Why the Indy 500 isn’t the Indy 341 or the 24 hours of Indy

Published On February 20, 2016 » 3498 Views» By Donald Davidson » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 99 days to go, IMS Historian Donald Davidson explains the origin of 500 miles.

After the less-than-successful seasons of 1909 and 1910, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway management team decided for 1911 to try one major event paying a huge purse. After exploring all kinds of possibilities, including a 24-hour race, it was agreed upon that a single contest should be held which would require the amount of time previously allotted to a full day of racing events, specifically starting at 10 a.m. and attempting to be over by sometime in the late afternoon or early evening. With a goal of something running in the seven-to-eight-hour range, somebody determined that approximately 500 miles could be run in that time.

IMS founding fathers Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler, Carl Fisher and Jim Allison are credited with putting the 500 in the Indy 500. And, by extension, the 500 in Daytona 500 and countless other "500"s.

IMS founding fathers Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler, Carl Fisher and Jim Allison are credited with putting the 500 in the Indy 500 — and, by extension, could be credited for the 500 in Daytona 500 and countless other “500”s.

Precisely who made that determination was never recorded, but the four founding partners – Carl Fisher, Jim Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby – all were in accordance. Because all major road races of the time were for varying distances according to the lengths of the individual laps over county roads and so forth – i.e., a total of 341 miles, or 277 miles, etc. – and all oval-track races were for considerably less distances, it is believed that the Indianapolis 500 was the first race anywhere in the world that was scheduled for precisely 500 miles.


About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.

One of the things I miss about the Indy 500 is how long it took to run. These days, it's not much more than any other sporting event (in terms of how long it takes).

I can do the math that higher speeds and a consistent distance results in. Several people have called for eliminating the wings so the cars have to actually brake for the turns, which, in my opinion as well as those who are making that call, would make for better racing. If you're flat-out for the entire lap, it's no longer a test of skill and stamina, just nerve.