Festival Queen with the Borg-Warner Trophy at the 52nd Indianapolis 500, May 30, 1968 / Indy50005-68_1096
The Greatest Spectacle in Racing
Say "Indianapolis" and everyone immediately thinks "500." Yes, we’re talking about the greatest spectacle in racing.
The Indianapolis 500-mile race and its venue, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are the grandparents of American races and race tracks. The 2.5-mile rectangular oval was constructed in 1909 and paved with 3.2 million bricks, which prompted the moniker, “The Brickyard.” A three-foot strip of bricks remains today at the start/finish line. The first Indianapolis 500 ran in 1911, and Ray Harroun won, driving a Marmon Wasp on which Harroun installed a rear-view mirror he had designed—the first ever used on an automobile. His average speed for the 500 miles was 74.602 mph. At present, the fastest 500-mile average speed was set by Tony Kanaan in 2013 at 187.433 mph.
As the 500 grew in importance, it soon became America’s most famous auto race and attracted interest globally. Out of the track’s fame, the name "Indy Car” soon was applied to the open-wheel cars that toured the United States (and much later were included in races in Canada and Mexico), but the Indianapolis 500 always has been the biggest, most important event on the calendar: “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
For the 1935 Indy 500, Henry Ford entered a factory team of cars, designed by Harry Miller and powered by modified Ford V-8 engines. This car is one of ten that were built. Miller was the most important American racing designer before World War II. His legacy includes the 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine (for an example, check out the Meskowski-Offenhauser, which you’ll also find in Driven to Win), plus innovation, superb craftsmanship, and artistic touches like the aerodynamic, cast-aluminum suspension arms that could be pieces of sculpture. This car is lower and more streamlined than any other 1935 race car, with four-wheel drive and independent suspension, front and rear—unheard of back then. Unfortunately, the project had insufficient development time, and the car had a flaw that abbreviated testing didn’t reveal until it was too late. The steering box was mounted too close to the exhaust manifold, and eventually the exhaust heat caused the steering to seize up. All the Miller-Ford cars that qualified for the 500 dropped out.
This collection of parts is the remnants of one of the most horrific crashes in Indianapolis 500 history. It reminds us that auto racing, while much safer than it used to be, will always be dangerous. In a melee of cars on the front straight at the start of the 1973 Indy 500, this car, driven by David "Salt" Walther, crashed into the outside wall and flipped into the retaining fence. A fuel tank ruptured and the methanol fuel burst into flames. The front of the car ripped off, and videos show Walther's feet dangling outside. He was badly burned, and some spectators also were burned, but there were no fatalities. In spite of his severe injuries, Walther came back to race again in 1974. Safety equipment like a helmet, fire-resistant clothing, a roll bar, and rubber fuel tank liners helped Walther survive, but the crash also triggered some changes to safety rules. Smaller fuel tank capacity reduced the risk of fire, smaller rear wings were mandated to reduce speeds, and the track updated many of its rapid-response procedures.
Tom Sneva qualified on the pole for the 1984 Indianapolis 500 in this car, with a four-lap average of 210.029 mph. He was the first driver ever to qualify at more than 200 mph. The car is powered by a 159-cubic-inch Ford/Cosworth V-8 engine that produces some 740 horsepower. This car’s design and engineering follow trends that began in the 1970s and are still seen in today’s Indy Cars. The front and rear wings generate aerodynamic downforce to help the car’s tires grip the road. Its cooling radiators are mounted in the side pods, and the bodywork under the pods is shaped to create a low-pressure area that adds more downforce to essentially suck the car down onto the track. The monocoque chassis is made with both aluminum and magnesium. Today’s Indy Cars still have wings and side pods, but the monocoque chassis are now fabricated from carbon fiber.
Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt with Victory Champagne at the 24 Heures du Mans (24 Hours of Le Mans) Race, June 1967 / THF127983
Celebration of Success
Whatever the form of racing, every team wants to be in the Winner’s Circle. It’s where victors are crowned and reputations are made. The Winner’s Circle in our new auto racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors, puts five remarkable race cars on an honorary pedestal. They are connected to some of the greatest drivers, teams, and personalities in racing. They broke records, they broke traditions, and they broke new ground with innovative designs and ideas that influenced all who followed. The Winner’s Circle is a celebration of success.
This car, and especially its team, brought a fundamental change to NASCAR racing. The team owner, Carl Kiekhaefer (founder of Kiekhaefer Corporation, maker of Mercury outboard boat motors), brought a level of professionalism to his team’s operation that set a new standard in auto racing. His drivers and mechanics all wore matching uniforms, and his cars were immaculately prepared. He transported his cars in closed trucks rather than open trailers (providing more advertising space), and his teams were among the first to practice pit stops. That alone might not have influenced other teams to follow his example, but the clincher was his team’s domination of the series in 1955 and 1956. In 1955, driver Tim Flock scored 18 wins and 32 top-10 finishes on his way to the NASCAR championship. Then, in 1956, Kiekhaefer drivers Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson together won 22 of 41 races, including 16 in a row, with Baker taking the championship. After that season, Kiekhaefer dropped out of racing, but the professionalism he brought soon became the norm.
Racing legend A.J. Foyt made the most of this car’s dirt-track prowess. It was key to Foyt winning his first three Indy Car championships in 1960, 1961 and 1963. Race car builder Wally Meskowski engineered and built this car specifically for dirt-track racing, which comprised most of the USAC Championship (Indy Car) series in the early 1960s (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of just three paved tracks in the series in 1960). From 1960 through 1963, Foyt drove this car in 26 races, and scored 13 of his 17 victories in it, all but three of them on dirt tracks. It was powered by the iconic Offenhauser four-cylinder racing engine that dominated Indy Car races from the late 1930s until well into the 1960s. Every Indianapolis 500 from 1947 to 1964 was won with an Offenhauser engine. The engine’s design, with the block and double-overhead-cam cylinder head cast as one unit, produced both the racing essentials: power and reliability.
Talk about a disruptor! This car could qualify as the greatest disruptor ever in American racing history. In 1965, Formula One champion Jim Clark drove this car to victory in the Indianapolis 500, marking that race’s first-ever win by a rear-engine car. A few years earlier, legendary road racer Dan Gurney had concluded that a car/engine combination designed using European Formula One technology could revolutionize the 500 and Indy Car racing. He brought Ford Motor Company together with Colin Chapman, the English builder of Lotus Formula One cars. That collaboration resulted in a lightweight Lotus chassis powered by a specially designed Ford V-8 engine. With its monocoque chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, and rear-mounted engine, the Lotus-Ford brought an abrupt end to the traditional Indy front-engine roadster’s long domination and established a new paradigm for American race cars.
In the 1960s, Ford Motor Company made the most massive sports car racing effort ever seen in America. The objective was to beat the dominant Ferrari team in the world’s most important sports car endurance race—the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The weapon was a family of cars best known as the Ford GT40. Ford’s first of four straight victories, in 1966, was won by the GT40’s Mark II variant, fielded by the Shelby American team and driven by New Zealanders Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme. The next year, Shelby returned with this car—the more powerful Mark IV. Its chassis was built of an aluminum honeycomb material used in aircraft construction, and the body shape resulted from hours of wind tunnel testing. The big 427-cubic-inch V-8 engine was based on Ford’s stock car racing engine and proved highly reliable. Drivers Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt beat the second-place Ferrari by 32 miles at a record-breaking average speed of 135.48 mph. That win was another first at Le Mans because, unlike the year before, the winning car was built in the United States. This was the first Le Mans win by an American car, built in the United States and driven by Americans.
