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A live weekly radio adventure through Indiana history with host Nelson Price. Airs live on Saturdays from noon to 1 pm ET at WICR 88.7 fm in Indianapolis.

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April 08, 2023

Construction of the Speedway in 1909 and pre-Indy 500 races

As we varoom toward racing festivities, Hoosier History Live will shift into reverse gear for an exploration of the rapid construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909. We also will spotlight early auto races at the Speedway that year, including some tragedies that preceded the successful inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

It took Speedway founder Carl Fisher and his partners about three years to acquire the property for the racetrack, according to our guest. Then, several factors resulted in a rush to get the Speedway built quickly. Beginning in March 1909, construction involved a total of 500 laborers and 300 mules.

Nelson's guest will be Mark Dill, an acclaimed historian of early auto racing and the creator of FirstSuperSpeedway.com, an extensive online archive about pre-1920 auto racing. An Indy native and former vice president for marketing and public relations at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mark is based in Cary, N.C., and is the author of books about the early era of auto racing, including The Legend of the First Super Speedway: The Battle for the Soul of American Auto Racing.

The first serious discussion about building a large Speedway occurred between entrepreneur Carl Fisher and his partners during an event in November 1905 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, according to Mark. He describes Fisher (1874-1939) as a "massive risk taker".

By all accounts, the initial auto races in 1909 at the racetrack (initially built of crushed stone) were a disaster. Multiple races on one weekend resulted, Mark notes, in five fatalities; one driver, two riding mechanics and two spectators were killed.

The tragedies outraged Indiana's lieutenant governor, Frank Hall, who urged the legislature to ban auto racing in the state.  But the popular governor, Thomas R. Marshall, and business leaders defended the Speedway. Fisher and his partners funded a second major construction project to remove the crushed stone, replacing it by paving the racetrack with bricks. Before the paving project was even completed, 'The Brickyard' nickname for the racetrack had been coined, Mark Dill notes.

Mark has been a guest on previous Hoosier History Live shows about early auto racing. They include a show in 2016 about Hoosiers who competed in early Indy 500s and a follow-up two years later focusing on the international aspects of early Indy 500s.

International interest in auto racing apparently existed from the earliest years. According to Mark, the opening in 1907 of an oval race track in England was a factor in the push by Carl Fisher to complete the construction of the Speedway quickly. "He was competitive and hated any perception that anyone beat him at anything."

Fisher and his partners also wanted to recover their initial investment of more than $700,000 as quickly as possible, Mark says. In addition to the 500 laborers and 300 mules involved in the construction of the Speedway in 1909, several steam-powered excavators and rollers were used.

Some other history notes:

  • In 1997, our guest Mark Dill got to participate in the traditional milk-drinking celebration in victory circle at the Speedway by the winning Indy 500 team. He was working then for a business that he arranged to sponsor the car driven by Arie Luyendyk, who won the race.

  • As many racing trivia buffs know, the first major competition at the Speedway was a hot air balloon race in June 1909.  Carl Fisher was among the competitors in the event, which Mark notes was held while the racetrack was still under construction.

  • In May 1910, the first major auto event at The Brickyard was a race that extended over three days. The event, Mark says, "was a success in speed and safety". The winner was Ray Harroun, who drove the same Marmon Wasp that would go on to win the first Indy 500 in 1911. "Most people don’t know the Wasp was a one-year-old car when it won", Mark notes.

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Roadtrip: Marengo Cave in Crawford County

Guest Roadtripper Jeff Kamm, author and a teacher at Plainfield Community School Corporation, suggests a visit to the southern part of Indiana to visit Marengo Cave in Crawford County. The National Natural Landmark has been a destination for tourists since the late 1800's. The privately owned attraction is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and offers two guided tours. 

Jeff tells us that caverns were not discovered until 1883. Although several versions of the cave's discovery are shared among locals, it is agreed that area children were the first humans to enter the underground wonderland. News quickly spread and the cave has been popular ever since.

The present ownership group has been the steward of this natural wonder since 1973. Marengo Cave's formations include stalagmites, stalactites, flower stone, cave popcorn, and soda straws. Aside from the cave, visitors may enjoy pedal cars, a giant maze, putt-putt golf, gemstone mining, and multiple shops. Visitors may camp on site or stay in a cabin.

