A live weekly radio adventure through Indiana history with host Nelson Price. Airs live on Saturdays from noon to 1 pm ET at WICR 88.7 fm in Indianapolis.
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New show podcasts are up and available for listening!February 25, 2023 -First cookbook published in Indiana and food fashions of 1840s and ‘50s. Click here for the podcast
April 08, 2023
Construction of the Speedway in 1909 and pre-Indy 500 races
As we varoom toward racing festivities, Hoosier History Live will shift into reverse gear for an exploration of the rapid construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909. We also will spotlight early auto races at the Speedway that year, including some tragedies that preceded the successful inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
It took Speedway founder Carl Fisher and his partners about three years to acquire the property for the racetrack, according to our guest. Then, several factors resulted in a rush to get the Speedway built quickly. Beginning in March 1909, construction involved a total of 500 laborers and 300 mules.
Nelson's guest will be Mark Dill, an acclaimed historian of early auto racing and the creator of FirstSuperSpeedway.com, an extensive online archive about pre-1920 auto racing. An Indy native and former vice president for marketing and public relations at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mark is based in Cary, N.C., and is the author of books about the early era of auto racing, including The Legend of the First Super Speedway: The Battle for the Soul of American Auto Racing.
The first serious discussion about building a large Speedway occurred between entrepreneur Carl Fisher and his partners during an event in November 1905 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, according to Mark. He describes Fisher (1874-1939) as a "massive risk taker".
By all accounts, the initial auto races in 1909 at the racetrack (initially built of crushed stone) were a disaster. Multiple races on one weekend resulted, Mark notes, in five fatalities; one driver, two riding mechanics and two spectators were killed.
The tragedies outraged Indiana's lieutenant governor, Frank Hall, who urged the legislature to ban auto racing in the state. But the popular governor, Thomas R. Marshall, and business leaders defended the Speedway. Fisher and his partners funded a second major construction project to remove the crushed stone, replacing it by paving the racetrack with bricks. Before the paving project was even completed, 'The Brickyard' nickname for the racetrack had been coined, Mark Dill notes.
Mark has been a guest on previous Hoosier History Live shows about early auto racing. They include a show in 2016 about Hoosiers who competed in early Indy 500s and a follow-up two years later focusing on the international aspects of early Indy 500s.
International interest in auto racing apparently existed from the earliest years. According to Mark, the opening in 1907 of an oval race track in England was a factor in the push by Carl Fisher to complete the construction of the Speedway quickly. "He was competitive and hated any perception that anyone beat him at anything."
Fisher and his partners also wanted to recover their initial investment of more than $700,000 as quickly as possible, Mark says. In addition to the 500 laborers and 300 mules involved in the construction of the Speedway in 1909, several steam-powered excavators and rollers were used.
Some other history notes:
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Roadtrip: Marengo Cave in Crawford County
Guest Roadtripper Jeff Kamm, author and a teacher at Plainfield Community School Corporation, suggests a visit to the southern part of Indiana to visit Marengo Cave in Crawford County. The National Natural Landmark has been a destination for tourists since the late 1800's. The privately owned attraction is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and offers two guided tours.
Jeff tells us that caverns were not discovered until 1883. Although several versions of the cave's discovery are shared among locals, it is agreed that area children were the first humans to enter the underground wonderland. News quickly spread and the cave has been popular ever since.
The present ownership group has been the steward of this natural wonder since 1973. Marengo Cave's formations include stalagmites, stalactites, flower stone, cave popcorn, and soda straws. Aside from the cave, visitors may enjoy pedal cars, a giant maze, putt-putt golf, gemstone mining, and multiple shops. Visitors may camp on site or stay in a cabin.
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