The Indianapolis 500 has a history like no other sporting event in the world. It’s hard to believe any modern day sports competition dates back to the early 1900s, but the Indy 500 does. And it’s that storied history that puts the “great” in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 was held on Memorial Day, May 30th of 1911. And what a spectacle it was.
Before a crowd of 80,000 spectators, the look of the early race fan was considerably formal. Made up of society people clad in their finest silk, satin, linen, and cotton, it was long dresses with veiled hats and gloves for the women. Along with the automobile came long, lightweight coats (or dusters) to repel dirt and debris. Walking suits with above the ankle hemlines were also popular and practical for the time.
Men were clad in three-piece suits with silk shirts, ties, and hats, a look we might call “gangster chic” today.
Even the drivers (who were all male), wore shirts and ties under their racing suits. Their leather helmets and goggles resemble those worn by early pilots.
The initial field was 40 starters. Drivers had a mechanic ride shotgun to check oil pressure and help navigate traffic, with the notable exception of Ray Harroun, who won the inaugural 500 solo in the Marmon Wasp (named for its yellow jacket coloring and tail). In place of a copilot, Harroun had his own invention on board, the first known rear-view mirror.
The 1913 race fielded the first international drivers, including a Frenchman, Jules Goux, who famously won the race while drinking champagne during pit stops. He was the only driver ever do so, as the practice was outlawed the following year.
Also in 1913 came the first sighting of the iconic Pagoda, constructed that year in Japanese architecture, which was very popular at the time. The Pagoda was built to replace two judges’ stands. The famous sight is featured prominently in many photos from this time, but I challenge you to find a single Pagoda selfie from the early 1900’s.
The race was shortened to 300 miles in 1916 and cancelled in 1917-1918 due to World War I.
In 1919, the Indianapolis 500 returned. Just in time to roar into the 1920s.