Jim Smith: A look back on IMS’ past

We are nearing the end of the year 2020 and all the social ramifications of the pandemic and overall effect on all ofour lives. It is also marks the end of the 2020 racing seasonand the upheaval that was caused by the corona virus. It is a time for reflection on what might have been and a time to review the history of the most iconic racing facility in the world and the largest one day sporting event on earth.

  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has survived two world wars, the great depression, financial considerations and this year the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the Speedway was incorporated in 1909 there has always been the need for cubic dollars because of the sheer size of the facility. There was no racing during the two world wars and the depression had a huge financial impact that could have closed the doors, but the Speedway survived those three historical threats to its existence. 

 There were two other less publicized threats to the Speedway, one by the Indiana State Legislature and another by the original owner and creator of the Speedway, Carl Fisher. 

Besides the original four partners who incorporated the Speedway on February 8, 1909 the have been only three other owners of the Speedway.

 The second owner was World War I flying ace and famous race driver, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker. He obtained the necessary financial support to buy the Speedway on August 15, 1927 thus ending Carl Fishers search for a competent individual to continue operating the Speedway as it was first intended. Rickenbacker became president and continued to operate the Speedway until World War IIwhen he locked the gates to the grounds.

  The third was Anton Hulman Jr. the head of Hulman & Co. at Terre Haute, Indiana. Three time Indy 500 winner, Wilbur Shaw was asked to do a durability test of a tire forthe Firestone company at the Speedway. He immediately was confronted by how dilapidated the Speedway had become and he was concerned about its future. He visited Rickenbacker who had no desire to invest a lot of moneythat was required to reopen the Speedway. He preferred to sell the track and was looking for a buyer.

  After Shaw spent several weeks searching for financing and VJ day was only hours away when an Indianapolis investment broker named Homer Cochrane suggested he approach Tony Hulman with his ideas. Shaw met with Hulman and several of Hulman’s associates and theyagreed that purchasing the Speedway was an excellent business opportunity. The papers were signed on November 14, 1945 in a private room of the Indianapolis Athletic Club. Shaw became the president and general manager of the Speedway.

  Roger Penske became the fourth owner on November 4, 2019 when he purchased the Speedway from the Hulman George Family. As the Speedway ownership changed hands there were no thoughts of the coming pandemic with the result of not only postponing the Indianapolis 500, but running it for the first time in history with no fans in attendance. 

  No one knows what will happen in 2021, but the racing fraternity has full confidence that Penske will handle the extremely important and difficult decisions that will affect the Speedway’s future. With that said let’s discuss two less publicized threat to the Speedway and the Memorial Day classic.

  The first came from the Indiana State Legislature led by a man named Perry Faulkner who convinced the IndianaLegislature to pass the Robert L. Moorhead Memorial Day bill. The bill was an attempt to make the 500 mile race and all commercialized sports illegal on May 30th. The bill passed both houses of the Indiana Legislature, but was vetoed three days later by then governor Warren McCray. The senate then upheld the veto by a vote of 33 to 5.

  The threat of selling the land for other purposes besides racing was made by Carl Fisher himself. He was concerned about spending approximately $ 200,000 to refurbish the Speedway along with less interest in racing being shown by some of the automobile manufactures. With his attention now focused on the development of the Miami Beach area his involvement with the Speedway was no longer his prime interest.

  On the day after the 1923 race he let it be known that he would accept any reasonable offer for his interest in the Speedway. If no offer was made and if the auto industry had no interest in using the Speedway for proving grounds,then he would sell the land for other purposes.

  He now considered the 500 mile race, as a sporting event, of secondary importance and deserved no serious consideration now.

  Henry Ford and other auto industry leaders quickly stepped up their support of the Speedway. Many accessory companies joined them and the future of racing at the Speedway was assured. 

  Fisher eventually turned over all future responsibilities to Jim Allison and Pop Meyer. He turned the Speedway presidency over to Jim Allison and remained a director on the board of directors.

We look forward to the 2021 racing season knowing that the Speedway is now in the capable hands of Roger Penske and his management team. The racing community knows that they will always consider what is best for the Speedway and its loyal fans.

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