While in the area, visitors may want to check out nearby Corydon in Harrison County. Corydon served as the first state capital and also was the site of the only Civil War battle in the Hoosier State.

Hoosier History Live is an independent production group

Why is Hoosier History Live an outstanding media product? Because we are independent, and we because we make our own business and editorial decisions. We control our quality as best we can. Basically, producer Molly Head makes the business decisions and manages the project. And, she created Hoosier History Live! Host Nelson Price selects and researches the main show topic and guest. And is, of course, the effervescent on-air talent. Where else are you going to learn about history and be entertained all at the same time?

All of our contact information is on our website at www.hoosier history live.org, where you can also sign up for our free weekly enewsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter at Hoosier History Live. Look for our yellow logo to make sure you are at the right place! 

There are ways to help us. Would your business or organization like to offer prizes for the History Mystery on air question? You get an on-air mention by Nelson! Prizes must fit in a standard business envelope, as they are "snail mailed" to winners. Email our producer at molly@hoosierhistorylive.org for more info.

Would your business or library or residence like to have a listening group to listen to the live show on Saturdays noon to one pm? It's a great way to get people involved. All you need is a listening device, such as a laptop or radio or cell phone, and a quiet place with chairs to listen, and someone to facilitate the group. Contact molly@hoosierhistorylive.org for advice on setting this up.

Are you a restaurant near the University of Indianapolis on the south side, or is your restaurant downtown? Is your restaurant open Saturdays at 1 pm? Are you willing to offer a place for Nelson and guests to go lunch after the show? If so, please contact molly@hoosierhistorylive.org.

Sometimes the news today is pretty dreary, and American society seems to become more and more fractionalized. Hopefully, as readers, listeners, and fans, you believe that Hoosier History Live is a project worthy of respect and support.    

History Mystery winner Merle Rose attends historic courthouse concert

Attorney Merle Rose said he had tried many cases in the second floor courtroom of the historic Hamilton County Courthouse, which was built between 1877 and 1879, and sits in the middle of the Noblesville town square. So Mr. Rose was pleased to be the big winner of a recent History Mystery trivia contest on Hoosier History Live. He had known that the historic town on the National Road that straddled the Marion and Hancock county line was "Cumberland".

Mr. Rose had received two tickets to the Bicentennial (Hamilton County) Classical Guitar Concert on the evening of April 1 at the historic courtroom. "Judge" Janet Gilray, director of Legacy Keepers Music, held court, and classical guitar musicians Santiago Baptista and Joseph Jones performed.

Further Bicentennial Classical Guitar Series concerts will be held in the historic courtroom on May 6, November 4. and December 2. And, if your group or organization would like to offer History Mystery prizes on Hoosier History Live, contact producer Molly Head at molly@hoosierhistorylive.org. Let's keep making some Hoosier history! 

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We'd like to thank the following recent individual contributors who make this show possible. For a full list of contributors over the years, visit  Support the Show on our website.

  • Kevin Murray
  • Susan Bielawski in memory of Jane Bielawski
  • Jill Lough Chambers
  • Sandra Hurt
  • Tom Swenson
  • Peggy Hollingsworth
  • Mike Freeland and Sharon Butsch Freeland 
  • Dr. William McNiece
  • Robin Winston
  • Ann Frick
  • James Fadely
  • In memory of William (Bill) Mihay by Bob Wakefield
  • Florence and John Stanton
  • Aleta Hodge
  • Lorraine Phillips Vavul
  • Margaret Smith
  • Jane Hodge
  • Jeff Price

Molly Head, executive producer (317) 506-7164 
Nelson Price, host and historian
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Pam Fraizer, graphic designer


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Facebook logo links to the Hoosier History Live! page.Twitter logo for Hoosier History Live.Acknowledgements to WICR-FM, Fraizer Designs, Monomedia, Henri Pensis, Leticia Vasselli, Heather McIntyre, and many other individuals and organizations. We are independently produced and are self-supporting through organizational sponsorship and through individual contribution at the yellow button on our newsletter or website. For organizational sponsorship, which includes logos, links, and voiced credits in the show, contact Molly Head at (317) 506-7164 or email her at molly@hoosierhistorylive.org.

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