1988 Chevy-Penske PC-17 Indy Car
1988 Rick Mears Winning Indy Car Replica, on loan courtesy General Motors Heritage Center. / THF185963
In 1988, Rick Mears qualified the original version of this car on the pole and won Penske Racing's seventh Indianapolis 500. The win marked Mears’ third victory at one of motorsports’ most renowned events, and contributed to him becoming one of the most respected drivers in Indy car racing history. That year, all three Penske team drivers—Mears, Danny Sullivan, and Al Unser, Sr.—piloted the new PC-17 chassis powered by redesigned Chevrolet engines. The Penske team swept the top three qualifying positions on pole day. Mears’ four-lap qualifying speed of 219.198 mph became the new Speedway standard, and the Penske team, led by Mears’ win, took two of the top three podium positions (Unser placed third).
Jeanetta Holder with Her Indianapolis 500 Quilt Made for Bobby Unser, 1975-1980 / THF78732
On May 30, 1932, the day that Jeanetta Pearson Holder was born in Kentucky, race cars sped around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about 250 miles to the north. The timing of Jeanetta’s birth was certainly a hint of things to come: she would grow up with a passion for auto racing, and, as an adult, become that sport’s “Quilt Lady.”
For four decades, Jeanetta combined her love of auto racing and her sewing talents to create unique quilts for winners of the Indianapolis 500 and other auto races.
Dale Earnhardt is wrapped in pride and his quilt after the 1995 Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. / THF78819
A Love for Racing, A Talent for Sewing
As a little girl growing up on a Kentucky farm, Jeanetta made her own small race cars out of tobacco sticks and lard cans which she “raced everywhere [she] went.” Jeanetta’s childhood creative streak soon extended to sewing. She began to make clothes for her doll—and her pet cat. By the time she was 12, Jeanetta began sewing quilts, filling them with cotton batting from cotton she grew herself.
Jeanetta was clearly “driven.” When she didn’t have a car in which to take her driver’s license test, the teenager borrowed a taxicab. About this same time, Jeanetta started going to the race track. Soon 20-year-old Jeanetta was speeding around an oval dirt track at the wheel of a 1950 Hudson at Beech Bend Park in Warren County, Kentucky. In the early 1950s, women drivers were uncommon—and so was safety equipment. Jeanetta was dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans for these regional races.
Lyn St. James, photographed by Michelle Andonian, 2008 / THF58574
Lyn St. James was watching from afar when Janet Guthrie was trying to break into Indy car and stock car racing. At the time, St. James was a part-time competitor chasing a Sports Car Club of America road-racing national championship in a Ford Pinto.
“I was excited and pumped about my racing, and I watched her on the television and thought, ‘God, she’s struggling and nobody wants her there,’” St. James recalled. “She didn’t smile very much, and it made me say, ‘Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to put myself in that kind of situation when I was having so much fun?’”
This racing helmet worn by Lyn St. James is going on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America. / THF176437
In the early 1980s, Kelly Services sponsored the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) American Challenge championship and paid bonuses to female drivers. St. James parlayed an opportunity in that series, along with a chance encounter with legendary Ford executive Walter Hayes, into a highly successful relationship with Ford that produced six wins in IMSA competitions, including class victories at Daytona and Sebring, prior to shifting her focus to Indy cars. She is also the only woman to win an IMSA GT race driving solo.
Lyn St. James at IMSA, Watkins Glen, NY, 1985 / THF69459
“I wanted to test-drive one, just to experience the peak of race car performance,” she said. “I was just in heaven. I had set speed records in a stock car at Talladega, and in comparison, it felt numb. Dick Simon [IndyCar team owner] was very supportive, and that was a turning point. I wrote to 150 companies over four years seeking support. J.C. Penney was the 151st, but the first one that said yes.”
Finally, in 1992, St. James became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 since Guthrie last had, 15 years earlier. St. James finished 11th in the race, claiming Rookie of the Year honors (the first woman to do so). In 1994, she out-qualified reigning Indy car champion Nigel Mansell at Indy; she made a total of seven Indianapolis starts, with her last in 2000. She has been inducted into the Sports Car Club of America and the Florida Sports halls of fame, and held 21 international and national closed-circuit speed records over a 20-year period.
