A tale of mystery, mayhem: the birth of the Indy 500 

A tale of mystery, mayhem: the birth of the Indy 500 

In 1911, on the eve of the first-ever Indianapolis 500 stock car race, the Indianapolis Star wrote, “The stranger who visits Indianapolis may well imagine that the city is wrapped in the throes of speed mania.” According to Charles Leerhsen’s 2011 book, Blood And Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem And The Birth Of The Indy 500, that bizarre, disputed first race marked the start of a torrid romance between America and the high-speed automobile.

A century later, on the eve of the 101st anniversary of that first race (and the 96th Indy 500), the Indianapolis landscape looks a little different, to put it mildly. The A.V. Club talked to Leerhsen about the racing industry’s sensual tango between danger and mass appeal, last year’s dramatic finish-line upset, and the future of the Indianapolis 500 as it barrels into its second century.

The A.V. Club: In Blood And Smoke, you wrote that in 1911, “America’s famous love affair with the automobile was just beginning—and yet it’s true that the relationship had reached an awkward and tender juncture.” Today, 101 years later, in what stage of the relationship is that love affair?

Charles Leerhsen: Well, with IndyCar it’s a little bit hard to say. The Indy 500 had once been the dominant car race in America, but something happened along the way, where NASCAR—which has been around since the ’50s, maybe the late ’40s even—has become dominant. The IndyCar has suffered, and it still has the Indianapolis 500. But of course there’s still this weird phenomenon where, on that one day, it gets three, four, five hundred thousand people—they never tell you how many, they keep it a secret—but the weeks leading up to it and following it on the circuit are nothing like that. No one can quite explain it. The president of the track 20 years ago said, “No one understands why the Indy 500 is the race it is, but it’s a delicate thing and we’d better not mess too much with it. We’ll keep its status the way it is.”

AVC: So maybe the love affair’s cooled down a little bit. Are America and IndyCar like that couple that have lost the passion but never forget their anniversary?

CL: Yeah. I think people pay less attention to the sport—whether it’s gonna be Helio Castroneves that’s gonna win, or something else is gonna happen on the track, that’s greatly overshadowed by the Woodstock-ness of it all. Of showing up and drinking beer and sliding around in the mud and wearing a T-shirt, celebrating America in that way. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve called the race a “holy moment in American sport, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way of the Indy 500 retaining that title of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing: NASCAR and Formula 1 are looming presences, fewer and fewer American drivers are winning the race, and IndyCar may have taken a big commercial hit when Danica Patrick left for NASCAR. What needs to happen for it to restore itself to the height of its glory?

CL: Well, one thing is this: The talent is more likely to flow into NASCAR now than it is IndyCar, because of the popularity and the money-making opportunities—people gravitate toward NASCAR and sort of seed the ground for the foreigners.

Back in 1911, at the race that I wrote about, they wrote the rules about the size of the cars in a way that effectively eliminated the foreigners—part of that was supposed to be a way to show that America was the greatest car-racing country. But then they promptly wrote the rules in a way that eliminated the foreigners because they eliminated the larger cars those guys drove, so they were kind of afraid of them right from the start. European drivers have been a force in racing since the very beginning. The car itself, as much as you could say it comes from anyplace—it doesn’t have a clear-cut, well-defined history—but, as much as you could say it comes from anyplace, you could say it comes from France. So there’s a long tradition there. It’s not like we invented this stuff here in America and they picked up on it, as with, say, basketball. They’ve been the leaders from the start. It’s hard to say. It’s kind of a catch-22. You have to get some great Americans doing it, and then the younger guys get drawn into it, I guess.

AVC: Speaking of which, last year’s winner, Dan Wheldon—a Brit—was killed last year in a crash. You wrote in Blood And Smoke about Americans’ “morbid preference for crashes over clean races” in the early years. Last fall’s tragedy with Wheldon, though, seems to have cast a somber sort of pallor over the start of the IndyCar season. Has the audience changed? Has the culture changed?

CL: It’s true. Things have changed in 101 years. A hundred years ago, organized sports—including auto racing—were something brand-new. People were kind of figuring out what the deal was, how to act, what was supposed to happen, both on the track or the field and in the stands. There was a lot of rudeness, and a lot of fighting, and a lot of overdoing it, back a hundred years ago. Teddy Roosevelt had to step in and make laws so that football players wouldn’t kill each other, and cars were so unsafe and unregulated that guys were dying all the time. And people back then didn’t want to see people dying, but, on the other hand, the possibility— that titillating possibility of it—made everything more exciting. That, to some degree, still exists now, I think. I don’t think anyone wants to see anyone get killed, but they’re probably happy to see a crash figure into the narrative now.

