The 101st Indianapolis 500 automobile race will start today at noon. This is the iconic American car race – highly tuned vehicles racing around an oval track for 500 laps. It doesn’t do much for me (but then again, car racing doesn’t really seem like a sport to me at all), but as a historical marker, the Indy 500 is fascinating.
The first Indy 500 was run in May of 1911, after a group of Indianapolis businessmen, eager to attract visitors and customers to their hometown, had been trying to organize such a race for over two years. Eventually, 46 cars entered the race; automobile manufacturers as well as tire producers saw the benefits of the race in terms of free advertising for what was still a luxury item – automobiles. They raced on a surface paved with 3.2 million paving bricks (hence, the term “Brickyard Classic”). The bricks would eventually be paved over with asphalt, the most recent repaving taking place in 2004.
Interesting note: 23 different car makes were included in that inaugural Indy, but only three of those have survived to 2017: Buick, Fiat, and Mercedes. Henry Ford, while attending the 1911 race, having chosen not to enter a car, but then again, the Model T probably wouldn’t have done well against the better powered European models.
In 1914, the organizers of the race banned the drinking of alcohol by drivers during the race…apparently, the winner of the 1913 Indy had polished off an entire bottle of champagne while driving to victory, and the race promoters wanted to discourage such behavior. Probably a good idea.
The Indianapolis 500 was suspended during U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II. Fuel and oil were desperately needed by the military, and in fact, during World War II, gasoline and motor oil were rationed items. It was considered patriotic to suspend automobile racing during World War II, but also, the race organizers were concerned that gas rationing would affect attendance.
Attendance was at its highest in the 1950s and 1960s, reflective of America’s love affair with cars and speed, but attendance has declined since then at various times; NASCAR has proven to be a big rival of Indy racing, as well as the growing importance of television, yet there still is nothing like the Indianapolis 500.
This weekend also marks the anniversary of another iconic vehicle – the VW. Eighty years ago, in 1937, Adolph Hitler launched the manufacture of a “People’s car” – the Volkswagon. With a design coming from Austrian Ferdinand Porsche, this vehicle was supposed to enable all German citizens to enjoy the freedom (a relative term in Nazi Germany!!!) of driving around beautiful Germany. Production, however, was delayed, and the first cars intended for ordinary citizens did not come off the assembly line until mid-1939 – and almost immediately suspended as the Germans began World War II.
In fact, the VW was almost entirely a military vehicle used in the North African campaign, and then in Russia, during World War II. At the end of the war, because of its association with the Nazis, the VW company nearly went bankrupt; it did produce a limited number of vehicles, but it was unable to penetrate foreign markets for over a decade after the end of the war.
But a new generation of management hired a prominent New York advertising firm in 1959 to try to gain entry into the U.S. automobile market, and the advertising campaigns initiated in the 1960s dramatically expanded sales in the U.S. In an age when Americans were motoring around in 6 or even 8 cylinder cars that gulped gasoline, the VW stood out for its small size and temperate use of fuel, as well as its low price. The timing of the VW’s entry into the American car market was also important in that American families were beginning to add a second car, either for the housewife to run errands or for her husband to drive back and forth from work – and the VW seemed perfect. (One of the only problems, though, was that most of the VWs still relied on a stick shift, and many Americans had gotten used to automatic transmissions. I was lucky – my father believed that every driver should know how to use a stick shift, and I learned to use a clutch and shift when I was only 11!).
The “Punchbug”, as one advertising campaign called it, became one of the most popular small cars on American roads in the 1960s, so popular that even Walt Disney produced a series of movies based on “Herbie the Lovebug”. When the gas crisis hit the U.S. in the early 1970s, VWs became even more beloved.
Eventually, the VW company stopped selling the Punchbugs here in the U.S., only to revive the style in the early 21st century, at a much higher price than those of us who grew up in the 1960s could ever have anticipated. They are something of a luxury item now, and certainly many generations removed from Hitler’s idea!