Perhaps no racing name is more closely linked with the Indianapolis 500 than Offenhauser. This venerable engine manufacturer was a dominant force at The Brickyard from the early 1930s up until the 1960s. Offenhauser remained a force to be reckoned with until 1983, rounding out a spectacular half-century run as America’s most advanced racing engines.
It all began in the heady days of the Roaring Twenties when investors were more than happy to fund the newest technological breakthroughs. In the field of racing engine design, one name stood out: Fred Offenhauser. Working closely with Harry Miller, Offenhauser introduced an engine that was revolutionary for its time yet quite familiar to us today – a dual overhead cam (DOHC) motor sporting 4 valves per cylinder. Although small in displacement, even for the era, the advanced 4-cylinder engine Offenhauser & Miller introduced in 1930 was deceptively powerful. The first variant of the new engine displaced 151 cubic inches and promptly set a new land speed record of 144.895 mph. Further development of the engine saw displacement increase to 251.92 cubic inches. Using a 15:1 compression ratio, this engine was rated at up to 420 horsepower and was eagerly sought by racing teams of the day.
Offenhauser-powered cars won the Indy 500 a staggering 24 times from 1934 through 1960, including an unparalleled run of 11 consecutive victories from 1950 to 1960 inclusive. Paving the Speedway’s trademark brick track in 1956 was expected to increase average speeds, yet 32 of the top 33 qualifiers featured Offenhauser engines. So dominant was the Offenhauser engine that in 4 races; the 1954, 1955, 1959 & 1960 Indy 500s, EVERY car in the starting lineup had an “Offy” engine! It was this rare feat that sealed Offenhauser’s reputation as America’s premier engine maker, and the name Offenhauser still resonates in the halls of Indy 500 history long after their days of glory have faded.
A racing event with a history as long as the Indy 500 is sure to have spawned more than a few traditions, but the “Milk Drinking” post-race ritual is surely the strangest. It was way back in 1936 that the curious practice of the race winner drinking a bottle of milk first began, and it has continued virtually without interruption ever since.
Picture the Winner’s Circle following the 1936 Indianapolis 500… veteran race driver Louis Meyer has just won his third Indy 500, the first driver to do so. Starting 28th in a thin field of just 33 cars, Meyer won the race after leading for 96 of 200 laps and was one of just 10 drivers still in the race as the checkered flag waved. The 32-year old Meyer had to be exhausted, yet what did he ask for when race organizers offered him something to drink? Milk. Buttermilk, actually, an unlikely thirst-quencher but one Meyer’s mother had always offered him on especially hot days. Meyer lived until the ripe old age of 95, so maybe buttermilk’s restorative properties are more than just an old wives (make that mothers) tale.
In any case, the dairy companies who began sponsoring the Indy 500 and contributed to the race purse had a vested interest in seeing their product share the spotlight in victory lane. Of course, a little financial incentive was needed to encourage reluctant drivers who may have preferred chugging something, anything else after enduring 200 dusty laps at The Brickyard – the current sponsorship by the American Dairy Association has risen to $10,000.
Only one driver disdained the dollars since Meyer established the tradition: Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993. Fittipaldi, Brazilian by birth, owned orange plantations in his home country and made a point of downing a cool glass of OJ to highlight his product.
As millions of auto racing fans shift into high gear for the 91st Indianapolis 500 race on May 27 of 2007, let’s take a moment to reflect back on the humble beginnings of this historic race.
The very first Indy 500 took place a mere 2 years after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 and was the first major race hosted by race promoters led by track owner Carl G. Fisher. The idea of a 500-mile race had crossed Fisher’s mind earlier, but frequent accidents, injuries and several deaths blamed on the race track’s original tar & gravel surface prompted a major overhaul. Approximately 3.2 million bricks were set into the oval track, from which the nickname “The Brickyard” is derived. The inaugural “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race” took place on Memorial Day, May 30 of 1911 in front of over 80,000 race fans who paid a mere $1 each to attend.