Lyn St. James’s Indy 500 history from 1992 to 2000. / THF284826
Mentor of Motorsports
St. James still occasionally competes in vintage races, and in addition is a speaker, author, philanthropist, and coach, but spends most of her time mentoring female drivers. Her foundation’s driver development program has graduated more than 230 participants over the last 25 years, including then-future Indy car drivers Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick.
Lyn St. James at her Complete Driver Academy, which provided a comprehensive education and training program for talented women race car drivers who aspired to attain the highest levels in motorsports, in Phoenix, Arizona in 2008 (photograph by Michelle Andonian). / THF58682
“It’s sad that leaders in motorsports have not figured out that the car levels the playing field for everyone,” St. James said. “The leaders have missed an opportunity to show how female involvement in racing really represents society. Women can perform and compete on an equal level.”
Involvement with The Henry Ford and
Driven to Win
In 2008, a small crew from The Henry Ford traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to visit a race car driver academy for women. The institution, called Complete Driver Academy, was established by Lyn St. James in 1994 to help identify potential champion female drivers and provide the tools they needed to further their careers. The Henry Ford interviewed St. James there as part of its Visionaries on Innovation collection of video interviews, which also features other racing legends such as Mario Andretti.
Lyn St. James’ 1992 Indianapolis 500 "Rookie of the Year" trophy will be on exhibit in Driven to Win. / THF176451
In addition to documenting St. James’ oral history, The Henry Ford has many artifacts from her racing career in its collections—some of which will be on display in the new Driven to Win: Racing in America permanent exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where St. James is a showcased driver. “Lyn has been an adviser to the exhibit going back more than ten years,” said Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson. “From the start, she has offered her help and advice, including connecting us with innovators like motorsports training expert Jim Leo of PitFit Training in Indiana.”
Sarah Fisher with Lyn St. James. Photo courtesy Lyn St. James.
Born October 4, 1980, in Columbus, Ohio, Sarah Fisher raced quarter midgets and go-karts before age 10, and earned multiple karting championships in her teens. When she competed in her first Indianapolis 500 in 2000, she was only the third woman to do so (after Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James) and—at age 19—the youngest. With her third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway later that season, Fisher became the first woman to earn a place on the podium in an IndyCar Series event.
Racing suit worn by Sarah Fisher in 2009, which will be on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF176380
Fisher retired from driving after 2010 (and after nine starts in the Indy 500), but continued as a team owner. In 2011, Fisher became the first female owner to earn an IndyCar victory, with driver Ed Carpenter at the wheel.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Janet Guthrie at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1979 / detail from THF140173
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Janet Guthrie worked as an aerospace engineer while also serving as a pilot and flight instructor. But her passion was driving her Jaguar in Sports Car Club of America road races, and by the time she was 35, Guthrie was a full-time racer.
In 1976, she arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) as a 38-year-old rookie with the eyes of the world upon her. Several prominent drivers publicly criticized her presence. "Most of the oval track drivers never had the experience of running with a woman driver, and they were sure they weren't going to like it," recalled Guthrie, now 81. "That got calmed down within the course of the races that I ran in 1976. But the public, I think, needed to be convinced."
When the controversial newcomer didn't find enough speed in her primary car, A.J. Foyt offered his spare Coyote, and Guthrie showed enough pace in practice to become the 500's first female qualifier. But that historic achievement would have to wait another year. "Those were the glory days of the Indy 500, with 85 cars entered, so qualifying for the first time was really a major moment of my life,” she said.
The autographed racing glove worn by Janet Guthrie in 1977, when she became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, will be on display in the Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF166385
Guthrie's car broke early in the 1977 race, but more importantly, Indy's gender barrier had been broken. She returned to IMS a year later and drove to a ninth-place finish despite concealing a broken wrist. In all, Guthrie drove in 11 Indy car races between 1976 and 1979, earning a career best fifth-place finish at the Milwaukee Mile in her final open-wheel start. She also competed in 33 NASCAR Cup Series races in the same period, earning five top 10 finishes.
