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Before the first "Gentlemen, start your engines!" phrase, which became legendary, there was Carl G. Fisher.

Fisher, known in Northwest Indiana as the driving force behind the creation of the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, also is known for concocting another enduring idea to promote automobile sales more than a century ago: Fisher co-founded the Indianapolis 500, a tradition that today will see its 100th running.

The idea began with a trip to France, where he saw firsthand the higher caliber of automotive testing. He wanted to improve on it in the United States, giving way to the idea for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Fisher found a suitable plot of land a few miles west of downtown Indianapolis and started construction in 1909.

Brian Hasler, an automotive historian and co-founder of the Indiana Racing Memorial Association, said the state capital was the ideal location.

“It really was 'The Crossroads of America,' and it’s been the greatest racetrack ever since,” Hasler said.

“They would test speed, endurance and durability of every part of the car in the race.”

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1911 Indianapolis 500

This image shows 40 cars with their drivers and mechanics on the straightaway before the start of the first 500 Mile Race. A crowd of 80,000 spectators witnessed the event from behind the concrete retaining wall. The pace car, a Stoddard-Dayton with Carl G. Fisher at the wheel, sits to the right of the field.

Construction had not yet finished when funds were dwindling. Fisher decided to open the speedway for its first event: a hot air balloon race. The Indianapolis Star reported that 40,000 people came to watch the event until the balloons drifted out of sight.

Just a month later, Fisher organized two days of motorcycle races for the track. The event was cut short, as drivers didn’t feel safe driving on the surface, then made of gravel and tar, at high speeds.

The first automobile races suffered the same fate, with drivers being covered in tar and gravel or even being temporarily blinded due to the loose surface.

In 1910, Fisher hosted the National Aviation Meet at the speedway to boost publicity before the first 500-mile race. According to the Indiana Historical Society, Wilbur and Orville Wright were featured guests at the speedway, joined by a flying circus with airborne acrobatics.

Hasler said Fisher tried many different variations on the length and frequency of automobile races before settling on an annual race of 500 miles.

“People got exhausted after so many days of racing,” he said. “So the main attraction was shortened to one day, 500 miles.”

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Balloon race on June 5, 1909, in the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Before starting the new race, Fisher and the other investors decided to pave the speedway with bricks. It took five companies across the state to supply the 3.2 million bricks necessary to cover the track. This makeover gave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the nickname, the “Brickyard.”

The Indianapolis 500, then called the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race, was first held in 1911. Ray Harroun drove the winning car, which he outfitted with a rear-view mirror to save weight and go faster.

“He got the idea from a horse-drawn carriage in Chicago. Plus it had the added benefit of saving the weight of a riding mechanic,” he said.

Though the invention is useful today, it was of little use to Harroun. Donald Davidson, historian at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, spoke with Harroun about testing his rear-view mirror on such an uneven surface.

“He said, 'it shook so much I couldn’t see a damn thing,'” Davidson said.

After the United States became involved in World War I, the speedway was used as a refueling station for aircraft, so the 500 was canceled in 1917 and 1918. But when the race started up again, the crowd got a taste of a tradition that has started every modern Indy 500.

As Howdy Wilcox took the lead in the final laps of the 1919 Indy 500, a brass band began playing “Back Home Again in Indiana” to signal his victory. It wasn’t until 1946 that it became a staple of the race.

Almost every year from 1972 until 2014, it was sung by Jim Nabors just before the drivers started their engines. Thousands of balloons are released as the song is finished.

“It sends chills down your spine when you hear him sing it,” Hasler said of Nabors.

In the 1920s, Fisher sold the Speedway to former Indy driver Eddie Rickenbacker, who built a golf course inside the oval to boost sales. By the time the Great Depression hit, the speedway was struggling to fill the starting line, and allowed more car manufacturers to send entries.

In 1936, Louis Meyer’s drink of choice was a glass of buttermilk to fight off the heat in victory lane. A dairy executive saw this and pounced at the opportunity for free advertising, and began sponsoring the event.

Emerson Fittipaldi, the 1993 winner, drew bad publicity by drinking orange juice instead of milk, and was booed at later racing events.

The 1936 race also was the first instance the Borg-Warner Trophy was awarded. It is a multi-tiered sterling silver award covered in the embossed faces of winners of the race. It is permanently housed in the museum on the grounds of the speedway. Since 1988, winners have received a smaller trophy, called “Baby Borg.”

Despite the lavish gifts and increasing sums of money awarded to the winner, the speedway faced difficult times, and fell into disrepair. It was closed during World War II. Rickenbacker nearly sold it to a housing developer, until former driver Wilbur Shaw intervened.

“He was a special Hoosier driver,” Hasler said. “He heard that Rickenbacker would sell the land to a real estate developer, so he stepped in and said, 'Let me help.' ”

Shaw met Tony Hulman, a businessman and racing enthusiast in Terre Haute, who was eager to buy the speedway. He paid $750,000.

“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that without Shaw we wouldn’t have the speedway today,” Hasler said.

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1911 Indianapolis 500

A view of the north end of the track shows some cars in the distance that have just rounded the fourth turn and are approaching the straightaway. The new bricks are stained from leaking oil that made the track treacherous, especially in the turns. Sand was shoveled onto the track to try to improve traction during the race.

In 1961, the “Brickyard” was paved with asphalt, save only a 3-foot-wide strip of bricks for the finish line.

Around this time, the mother of two competitors cooked up a food tradition. Mary Unser, mother to drivers Bobby and Al Unser, attended the race every year her sons competed until her death in 1975.

She would always bring her renowned chili. She began making it for the safety crews, but news spread over the years, and she ended up serving drivers, team members and the media in her final years at the track.

As other racing leagues grew in popularity, the speedway began to include separate racing tracks for their use. NASCAR and IndyCar held races on the 2.5-mile-long oval. Formula One and motorcycle races were held on an interior track made up of tighter turns.

Today, races abide by stricter rules that were put in place to slow the cars. Gone are the days of cars zooming by at 235 mph. In modern races, cars speed between 218 and 228 mph, still almost three times the speeds recorded in the first race.

“(Indiana) may have lost the engineering touch we had in the early days of the 500, but we'll never lose the Speedway,” Hasler said.

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