Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

The Indy 500 and the Evolution of Driving

Where did magnesium racing wheels get their first big boost?

How about the introduction of seat belts?  Or the humble but necessary rearview mirror?  (**Answers below!)

Automotive advances like these that changed the way the world drives

had their birth, or their inspiration, at the Indianapolis 500, celebrating

its 101st running May 28 (scheduled) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.).

Along with the Monaco Grand Prix, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indy 500 event, billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” is considered part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport.

The 500-mile (805 km), 200-lap race was inaugurated in 1911 and has since spotlighted championship cars and celebrated drivers–including A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi.

Local businessmen pooled their resources to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 as an automobile testing ground for new cars and technologies, and to support the state’s burgeoning automotive industry.

Legendary racer Mario Andretti, 1969’s winning driver, says, “At Indy, we are the NASA of the production-car world, and that’s clearly why manufacturers are involved—it’s such a good testbed.”  And Indy driver and car builder Dan Gurney, adds, “Indy accelerates the evolution of ideas.”

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also known for a not-so-strictly-automotive icon:  The Yard of Bricks. In 1909, 3.2 million, 9.5 pound paving bricks were laid on top of an original surface of crushed rock and tar to upgrade the roadway.  The brick surface was gradually patched with asphalt, until eventually (1938) the entire track was paved with asphalt, excepting the middle portion of the front straightaway.

In 1961, the remaining bricks on that section were finally covered, but a 36-inch (yard-long) strip of the original bricks was kept intact at the start/finish line, where it remains today.


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Some other notable auto innovations born in The Brickyard include:

Tire technology.  Rubber and heavy cotton made up the tires for early-generation racers, but that formula also made for weak sidewalls, lots of friction, and heat, not a good combination to prevent blowouts.

Today’s better-made, superior-performing tires trace their history to around 1925, when Firestone introduced the balloon tire, with a wider tread and lower inflation pressure, at the track.  These features helped smooth out bumps, and improved stability and handling.  Later improvements saw greater lateral tire strength, and better tread compounds for more traction and wear-resistance.  Wider, lower profile tires featured on many sports cars today originated at Indy in the 1960s, when both Firestone and Goodyear had mobile labs at the race.

Supercharger technology. Engineers knew that pumping air into an engine’s intake manifold boosted power.  Auto enthusiasts embraced the idea when a team of supercharged Mercedes went to Indy in 1923 (they were also-rans).  Later incarnations of superchargers were improved, and improved lots more, before Detroit automakers offered them on production cars gas engines, like the 1962 Olds Cutlass Jetfire and the Chevy Corvair Monza Spyder.

Front-Wheel Drive. “Pull” vs. “Push” was the better idea behind the front-wheel design that was an Indy winner for years.  The traverse-mounted transmission negated the need for a driveshaft and heavy rear differential, which meant a significant weight reduction and lower center of gravity for the driver. Most of today’s passenger cars are still powered by the configuration.

(**Answers: Seatbelts were jerry-rigged by a parachute manufacturer in 1922 for Indy racer Barney Oldfield.  The rearview mirror was a 1911 ad hoc add-on for driver Ray Harroun, riding solo in a single-seater, who needed to see the entries behind him. And magnesium wheels, developed by Ted Halibrand,  were introduced on winning cars at Indy throughout the 1940s, ‘50s and 60s, and have found their way into contemporary racers, hot rods, muscle cars, and everyday autos. Today’s generation of magnesium wheels are exemplified by the world-renowned wheels made by SMW Engineering, representing best-in-class, state-of-the-art technology. They give today’s racers and everyday roadsters advantages like faster acceleration and reduced braking distance, increased lifecycle for tires, brake pads and disks, a longer-lived suspension system, and faster heat dissipation from the wheels and brake system. Mag wheels contribute to an overall more comfortable ride with safer cornering and turning.  They’re a safer, smarter, stylish investment for your ride.)

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