May 21st, 2018

The Indy 500 Tie to Flying

Posted in Aviation News

The Indy 500 has quite a tie to flying.  The Indianapolis (Indy) 500 is arguably the most famous and prestigious race in all the world, certainly in the United States.

Do you know of all of its connections to aviation?  I had no idea until I did a little research this week.  The Indy 500 is run at an 2.5 rectangular racetrack known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).  It is affectionately known as the Brickyard.  Initially the racing surface was made of bricks much like you find on historic streets in older cities.  Eventually the bricks were paved over except for one stretch at the finish line.

However, long before the IMS was famous for auto racing it conducted aviation races.  More specifically the first race at the IMS was a helium balloon race.  It was the inaugural event at the track and flown on June 5, 1909.  

Carl Fisher (right) was the mastermind behind the IMS and one of the four original owners.  He loved flying and participated in the 1909 balloon race.  One year later, Fisher had a six day aviation exhibition at the track.  Among the exhibitors were two brothers from Dayton, Ohio — Orville and Wilbur Wright (below).  It was a memorable event as Walter Brookins set an altitude record in a Wright airplane — flying at nearly 5,000 feet.

Airshows continued for the next few years, but subsided (as did auto racing) during World War I.   Although air exhibitions slacked during the war, aviation activity did not.  The United States government turned the track into an air depot.  Experimental aircraft were tested using the infield of the track as a runway.  James Allison, one of the cofounders of the speedway, did experimental work on fighter engines on many of those planes at Indy.

After the war, balloon racing continued, but surprisingly stopped under an aviation legend.  Eddie Rickenbacker (right) was the most famous American pilot of World War I.  He was an ace, shooting down 26 enemy aircraft.  After the war he was a noted race car driver.  Rickenbacker and associates bought the IMS in 1927, the same year that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.  Ironically, rather than build on Indy’s aviation heritage, Rickenbacker chose to focus on auto racing.  

The aviation heritage of Indy received a boost in 2016 with the inaugural Red Bull Air Race World Championship conducted at the Brickyard.  Aviation ties also continue with one of the best Indy car owners, Roger Penske and his Learjet 55.  However the best aviation witnessed at the Indy 500 are the flyovers before the race.  Here is a clip of the B-2 over the 2011 race. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phpBz3XgQ0c 

So while the world watches America’s premier auto race this Memorial Day Weekend, remember it all began with an aviation race between gas filled helium balloons.  

For further information and photos see:https://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/news-multimedia/news/2017/08/19/ims-first-took-flight-in-public-view-through-aviation-2017  

https://www.indystar.com/story/news/history/retroindy/2018/05/18/speedway-and-ims-were-crucial-aviation-hub-during-wwi/615446002/