LIANE HANSEN, Host:
On May 30, 1911, a literal multitude swarmed into Indiana with all the subtlety of the eighth plague of Egypt. Dozens jammed into hotel rooms and those who couldn't slept in hallways and on the streets. The Indianapolis Sun described the hoard as speed-lust kings and queens trimmed in gold and perfumed with gasoline and lubricating oil. The Indy 500 was born.
A T: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500." He's in our New York studio. Thanks for being with us.
CHARLES LEERHSEN: My pleasure.
HANSEN: How much speed did the first speed demon fans get to see?
LEERHSEN: Well, the world record at that point was 141 miles per hour in an automobile. The average speed of the race turned out to be closer to 75 miles an hour. But the key thing to remember about early auto racing is that the manufacturers had the speed thing down before they had the brakes thing down. It was a wild period because you could go very fast but stopping, as my friend Jackie Mason likes to say, that's up to you.
HANSEN: Why was the race such an instant success?
LEERHSEN: Carl Fischer, the founding president, got the idea to have one long crazy race. And it was the longest race ever on a track, except for a couple of novelty kind of marathon 24-hour races. And one thing that was attractive about it was that the longest race meant it was also the most dangerous race ever accomplished.
HANSEN: Was it the risk that people were interested in?
LEERHSEN: It wasn't so much death that people wanted to see but they wanted to kind of hang around in its titillating possibility. And in those days, when there was a car accident in a race, the crowd would run out on the track and the race would continue. And there'd be men and women out there - they were ripping off buttons and epaulettes from the bodies as souvenirs and the cars would swerve around them. People hadn't quite figured out how to act at sporting events yet.
HANSEN: Didn't the drivers in the early race also, like, throw things at each other?
LEERHSEN: They were very competitive. And I have accounts I found of this one guy who was accused of throwing monkey wrenches at his fellow drivers as they came up alongside him. And he said, no, those cost too much money; I throw nuts and bolts. I keep them in a bucket here. And, of course, that could kill you.
HANSEN: What kind of cars were being driven at the time, outlandish 75 miles per hour?
LEERHSEN: There were two types of drivers in those days. One, were the rich kids, the Ivy League kids who were, you know, eventually going to go on to a life in their father's bank or brokerage and they wanted to sow their wild oats before they did that. And the other group was a kind of sad group of farm kids and blue- collar guys who just were looking for a way to escape the farm and the factory and were willing to risk their lives to do this.
HANSEN: How much was the prize money?
LEERHSEN: Well, the prize money for this race was very attractive at the time. The total prize was $25,000, and the winner got $10,000. And that got people very excited. We kind of have to put ourselves back in that era when sports was a new thing and this, you know, wasn't done before that. You would get a substantial amount of money for playing a game or being in a car race. It made everyone kind of giddy and it felt kind of depraved in a way.
HANSEN: Who won that first race?
LEERHSEN: Well, we don't know.
LEERHSEN: And then at about 200 miles, there was an accident. A car spun out, got near the judge's stand and all the judges ran for their lives. And for somewhere between 10 minutes and an hour, the counts vary. No one was officially keeping tabs on the race. So, it was chaos and insanity and in the end, the trophy was thrust into the hands of a guy who happened to be driving a car that just happened to be made in Indianapolis and made by a guy who was a buddy of the president of the track.
HANSEN: And the controversy still goes on today, right?
LEERHSEN: In chat rooms and Internet forums and places like that, it does, yes.
HANSEN: Charles Leerhsen is the author of "Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500." He joined us from New York. Enjoy the race.
LEERHSEN: Thank you, Liane.
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