhaps the late 1940s, when it is understood to have been accompanied by the visual gesture of flagman Seth Klein holding up a green flag and then twirling it, still furled, above his head. In 1948, a friend of track president Wilbur Shaw’s named John “Irish” Horan had come onto the public-address system staff.
A longtime showman who had once been a circus barker and had recently formed a traveling auto thrill show, Horan was approached by a number of participants who had been feeling for quite some time that this most dramatic of moments at which the engines were fired really “needed something.” Irish Horan agreed with them. Although he may have complied as early as 1950, he is credited for the first time in Floyd Clymer’s Indianapolis 500 Yearbook in 1951 with having made an announcement over the public address, believed to have been little more than “opening the mike” upon the sounding of the bomb and uttering quietly and almost as an afterthought, “Gentlemen, start your motors.” Whether he actually said “motors” or was misquoted and really said “engines,” he definitely said something.
In 1952, a command definitely was delivered, but it clearly was not yet an established tradition because one version states the final word as being “engines,” while another records it as “motors.” It is further believed that it was still announcer Horan who said it. The first time that the term, “Gentlemen, start your engines” appeared in print on the race morning “countdown” schedule was in 1953, and while the claim in Wilbur Shaw’s memoirs is that he had said it every year since 1946, it appears that he did not do so until 1953. While the assumption could easily be that perhaps Shaw may have decided that he should be making the announcement himself at that point, an insider once suggested that Shaw, Horan and longtime track publicist Al Bloemker used to play cards regularly throughout the winter, and that they probably agreed among themselves that Shaw should take it over. Shaw definitely issued the command in 1953 and ’54, with Tony Hulman assuming the duties and making it his own in 1955 after Shaw had perished in a private-plane crash on Oct. 30, 1954.