Indy's Brickyard Celebrates 100th Birthday

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500, is celebrating its 100th birthday. A historian for the speedway says the loop has outlived most of the nation's ballparks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now let's talk about a sport that's all about the power under the hood.

Mr. SID COLLINS (Race Announcer): From Indianapolis, Indiana, the scene of the world's greatest race cars, this is Sid Collins saying welcome to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The home of the Indy 500 is celebrating its 100th birthday.

Unidentified Man #1: There's a green flag, and the race is on.

MONTAGNE: The track on the west side of Indianapolis is still in use, which means it's lasted longer than the old Yankee Stadium and even Boston's Fenway Park.

Mr. DONALD DAVIDSON (Historian for Indianapolis Speedway): What's amazing about the Indianapolis Speedway is that it is the one, only and original Indianapolis Speedway. The drivers are driving around the very same two-and-a-half-mile oval that they were 100 years ago.

INSKEEP: That's Donald Davidson, historian for the speedway, where the latest Indy 500 takes place on Sunday. He says the speedway was created as a place to test drive and market cars.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, you didn't have TV advertising and all that kind of thing, you know, so it basically was word of mouth and print advertising. And so the thinking was if people were in the market for an automobile, you could go out and watch the cars race against each other in competition, and then you could decide for yourself which you thought was for you.

MONTAGNE: And the speedway has stayed in business even as the auto industry changed beyond recognition.

INSKEEP: The speedway was a couple of years old when it hosted its first 500-mile race. Many years later, that first winner, Ray Harroun, recalled his victory.

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Harroun, how long was the race in which you won in 1911?

Mr. RAY HARROUN (First Winner at Indianapolis Speedway): Well, it was about six hours and some odd minutes. These days we can pretty well cross the country and back in that kind of time, can't we?

Unidentified Man #2: That's right.

MONTAGNE: These days, drivers roll past the checkered flag in less than half that time.

(Soundbite of race cars passing by)

MONTAGNE: Over the past hundred years, the race has sometimes gained and sometimes lost importance. So drivers boycott it and raced elsewhere, but the Indy 500 has outlasted them. And people who grow up in Indiana have trouble not hearing this song.

(Soundbite of song, "The 500")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) The 500, the 500, the greatest race in the world…

Unidentified Man #3: …the straightaway. The checkered flag is out, A.J.'s hand in the air, he is the winner. A.J. Foyt at Indianapolis.

Unidentified Man #4: The first lady every to qualify at Indianapolis…

Unidentified Man #5: …coming up on the inside, Mario Andretti to go into second…

Unidentified Man #6: …drag race and Hornish, and he had a problem. Hornish broke off the fuel hose. Sam Hornish's chances to win the 500 again, and…

INSKEEP: Historian Donald Davidson says tradition drives many fans back to the annual race.

Mr. DONALDSON: Chance are, if you just went into the grandstand and pointed at somebody and said, how long have you been coming? Forty years is probably average.

MONTAGNE: Harry Lightfoot has gone 49 times.

Mr. HARRY LIGHTFOOT: It's just in our hearts. It's in our blood.

MONTAGNE: He's a Missouri man who got his tickets as a high school graduation gift.

Mr. LIGHTFOOT: You know, it's hard to explain why people come back, but they get hooked on it. They get hooked on the emotion, on those fine racing machines and those drivers. There's something there that just brings you back, back to Indiana.

(Soundbite of song, "Back Home Again in Indiana")

Unidentified Man #7: (Singing) Back home again in Indiana, and it seems that I can see the gleaming candlelight still burning bright through the sycamores for me.

INSKEEP: You know, at many sporting events in Indiana, thousands of people stand at once and sing this, which really ought to be the Indiana state song.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Correction May 20, 2009

In some broadcasts, we incorrectly referred to "Back Home Again in Indiana" as the Indiana state song. The official state song is actually "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away."

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