The First Practice Days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway


The first practice days for race cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were wild and weird. The track, by force of will - mostly that of the lead founder, Carl Fisher - was literally raised in just five months from fallow cornfields to a two and one-half mile oval of white crushed limestone running surface that literally gleamed under the sun of August 1909.
Forty-one pristine white with green trim buildings had sprouted up, surrounded by immaculate landscaping dominated by verdant grass sod. The place was aesthetically modeled after the great horse racing facilities of the era - such as Churchill Downs due south in Kentucky.
Yes, to the uneducated eye, the facility was a wonder. As the saying goes, however, appearances can be deceiving. The crushed stone that glistened under Old Sol was only loosely held in place by a coating of tar, referred to as, "asphaltum gum."
Drivers and mechanics offered more discerning eyes. After walking on the surface and studying it, they expressed concern. That consternation turned to flat-out fretting when the "scorchers" took to the track in their big machines.
The stones were loose and sharp, diminishing traction and tearing at tires in an age when rubber durability was suspect. Although practice went smoothly, the danger was apparent and Speedway management did their best to show optimism despite grave concerns.
Their angst was palpable as laborers toiled around the clock, crushing and raking stones. Amazingly, they struck at the stones to crush them to smaller, smoother sizes even as the drivers practiced. Like a highway crew at work today, they erected barriers and signs to warn approaching cars that men were at work. Narrow lanes were defined by makeshift barriers and the speeding racers steered clear of the people in harm's way.
The wonder of the Speedway was recognized as downtown hotels filled to capacity. A touring party of over 100 cars streamed in from Chicago. Stoddard-Dayton also organized a caravan of some 25 cars as well as commissioning a special train of Pullman passenger rail cars used not just for transportation from Ohio, but also as sleeping quarters in Indianapolis.
The weekend would prove to be a brutal display of carnage that would aggravate state lawmakers to label the sport barbaric and call for its termination. Stoddard-Dayton endured the first loss when one of their employees, Cliff Literall, was killed in a traffic accident near Fisher's downtown automobile business.
At the track, the hot shoes were Len Zengal of Chadwick, Johnny Aitken of National, Herb Lytle of Apperson and Barney Oldfield in his privately entered National, sporting red and white stripes on its cowling and dubbed, "Old Glory."
In this image we find a sackcloth-hooded pioneer aviator William Heina testing the "monster" Lozier. The atmosphere was electric and the gladiators of the Heroic Age plummeted headlong into one of the most deadly weekends of American racing history.
It was sensational. It was amazing. Lucky you, because you can soak it all in at First Super Speedway.