AVC: So, it’s more the danger that’s attractive than the actual crashes?

CL: Yeah. And I don’t know if anyone actually wanted to see death back then, but, whether they wanted to or not, they were seeing it. The cars were so unsafe: The guys didn’t wear helmets; they were sitting so high up. The car, the whole thing, a hundred years ago, had the speed thing down—they went well over 100 mph. But they didn’t have the brakes thing down. So, they couldn’t stop, there were no windshields; you couldn’t see ahead of you. The dust and the smoke, and the cars would be stalled out or incapacitated on the track, and guys would just whack into them at 90 mph because they couldn’t see them until the very last second. And meanwhile, people from the stands could be looking at it perpendicularly and could see the whole thing happen. Guys would go flying out of the cars. A hundred years ago, it was more like a Civil War battle—before the race started, you knew probably someone was going to die in a big race like the Indy 500. And in the very first one, when only one person did, that was considered a huge accomplishment!

AVC: Sounds like it was more of a war of attrition back then, and now it’s more of a race.

CL: The IndyCar being an esoteric machine and not a street machine at all, that’s what people are grappling with, and why its popularity overall—apart from that one day—was a ritual where you went as a kid, and now you’re bringing your own kids. And that whole idea, the sport of it—its purpose is a little bit up for grabs, as to why we’re doing it.

AVC: The Indy 500 is a little less wild than it used to be. In the 1970s, it was this raunchy, boozy sort of daylong party, while today it’s much less so. Have you found the character of race day itself has evolved over the years, or does it kind of move in cycles?

CL: From what I understand, it has changed. Then again, sports in general have changed: If someone at a baseball game or a football game stands up and gets rowdy, past a certain point they’re gonna be surrounded by guys with walkie-talkies and be ushered out of the park. There are spotters all over the place, and it’s a much more secure situation, and drinking is controlled a little more and monitored where it didn’t used to be. So I think that’s probably the same thing going on there.

Also, one of the problems they’re facing at the Indy 500 is similar to horse racing, in that it’s become mostly a nostalgia thing. So you’ve got these Baby Boomers who are kind of carrying the flag still, and those guys are getting to be 60, 70 years old—so they’re not taking off their shirts and sliding in the infield. [Laughs.] Thank goodness.

AVC: Last year’s finish was a dramatic one. It was about to be the most romantic, patriotic, happy ending ever: J.R. Hildebrand, this American rookie wonder child sponsored by the National Guard, was about to win—but then, after a mishap at the last turn, he didn’t. Is last year’s race the hardest act to follow in recent sports history?

CL: Well, no. I think we get too excited about the possibilities. You don’t want to overthink it, I think—an exciting Indy is bad, because then the next year can’t possibly live up to it. I think that proved that the race itself, not just the day, could be something worth getting excited about. And it was neat; what happened a few weeks later, with the tragedy, showed that when things go beyond a certain point, but that involved a little danger, a little irregularity out there. It was exciting, and if anything, it might get people a little stoked for this year. They have to get to a point, though, where people care about the sport of it. You know, care about the standings, care about the storyline of who’s going to win. “Can he win again?” “Can this guy win his third race?” Those kinds of questions.

When things get to the point where they’re just a ritual and just an annual ritual, then that’s sort of a dangerous position to be in—that’s the beginning of the end. That’s when the leading edge of those Baby Boomer guys start dying off or getting too old to go, then you’re going to start seeing a decline in attendance. Right now it’s all about attendance and not about a healthy sport.

AVC: What are your predictions for the next 100 years of IndyCar?

CL: Oh, boy. [Laughs.] You know, I think the next few years will be crucial to see if they can make this transition, as they lose the Baby Boomers and see if they can keep that up. The Times just ran a story about how young people’s love affair with the car is ending; or there are signs of it. And that’s a dangerous thing, too. Right now, the most likely scenario is severe decline, unfortunately. But I’m not unwise enough to think there’s some other factor that can’t happen to turn things around. One thing we are seeing a hundred years out, or 101 years out, from the rise of organized sports, is that not every sport is going to live forever. I’m a huge horse-racing fan, but there’s a sport that used to be the No. 1 sport in America 100 years ago. So was boxing; that was No. 2, probably. Now those are all in serious eclipse, for various reasons. They’re sort of boutique sports now, where you can come see the show for a while before they go completely out of business. Whereas other sports are still on the rise—still growing, still a matter of managing. Hockey, stuff like that. We’re seeing that sports have life cycles, and they don’t necessarily live forever. That’s a sobering thought for the people at Indy, I think.

