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Hebenstreit: Here's to Another 100 Years

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IBA-hebenstreitIt is May, this is Indy; how can I fail to comment on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. One hundred years—that is a very long time. This year is the Centennial running of the Indy 500. It has been a fascinating run since the first race on May 30, 1911. William Howard Taft was serving as the President, World War I was still 3 years away, and the automobile was a new and strange contraption. William A. Pickens was serving as the 36th president of the Indianapolis Bar Association. I wonder if he had the opportunity to write a column every other week.

In 1911, Carl Fisher and his group decided to use their raceway in northwestern Indianapolis to host a record breaking event. Although Fisher is frequently described as both an eccentric as well as a visionary, I suspect he had no idea what a tradition he was starting. That inaugural race was not without controversy, and for 100 years there has been a dispute about who really won that race. Just as motor racing was brand new, so was the method of scoring and counting laps. Author Charles Leerhsen has just published a new book detailing the problems with that first running of the Indy 500. Until his death, Ralph Mulford claimed that he and his Lozier car had beaten Ray Harroun and his Marmon Wasp to be the first winner of the Indianapolis 500. Mulford claimed to have been a lap ahead of Harroun due to a pass he performed during a crash scenario. Apparently, knowing the scoring devices were flawed, Fisher decreed that all the records of the race be destroyed before they could be reviewed by the AAA who sanctioned the race. Sounds like a classic case of spoliation of the evidence!

As I am writing this column, it is a rainy Sunday, the second day the track has been open this year. Like many soggy race days, the weathermen are looking for that “window of opportunity” to allow cars to get out on the Brickyard to practice and especially for the rookies to get much needed time on the track. In this age of domed stadiums, the weather is still a major factor. Let’s hope that on Sunday, May 29th, the sun will be shining as Jim Nabors sings “Back Home Again in Indiana” and as AJ Foyt leads the group of 33 drivers to the green flag.

It seems that there has been a greater buzz about the Race this year. I hope that is a good sign for the Hulman George family and the racing community. With the revitalization of Main Street in Speedway as well as the arrival of Dallara to the area, the neighborhood around the World’s Most Famous Oval is looking up. Whoever thought up the idea of a Hot Wheels event at the World’s Greatest Race Course should be either commended or shot. Every guy who ever played with a Hot Wheels racer as a child is curious to see exactly how that event will turn out. Just a new twist to the real show—the Centennial running of the Indy 500.

For how many years did we hear Tom Carnegie announce the ecstasy that one of the daredevil drivers had just earned “a new track record” or the agony of defeat hearing that “Mario is slowing down…” How many race mornings have you awakened to hear that the Coke lot is almost full and that 16th street is at a standstill? What about all of those Styrofoam cooler toting race fans making their way to the old Snakepit. Ah, the old days.

Although we enjoyed those crazy days in the infield, I, for one, appreciate the substantial effort and expense the Hulman George family has devoted to elevating our Race into a first class international event. The 80 or so acres in the shadow of downtown are immaculately maintained. The economic impact to our City of that one day is almost twice that expected by hosting the Super Bowl. And let’s not forget that they don’t ask for City money to maintain the course. Since 1945 when Tony Holman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it has been a constantly improving venue. Our city owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the family for making our city the Motor Sports Capital of the World. I hope it continues for another 100 years.•

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