Besides being the first female to qualify and compete in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, Guthrie was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006, the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in 2018, and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2019.
In retrospect, Guthrie did much of the heavy lifting for the female drivers who followed her into the American motorsports arena. Respect for her achievements, from both a sporting and sociological standpoint, only increases with the passing of time. "The 'first woman' thing was more of a responsibility than anything," Guthrie said. "I think I took the heat, and then the drivers discovered that I was competitive, I was courteous and that I was getting the most out of my equipment."
Guthrie is convinced that a female circuit racer will one day demonstrate the kind of championship-winning success women have achieved in NHRA drag racing. "There's a lot of talent at the lower levels, and it all depends on who gets the chance," she said. "I'm sure that eventually we will see a woman win the Indianapolis 500, and similarly with the Daytona 500."
Jochen Rindt at the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix / THF116686
November 18, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Jochen Rindt winning his first and only Formula One Driver’s World Championship. The day also marks another 50th anniversary in Formula One—the first and only time a driver has posthumously won the Driver’s World Championship. In his too short career, Rindt made waves in the racing world, competing twice in the Indianapolis 500; enduring the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times and winning in 1965 with Masten Gregory; and spending six seasons in the world of Formula One. In his first five seasons, he took home one first place victory. But in the 1970 season, Rindt hit his stride, taking the podium in five of the eight races he completed. When he tragically died during practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Rindt had already earned 45 points towards the championship. Even with four races left in the season, second place finisher Jacky Ickx could only muster 40. Below is a selection of images of Jochen Rindt from the Dave Friedman Collection (2009.158) to honor the life and legacy of this racing legend. You can see even more images related to Rindt in our Digital Collections.
Jochen Rindt at the Grand Prix of the United States, Watkins Glen, October 1966 / THF146483
Cooper T81 Driven by Jochen Rindt in the Grand Prix of the United States, Watkins Glen, October 1966 / THF146482
Cooper T81 Driven by Jochen Rindt in the V Grand Premio de Mexico (5th Grand Prix of Mexico), October 1966 / THF146484
Jochen Rindt in His Eagle/Ford Race Car at the Indianapolis 500, May 1967 / THF96147
Jochen Rindt behind the Wheel of the Porsche 907 LH He Co-drove with Gerhard Mitter at the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans / lemans06-67_426
Jochen Rindt and Nina Rindt before the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans / lemans06-67_030
Janice Unger is Processing Archivist at The Henry Ford.
The 1953 Ford Sunliner, Official Pace Car of the 1953 Indianapolis 500. (THF87498)
As America’s longest-running automobile race, it’s not surprising that the Indianapolis 500 is steeped in special traditions. Whether it’s the wistful singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the green flag, or the celebratory Victory Lane milk toast – which is anything but milquetoast – Indy is full of distinctive rituals that make the race unique. One of those long-standing traditions is the pace car, a fixture since the very first Indy 500 in 1911.
This is no mere ceremonial role. The pace car is a working vehicle that leads the grid into the start of the race, and then comes back out during caution laps to keep the field moving in an orderly fashion. Traditionally, the pace car’s make has varied from year to year, though it is invariably an American brand. Indiana manufacturers like Stutz, Marmon, and Studebaker showed up frequently, but badges from the Detroit Three – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – have dominated. In more recent years, Chevrolet has been the provider of choice, with every pace car since 2002 being either a Corvette or a Camaro. Since 1936, the race’s winning driver has received a copy of pace car as a part of the prize package.
Amelia Earhart rides in the pace car, a 1935 Ford V-8, at the 1935 Indianapolis 500. (THF256052)
Likewise, honorary pace car drivers have changed over time. The first decades often featured industry leaders like Carl Fisher (founder of Indianapolis Motor Speedway), Harry Stutz, and Edsel Ford. Starting in the 1970s, celebrities like James Garner, Jay Leno, and Morgan Freeman appeared. Racing drivers have always been in the mix, with everyone from Barney Oldfield to Jackie Stewart to Jeff Gordon having served in the role. (The “fastest” pace car driver was probably Charles Yeager, who drove in 1986 – 39 years after he broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered airplane Glamorous Glennis.)
