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The Indianapolis 500 that wasn’t — the story of the 1916 race

Cloudy skies and another massive crowd are expected this Sunday as the Indianapolis 500 will be run for the 101st time in central Indiana. But technically, it isn’t the 101st time the race length has been set at 500 miles. Confused?

In 1916, Carl Fisher – co-founder and first president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – was looking to rectify what he saw as a huge problem. A year previous, Italian Ralph DePalma won the fifth running of the not-yet-iconic race, crossing the finish line in 5 hours and 33 minutes.

Fisher believed the race length was much too long.

“You have to remember that Carl Fisher and others were still making it up as they went along,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson about the 1916 race. “The thing was not as established as it was eventually going to be.”

The previous five runnings of the race had all been 500 miles, and all had been at least five hours. Due to increased speed, the race length had been shrinking steadily from the inaugural 1911 race, which had lasted six hours and 42 minutes.

But Fisher believed for the Indy 500 to survive, it had to be shorter.

So the 6th International 300-Mile Sweepstakes Race was born, now traditionally known as the 1916 Indianapolis 500. Management scheduled the race to be started in the early afternoon instead of at 10 a.m. and would be comprised of 120 laps around the 2.5-mile oval.

The decision to change the race distance wasn’t the only major issue facing Fisher in 1916. The world was embroiled in the second year of the Great War, with all eyes in America on the warfare spreading across the European continent and beyond. While officially still neutral, the United States was being inexorably drawn into the bloodiest conflict the planet had ever seen. While some believe the race was shortened due to the war, that was not the case.

According to Donaldson, there were 30 entries for the 1916 race, but between no shows and cars not able to meet the minimum qualification requirements (one lap at 80 mph or more), only 21 took the green flag, the smallest field in Indy history.

Apart from the shorter distance, perhaps the most fascinating subplot of the 1916 race was the battle between Fisher and Indianapolis hotel proprietors. Similar to the present, hotels in the early 20th century weren’t above skyrocketing their prices with huge events in the area. Fisher took exception to this treatment of the fans coming to see his race and threatened to move the 1916 and/or 1917 event out of state.

What track was Fisher eyeing? According to Donaldson, the alternate site was the Cincinnati Motor Speedway in Sharonville, Ohio. The two-mile venue was a board track, a popular type of circuit in the 1910s and 20s. Using wooden planks to “pave” the racing surface, board tracks were known for high speeds, Talladega and Daytona-esque high banking and dangerous conditions. But it was cheap and popular at the time, and represented a suitable replacement for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway if hotel owners did not wise up.

“Whether Fisher was serious or not about feeling he didn’t have to have the race (in Indianapolis), no one knows,” Donaldson said. “But it was resolved.”

Fisher got what he wanted from the hotel owners and the race stayed where it was.

As for the track in Cincinnati, it closed in 1919 and was razed, barely three years after opening.

On race day, pole sitter Johnny Aitken led the field to the starting line, with future World War I fighter ace and Medal of Honor recipient Eddie Rickenbacker taking the lead on the first lap. He would lead the first nine laps before dropping out due to steering issues.

Just over three and a half hours later, British Italian Dario Resta won the event while averaging a touch over 84 mph.

Despite the successful race, some fans weren’t happy. Turns out many people enjoyed races that lasted nearly a half-dozen hours or more.

“It was obvious to Fisher right away that he had made a mistake,” Davidson said.

It was plain to see that messing with tradition was ill-advised, however young it was. It was planned that the 1917 race would revert back to being a 500-mile event. But World War I intervened, with the 1917 and 1918 races being cancelled.

Come 1919, Howdy Wilcox would triumph in a quick five hours and 40 minutes. It was a long day for competitors, mechanics and fans.

But it was the Indianapolis 500 once again.

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