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THE START OF THE FIRST INDIANAPOLIS 500-MILE RACE IS NATURALLY VIEWED as the beginning of a new era in American sport, and it certainly was, in a way, but in spirit the era began with the 30 or so days of thrills and anticipation that preceded the start rather than with the six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds of chaos that followed in its wake. Because of the timing-and-scoring system, the progress and outcome of the race were problematic. The first "rolling start" ever attempted in an automobile race, on the other hand, was simply the most spectacular thing that anyone who was there to witness it had ever seen. "I remember that the excitement and the tension of that 40-car start was almost unbearable even to a spectator," Waldo Wadsworth Gower, an eyewitness, who was 13 at the time, wrote in a 1959 letter.
It was "Crazy" Carl Fisher, the president of the speedway, in a cocked hat leading eight rows of five cars each—no previous race at the speedway had ever had more than 21 starters—around the 2.5-mile track. The entries (most of them red but two yellow-and-black, several gleaming white, a few bright green and one vermilion) were aligned in rakishly ragged formation, champing at the 40-miles-an-hour prerace speed limit, billowing smoke, kicking up a monsoon of dust and creating such a cacophony that one columnist wondered in all seriousness if the roar could be heard on the moon.
For the month leading up to the race, Indianapolis had been, wrote the famous driver Barney Oldfield in a nationally syndicated column, "race mad." The newspapers, Oldfield went on, "have forgotten Madero and Díaz [key figures in the then-ongoing Mexican Revolution] ... [and] the youngsters are yelling out only what is new in Speedway happenings."
Two years before, the town had come alive in anticipation of the speedway's first car races, but this was success on a fiercer, almost force-of-nature scale. Said The New York Times, "This is the first time that Indianapolis has been overtaxed." The leading press-clipping service of the day predicted, a few weeks out from the event, that the race would ultimately generate more coverage than the Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries bout in Reno the year before—and that "fight of the century" had been by a wide margin the most written-about sports event in history.
The Indianapolis Sun's description of the visitors drawn by the 500 hype makes them sound like the swells who later turned up for Ali-Frazier fights: "Speed-lust kings and queens, trimmed in gold and perfumed with gasoline and lubricating oil, gowned in sables and rare gems, smoking black cigars and dainty cigarets [sic], sipping the amber nectar, laughing at nothing and ribald with the joy of living."
The Claypool Hotel and the Denison (about 700 rooms combined) had been sold out for race week since New Year's Day, and many respectable people were sleeping under trees in public parks or on side streets or alongside strangers on cots set up in the hallways of private homes or in the public rooms of hotels. COTS IN EVERY NOOK, read one headline.
What made all this especially strange was that attendance had been steadily dwindling at the speedway, which for two years had been presenting programs, over several days, based on a horse racing model of "sprints" and "routes." Switching from multiday competition to one long race seemed to make a dramatic difference, transforming a struggling sports venue into a motor sports mecca in one stroke. Why would this be?
It is to Carl Fisher's continuing credit that he didn't just change the frequency and distance of the events, he changed the terms: Instead of being about prestige or an eight-foot-tall trophy, winning was suddenly all about money. It would be difficult to overstate the impressiveness of the International Sweepstakes's $25,000 purse, from which the winner would realize $10,000 plus another possible $10,000 or $15,000 in "manufacturers' prizes," put up by sponsors for cars that used their tires, brakes, magnetos and shock absorbers. Mere cash seemed too vulgar a manifestation; payouts would be made, the speedway announced, in the form of "solid gold bars."
In 1911, apart from a few small fortunes purportedly paid to certain prizefighters, there was little precedent for heaping life-changing amounts of money upon sports stars. The owners of the thoroughbred colt Meridian earned about $4,850 for winning that year's Kentucky Derby, and Ty Cobb, thought to be the highest-paid major league baseball player, made $10,000 a year, or about 13 times the salary of the average American worker. Today the Derby is worth more than $1.4 million to the winner, and the average baseball salary ($3.3 million) is about 80 times the average worker's. True, the sweepstakes's purse would be divvied among the first 10 finishers, and in many cases subdivided again among driver, riding mechanic and carmaker, but even so the figure was impressive, and the idea of men risking their lives in public for money—or anything other than honor or country—made everyone feel giddy and grand.