Before The Greatest Month in Racing was set to commence, I found my way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. While I grace many a museum, a museum dedicated to the Indianapolis 500 might seem like an odd outing for me.
I am not a car nut or a racing fan in particular. But I do like exploring, learning, and history. Since returning to Indiana, I have discovered the automotive history of the state and had the opportunity to be on the grounds of the IMS several times (for practice and Carb Day). It seemed fitting to round out my learning with a visit to the IMS Museum.
The first thing that struck me was that the IMS Museum is a big deal. Maybe it was more so being this close to May. (I visited the museum on April 30.) Or maybe not. (Only a subsequent visit at a different time of the year would tell.) Not everyone in the building was from the environs, Indiana, or even from the US. The museum and related tours were clearly a big business with teams of employees milling about, talking with visitors, and directing people to paid tours of the grounds.
I felt a bit overwhelmed and excited…like a kid that steps into a huge candy store, eyes large and excitement bubbling…which is kind of an odd feeling for someone who is not a self-proclaimed car nut or racing fan. Perhaps my visits to museums with historic cars had primed me to see something magical.
The museum has lots to see and take in. The first room is divided into cars that have raced in the Indianapolis 500 through the years and cars that A.J. Foyt, one of the legendary 4-time winners of the Indianapolis 500, drove in a seemingly endless string of races.
I started with the Indianapolis 500 cars. Each car has a plaque describing the car and its history. Several cars have engines behind them, showing off the different types of engines used in the Indianapolis 500. It was cool to see the cars all in one place and notice the differences over the years. As I saw in the other museums I have visited, the location of the driver varied in the earliest cars before settling on the present-day position on the left.
One thing I had to ask about: why some Indianapolis 500 cars had an extra seat for the mechanic. Originally mechanics drove with the drivers. Odd but OK. Someone had to be the eyes for the driver (before there were mirrors) and the hands (early cars used hand pumps to add gasoline to the engines). And of course, during a breakdown, it would be handy to have your mechanic in tow.
But strangely, the first car to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1911, the 1909 Marmon Wasp, was a one-seater. What’s the story behind that? Well, the driver got away without carrying a mechanic by using what seems to be the first rear-view mirror on a car. The authorities deemed that the driver would be safe enough with the mirror in lieu of a mechanic onboard. (In fact, on the bricks of the IMS track, the mirror bounced so much that it was in essence worthless.)
Unsurprisingly, without the extra weight of a mechanic, the 1909 Marmon Wasp won. I wonder how many people cried foul. Regardless of outcry or not, the rules subsequently changed; from 1912-1922 riding mechanics were mandatory. For reasons unclear to me, riding mechanics were optional from 1923-1929 and then mandatory again from 1930-1937.
On either side of the cars are glass displays that house memorabilia from past races, awards, and other odds and ends, such as bricks salvaged from the track during repairs and construction. On the back wall is a timeline of events in the history of the IMS along with photos. Remember my interest in history? This is probably where I spent most of my time in the museum, learning fascinating tidbits.
Although the first Indianapolis 500 ran in 1911, the track actually opened in 1909 and hosted three races that year. The first race was a gas-filled balloon race, the second a motorcycle race, and finally the third an automobile race. (Louis Schwitzer, whose mausoleum I often trek past in Crown Hill Cemetery, won this first 5-mile race on August 9, 1909. The museum only mentions Schwitzer in the backroom in connection to the award given in his name for design innovation.)
Other tidbits…helmets were required in 1935. (In contrast, the European Grand Prix didn’t require helmets until 1952.) The tradition of the winner drinking buttermilk started in 1936 with Louis Meyer (whose mother always told him that milk is best for quenching any thirst). In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first women to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and in 1999 Willy T. Ribbs the first African-American. In 2005, Danica Patrick was the first woman to lead a lap.
Across from Indianapolis 500 cars is a glass-enclosed room for A.J. Foyt and the cars he drove in the Indianapolis 500. Next to that room, out on the floor, are the many cars that he drove in various races. Three stood out to me: a USAC Midget, a 1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech, and a Scarab MK IV.
The Midget looked like a cute little zippy car. As I peered down into it, I didn’t see much in the way of floorboards. The driver was really one with the car, it seemed. The Oldsmobile Aerotech is a futuristic-looking car. In fact, in 1987 it was used to set a new world record of 257.133 mph. This is definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile (long before that motto came into existence). And the Scarab MK IV is a beautiful blue racing car.
The smaller back room houses some historic cars. I did like the 1929 Bugatti Type 35B that they have on display.
The back room also has a Rick Mears car that people can climb into to get their photos taken. I watched (older) person after (older) person climb in and have a devil of a time getting out. I was suspicious but found getting out not to be so bad. (Age, physical fitness, and good knees must have been in my favor.) I was struck by how the driver’s seat fits a person with much longer arms (I have long arms) and legs (I have long legs) than I have.
If you find yourself in Indy, include a stop at the IMS Museum. It’s for car or history buffs—or both. Just stay away in May, when the track is busy with The Greatest Month in Racing.