The race itself was tremendously exciting, regardless of the fact that speeds were low by modern day standards and most cars carried both a driver AND a riding mechanic who also assisted with navigation. The one car without an on-board mechanic was #32, the Marmon “Wasp” driven by 1910 AAA season champion Ray Harroun who came out of retirement to race in the very first Indy 500. Harroun mounted an innovative new device on his bright yellow racer: a “rear view mirror” that allowed him to dispense with the riding mechanic – and a lot of extra weight. Although the official rules mandated the use of a riding mechanic, Harroun appealed and in a decision that provoked heated controversy was allowed to race solo with his dash-mounted mirror.
Flying over the bricks on Firestone tires, Harroun averaged an astounding (for the era) 74.602 miles per hour over the 500 miles. When the checkered flag was waved, Harroun was declared the first winner of a race that was shortly to become an American tradition. Notably, Harroun never raced again, nor did his yellow “Wasp” which may be viewed today in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
The National Auto Racing Memorabilia Show, known to regular visitors as NARM, has grown from humble beginnings to become a hugely popular annual event. Held in Indianapolis in conjunction with the Indy 500 Weekend, NARM celebrated their 28th anniversary this past May 25 through 28 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Although the show certainly draws visitors from those who come to town to watch the Indianapolis 500, there is also a solid core of auto racing memorabilia collectors for whom NARM holds pride of place on their calendars.
You might be forgiven for wondering just what does a fan of auto racing memorabilia collect, and how do they get what they need? You also might be surprised by just how much racing memorabilia is out there, and by the fact that sellers of racing collectibles make quite a nice living providing race fans with the memorabilia they crave.
Race memorabilia isn’t restricted to actual “raced” memorabilia, such as a windshield wiper off a winning rally car. It could consist of anything remotely connected to auto racing. Programs are a popular choice for new collectors, as they are usually printed in quantity and taken home by attendees after the race is over. Photos also have their following, autographed by drivers or not. Now, you might pay a couple of dollars for a famous racing driver’s photo, but the same photo, signed and with a valid certificate of authenticity might sell for hundreds of dollars or more. In fact, the sky’s the limit when it comes to racing memorabilia. Actual winning racecars have been auctioned off for more than the price of an average house! Most collectors of racing memorabilia who come to NARM, however, have their sights set much more modestly. Dealers at the show provide a wide range of racing collectibles including racing posters and art, tickets and ticket stubs, racing flags and car parts. NARM has been called “the best-kept secret of the Indy 500 weekend festivities”, but let it be said here: the secret is getting out!
In a land where auto racing has almost the status of a religion, the Indianapolis 500 race is perhaps the most exalted. Perhaps this is due to the long and glorious history of the race that extends back in time nearly a century. It was back in the early 1900s that Carl Fisher saw the need for a facility that would allow the day’s new, powerful automobiles to be tested to the limits of their speed and handling. Fisher also thought that an occasional race might be staged between some of the better cars. So it was that the first race at the then new Indianapolis Motor Speedway was held in 1909.
The format of the race was changed to a 500-mile distance in 1911 when Ray Harroun was the winner. The race, known today as the Indy 500, was run nearly every year thereafter at the end of May. Only war could stop the race from being held, as happened in 1917 and 1918, and again from 1941 through 1945. With the end of World War II in 1945, preparations began to be made for the 1946 race. A new owner, Tony Hulman, bought the raceway and the rights to the Indy 500 from former World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker and successfully managed the annual event until his death in 1977.
Tradition is a big part of the Indy 500’s appeal. Although many improvements in safety, accommodations and the track itself have been made over the years, some things (like the end of May race date) remain the same. The famous winner’s trophy, for example, has been awarded to every race winner since 1936 and has the names of every Indy 500 winner engraved upon it.
It’s certain that the Indy 500 will remain number one in the hearts of American auto racing fans and that the cherished “brickyard” will continue to be a place of pilgrimage for lovers of the sport for many years to come.