Indianapolis 500 – Innovation Since 1911

Posted by Catalyst on April 19, 2016 in Blog

carl fisherIn the fall of 1908, Carl Fisher bought an Indianapolis farm northwest of the city where he sought to build a proving ground for innovation -A place where automotive reliability, speed, and strength could be tested. Often referred to as “The Brickyard”, a name given from the 1909 surfacing project including 3.2 million street paving bricks covering the track, the speedway quickly became an integral part of racing tradition. A century later, the Hulman family continue Fisher’s dream, and today, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway remains the largest spectator sporting facility in the world with enough room to fit Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, Churchill Downs, The coliseum in Rome, and Vatican city combined, within its grounds.
This year will mark the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. For over 100 years the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been at the epicenter of automotive innovation. Here’s a look at some of the simple advances sparked by the quest for speed and innovation at the Brickyard.

Rearview Mirror

In 1911 at the inaugural Indianapolis 500, Driver Ray Harroun entered the only single-seater automobile, a stinger-tailed Marmon Wasp. While Harroun road solo, all the other drivers had a “mechanic” riding along with the them, which was common during this era. The other drivers complained that without a mechanic beside him,
Harroun would be blind to racers closing in from behind, and thus be a danger to all. His solution: a rectangular mirror mounted to the cowl on four steel dowels. Harroun won the race, and by the mid-teens the device—marketed as a “mirrorscope” or “cop-spotter”—was a popular aftermarket accessory. Incidentally, Harroun’s mirror was an initial bust as it vibrated so fiercely during the race he couldn’t see anything. However, the concept still remains in effect today in passenger vehicles around the world.

barney oldfield


Fatalities during the early years of the Indianapolis 500 were typically the result of drivers being ejected from their vehicles. In 1922 Barney Oldfield, being thoughtful of the peril involved in such an experience, ordered a harness from a parachute manufacturer, which he then fitted to his vehicle. His instincts and ingenuity coined him as the first driver to use a seat belt. Unfortunately, Automakers resisted early implementation of the device until Nash Motors began offering factory installed seat belts in 1949. By 1964 this feature became standard practice in nearly all vehicles.

front wheel drive

Front-Wheel Drive

After winning the 500 in 1922, driver Jimmy Murphy thought he could improve his lap times if he were pulled, rather than pushed, through the turns. Along with legendary engineer Harry Miller, he designed a transverse-mounted transmission, eliminated a drive shaft, as well as heavy rear differential. As a result, he was able to remove 150 pounds from the car’s weight and improve the speed of his vehicle. In addition to this triumph, his design also enabled the driver to sit on the floor pan, ultimately lowering the center of gravity and improving stability of the vehicle. Unfortunately, Murphy died in a wreck in 1924 before being able to test out his new concept. However, driver Dave Lewis was able to pilot the car into second place at the 1925 running of the Indianapolis 500. This innovation had a domino effect, prompting other teams and automakers to adopt what is now the standard for passenger vehicles.

Since the inaugural 500 there have been many other attempts by designers, mechanics, and even drivers to innovate, gain advantage, and win the Indianapolis 500. While not all of these ideas have become as common place and universal as the rear view mirror, innovation and technological advancement has been, and remains, a fundamental part of the Speedway. The vision set forth by Carl Fisher, this continuous strive for innovation, is what created and continues the legacy of the Indy 500 — the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

In honor of the 100th running of the Indy 500, Catalyst is giving away tickets and passes to visit the Speedway during: The Indianapolis Grand Prix, Carb Day, Practice Days, and the Indy 500. 

The deadline for entering your submissions is Friday April 29th, 2016 at Midnight.