AVC: In Blood And Smoke, you wrote that Americans at the time of the first Indy 500 in 1911 were “poised on the edge of a historic domestic decision” to plunge into the motor age—Americans were “trying to decide whether to convert the old stable into a garage,” and the latest technology was being tested and demonstrated on the race track. The technology fueling cars is changing again these days. Do you think the emergence of alternative fuel and hybrid engines will continue to affect auto racing?

CL: The Indy cars already run on ethanol, and it used to be that the Indy 500 a hundred years ago was showing people what was state of the art. The latest technology was being tested on the track, and it was allegedly stock-car racing; you could go into town and buy one of those cars from the showroom. But then, at the time of the first race, they were actually already cheating and modifying cars! The car that won was nothing like you could buy anyplace. They just sort of ignored that rule, and then those cars got more and more esoteric and went off on one angle like that. Then we had the NASCAR cars to show us what was possible, but then they became very esoteric and strange and arcane and unlike what we found on the streets. Maybe there needs to be a type of car racing yet to be invented that would take it back down and make the real rule, “Make it something you could buy in the showroom.” And it would show people what’s possible.

But I think people are not just interested in raw speed anymore—the world has changed. A century ago, there were very few women drivers. I think it’s true that there’s this macho, testosterone-y thing where they’re interested in speed, but there were fewer women drivers for a lot of reasons. One reason was that you had to crank up the car, and it was physically very arduous to crank up a car. Women were just not as physically big and strong as men, and it was so hard to crank up a car that that eliminated a lot of women right there. They used to break their arms cranking up cars, men and women. So with half of today’s drivers on the road being women, that interest in raw speed isn’t there so much, and instead we worry about fuel economy and strapping in car seats and playing video games in the back seat. [Laughs.] So those aren’t things that really dovetail with racing. “Reliability” is a boring word, but it was a huge issue a hundred years ago. Those cars used to break down every 20 miles! And something would go wrong, like blown tires—those things aren’t really the problem anymore. Maybe if there became a contest to see how far you could go on a tank of gas or something? I don’t know. Not very exciting, though.

AVC: Do you have any favorite storylines in racing these days?

CL: I do kinda miss Danica Patrick. But while I’m the world’s foremost authority on one obscure race that happened a hundred years ago, probably, I don’t really know that much about Indy today. But it’s amazing that this takes place in the very same venue that it did 101 years ago. It was a big hit right from the start. It was huge, right from the beginning. No one knows how many people exactly, but it looks like the best guess is about 90,000 people attended that first race—which, 100 years ago, was a huge thing. Major League Baseball games were only getting about 1,500 or 2,000 people for an average game. Even the World Series wasn’t selling out. It was building, but there was no tradition of selling out. It was also very hard to get from one place to the other: The roads were bad, and you could only go so far with a horse and whatnot. So to get 90,000 people was a huge accomplishment.

And this is the 100th anniversary of the second Indy 500—a race that, in terms of the race itself, was a lot more interesting! We had Ralph DePalma break down after leading almost the whole race—he breaks down, and then he gets out and pushes his car over the finish line. The story of the first race wasn’t comprehensible, because nobody knew who was ahead, nobody knew who was second or third. And the race track guys effectively declared one guy the winner, who happened to be a good friend of the owner of the track, and happened to be an Indianapolis car manufacturer, just by some “strange coincidence.” They declared this guy the winner, and everybody kind of went along with it and thought that was great, but the second year had a really dramatic storyline and a great picture that went out. This is the race, the 100th anniversary of this race in 1912, that was actually the race that kind of made the Indy 500 what it is.

AVC: What are your plans this year for Memorial Day weekend? Where will you be on the day of the race?

CL: [Laughs.] You know, the Indy 500 people were lukewarm towards me. I wrote a book that said the results of their first race probably weren’t right, and that the guy they said won, there’s no way of knowing that he won. There’s no way of saying anyone won that race. So they were kind of lukewarm towards me, and didn’t give me a warm welcome. They gave me a lukewarm welcome when I was there, and helped me put out my book in a lukewarm kind of way. They were ticked off about the things I said. So I don’t think I’m gonna get invited back, and I probably won’t make my way out to Indiana. But I’ll certainly be watching on television.

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