Ford was given pace car honors for 1953. It was a big year for the company – half a century had passed since Henry Ford and his primary shareholders signed the articles of association establishing Ford Motor Company in 1903. The firm celebrated its golden anniversary in several ways. It commissioned Norman Rockwell to create artwork for a special calendar. It built a high-tech concept car said to contain more than 50 automotive innovations. And it gave every vehicle it built that year a commemorative steering wheel badge that read “50th Anniversary 1903-1953.”
Henry Ford’s 1902 “999” race car poses with the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car on Ford’s Dearborn test track. (Note the familiar clocktower at upper right!) (THF130893)
For its star turn at Indianapolis, Ford provided a Sunliner model to fulfill the pace car’s duties. The two-door Sunliner convertible was a part of Ford’s Crestline series – its top trim level for the 1953 model year. Crestline cars featured chrome window moldings, sun visors, and armrests. Unlike the entry-level Mainline or mid-priced Customline series, which were available with either Ford’s inline 6 or V-8 engines, Crestline cars came only with the 239 cubic inch, 110 horsepower V-8. Additionally, Crestline was the only one of the three series to include a convertible body style.
William Clay Ford at the tiller of “999” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (THF130906)
Ford actually sent two cars to Indianapolis for the big race. In addition to the pace car, Henry Ford’s 1902 race car “999” was pulled from exhibit at Henry Ford Museum to participate in the festivities. True, “999” never competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But its best-known driver, Barney Oldfield, drove twice in the Indy 500, finishing in fifth place both in 1914 and 1916. Fittingly, Indy officials gave William Clay Ford the honor of driving the pace car. Mr. Ford, the youngest of Henry Ford’s grandchildren, didn’t stop there. He also personally piloted “999” in demonstrations prior to the race.
As for the race itself? The 1953 Indianapolis 500 was a hot one – literally. Temperatures were well over 90° F on race day, and hotter still on the mostly asphalt track. Many drivers actually called in relief drivers for a portion of the race. After 3 hours and 53 minutes of sweltering competition, the victory went to Bill Vukovich – who drove all 200 laps himself – with an average race speed of 127.740 mph. It was the first of two consecutive Indy 500 wins for Vukovich. Sadly, Vukovich was killed in a crash during the 1955 race.
Another view of the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car. (THF87499)
Following the 1953 race and its associated ceremonies, Ford Motor Company gifted the original race-used pace car to The Henry Ford, where it remains today. Ford Motor also produced some 2,000 replicas for sale to the public. Each replica included the same features (Ford-O-Matic transmission, power steering, Continental spare tire kit), paint (Sungate Ivory), and lettering as the original. Reportedly, it was the first time a manufacturer offered pace car copies for purchase by the general public – something that is now a well-established tradition in its own right.
Sure, the Sunliner pace car is easy to overlook next to legendary race cars like “Old 16,” the Lotus-Ford, or – indeed – the “999,” but it’s a special link to America’s most important auto race, and it’s a noteworthy part of the auto racing collection at The Henry Ford.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Official Program of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 27th 500 Mile International Sweepstakes Race, May 30, 1939. THF 122945
Over the years, sporting events have become traditions in our lives: the Super Bowl in the winter, the Kentucky Derby every May, and the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day Weekend. Iconic events such as these develop their own customs over time, and the Indianapolis 500 is no exception. As we celebrate the 100th running of the race on May 29, here is a look at a few of the traditions that have developed over the years.
Start of the 1911 Indianapolis 500. P.O.2703 Some of the current Indy traditions started in the early days of the race. Since the inaugural running on May 30, 1911, the contest has always been held on Memorial Day or that weekend. As a tribute to horse racing practices, only the winner of the race (and his team) are honored in Victory Lane, without a podium for the top three finishers. Speaking of victory celebrations, Lewis Meyer began another triumphal tradition in 1936. After winning that year's race, Meyer grabbed a bottle of buttermilk to cool himself down, as he typically did on hot days. After an executive from the Milk Foundation saw a photograph of the celebration, it became a yearly occurrence. Although there have been a few years without milk in Victory Lane, this appears to be a tradition that will last for years to come.
