Postcards Followed Growth of Indianapolis 500 Speedway

By Robert Reed

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, May 2006

Marnon Wasp driven by Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis "500" in 1911.

Unlike a great number of historic sports events, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race has been fully documented by postcards.

The great race got its beginnings in 1909 just at the dawn of the golden age of American postcards.

In February of 1909 a group of business leaders formed a corporation in Indianapolis and purchased farmland at the edge of the city. Initially the Speedway Park was dedicated as a proving grounds for early automobiles. But it also allowed for some racing and crowds.

Postcards depicting the course were issued by the summer of 1909. Among other things they pointed out that Speedway Park covered 328 acres. The postcards noted that total cost of the project was $350,000 and the circumference of the outer track and road course extended for a distance of five miles. They also noted: "Ten thousand automobiles can be parked on the grounds."

At first the track surface of crushed rock and tar turned out to be a very bad idea for participants in the early automobile and motorcycle racing events. The owners then purchased more than three million paving bricks which were imported from elsewhere in Indiana by rail.

Once the bricks were anchored in place with applications of sand and motor, the Indy 500 assumed one of its many nicknames, The Brickyard.

The paving bricks were in place by December of 1909 but below freezing temperatures forced all racing events to be called off. Various races were held in 1910 and in 1911 the first full 500 mile race was held on May 30. Winner of what was then called the International Sweepstakes was racer Ray Harroun who cruised to victory averaging 74 miles per hour. Harroun spent six hours and 42 minutes at the wheel of his six cylinder Marmon Wasp to achieve the notable victory.

Early 1900s postcard of Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an oval track.

Postcards of the now fully oval track proclaimed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to be "the greatest in the world."

In 1927 the original owners sold the Speedway to World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, himself a former Indy 500 race driver.

Asphalt was first applied to portions of the track in 1936. As crowds continued to come and postcards continued to be issued, changes in the track were almost always noticeable.

By 1941 all by the main straightaway of the mighty race track had been paved over with asphalt. Ironically no races would be held at the Speedway during the years of World War II despite the 'improvements' of all that asphalt. Many of the buildings and grandstands fell into disrepair.

In 1945 the entire operation was purchased by Terre Haute, Indiana businessman Tony Hulman Jr. It has remained in operation and in the Hulman family ever since that time.

Postcards from the 1950s often featured the 500 track and race cars. One such postcard featured the landmark Motor Speedway Pagoda and this message on the reverse:  "The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the foremost brick motor race course in the world. The annual Decoration Day Sweepstakes attract internationally famous drivers and more than 125,000 spectators from all parts of America and Europe."

Indy 500 race car champion Gordon Johncock and STP car; 1980s postcard.

By 1961 the "brick course"  had totally disappeared beneath the coating of asphalt. The only visible paving bricks were part of a 36-inch strip which remains yet today at the start/finish line of the historic track. 

Postcards promoting products related to the Indianapolis 500 were frequently seen during the 1980s. In 1985 the STP Corporation used postcards as advertising premiums, for example. They featured Gordon Johncock, already a two-time Indy 500 champion wearing a uniform with the world famous red and blue colors of the STP Racing Team.

A few years later another advertising postcard featured race driver Roberto Guerreo of the Vince Granetelli Racing Team. The card itself promoted STP and something called Dianetics. The term Dianetics was actually a best-selling self-help book. It was the first book in history to actually sponsor an Indy car entry.

Still later the Indianapolis Speedway Museum also added to the number and variety of Indy 500-related postcards. The first museum-office building was completed in 1956 near the main entrance to the grounds. In 1976 a multimillion dollar Hall of Fame Museum was opened to the public.

A 1950s postcard of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and "typical winner."

 Moreover during the in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s-- as different postcards document-- there were additions and replacements to structures such as the control tower, tower terrace, and pit areas. In the 1970s remodeling efforts included a new Paddock Penthouse, and more refined hospitality suites among the grandstands.

Today reserved seating at the famed speedway can accommodate 250,000 fans. The infield and surrounding areas can provide space for thousands more. Of course the event is broadcast on radio and television worldwide every May.

Over the decades the Indianapolis 500 not only contributed to racing thrills, but it was credited with a number of driving innovations. Among them were the rear view mirror, the balloon tire, and the wide spread use of ethyl gasoline.

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