Bobby Unser drinking milk in Victory Lane, 1968, 2009.158.317.5507 The 1940s saw the start of more traditions at the Indianapolis 500. In 1946, the song "Back Home Again in Indiana" was first played in pre-race festivities. Numerous artists have been enlisted to perform the song over years, including Jim Nabors, who sang it 36 times between 1972 and 2014. (Singer Josh Kaufman will fulfill the duty for this year.) In 1947 Grace Smith Hulman, the racetrack owner's mother, suggested balloons be released before the start of the race. Since 1950, 30,000 multicolored balloons, now made of biodegradable latex, have been let loose coinciding with the final notes of "Back Home Again in Indiana."
Di Gilmore and Jim Nabors at the 1977 Indy 500
Balloon release at the 1963 Indy 500. 2009.158.317.1729 The next decades brought more long-lasting traditions to the Indianapolis 500. In 1953, Wilbur Shaw first gave the starting call of "Gentlemen, start your engines!" Some variation of this call has been used every year since then, with the opening periodically changing to "Lady and Gentlemen" or "Ladies and Gentlemen" for the years when female drivers are competing. A few years later, the 500 Festival Parade developed after local newspaper columnists noted the community festivities that accompanied the Kentucky Derby. The 2016 festival includes a mini-marathon, parade, children's activities, and the Snakepit Ball. It was 1960 that was the first year that the winner was adorned with a wreath, drawing from Grand Prix traditions. The current wreath design contains 33 white cymbidium orchids representing the 33 cars and drivers on the starting grid.
Jim Clark draped in victor's wreath at the 1965 Indy 500. 2009.158.91
1968 Indy Festival Queen with the Borg Warner Trophy, 2009.158.317.5261 Since the 1970s, more traditions have been added to the Indy 500. The Last Row Party, started in 1972, is a charity function held the Friday before the race. In addition to raising scholarship funds for local students, the party also serves as a roast for the last three competitors to make the starting grid. A few years later, in 1976, Jeanetta Holder created and presented her first quilt to the winner of the race. Over the years, she has crafted more than 40 hand-stitched quilts, with Bobby Unser's 1981 quilt now in the collection of the Henry Ford. More recent additions to the Indy traditions include concerts on Carb Day and Legends Day, and the kissing of the bricks, which actually started in NASCAR tradition in 1996. Gil de Ferran was the first Indy driver to do it at the conclusion of the 2003 race.
Jeanetta Holder quilt for Bobby Unser, 1981. 2009.171.18
Tradition and ritual are a part of our everyday lives, and will certainly be an integral part of this year's Indianapolis 500. Over the last 99 contests, drivers, owners, and even fans have created new customs that add to the history and lore of the race. As you watch the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing on May 29, keep your eyes open for the existing traditions and perhaps some new ones in the making. Janice Unger is Digital Processing Archivist for Racing, Archives & Library Services, at The Henry Ford.
We’ve already made much about the 50th anniversary of Jim Clark’s win, with his rear-engine Lotus-Ford, at the 1965 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. But it is a big deal. History generally unfolds in a gradual process, but Clark’s victory was a singular turning point for the race. We were delighted that the folks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway agreed and, with generous assistance from the speedway's Hall of Fame Museum, invited us to take the car down for this year’s event.
We kicked off race weekend on Thursday with a great panel discussion open to the media. I was honored to sit with fellow panelists Clive Chapman, proprietor of Great Britain’s Classic Team Lotus and son of Colin Chapman – designer of our car; Leonard Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing – the oldest active team in NASCAR – and a member of Jim Clark’s 1965 pit crew; and Dario Franchitti, a three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time IndyCar Series Champion – and a certified Clark-ophile.