|A Year of Indiana History - 2016|
The first race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not an automobile race. The first race, held on June 5, 1909, was a hot air balloon race.
Planning the Race
Speedway President Carl Fisher had another interest that did not involve cars. It was aviation. He formed Aero Club of Indiana and worked to obtain his balloon pilot's license. He became the twenty-first person to earn that license. He and his partners had incurred a large financial obligation when the built the Speedway. Construction of the track had begun in April 1909, but it would be 1911 before the track would be ready or an automobile race. Fisher and his partners needed to generate revenue. Fisher, a balloon enthusiast, believed they could do that by holding the National Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race would provide cash infusion and create interest in their new racetrack before the first auto race.
The weather in the days before the race had been stormy and mean. Race day, however, dawned bright and beautiful. 3500 paying customers crowded into the Speedway to watch the nine hot air balloons inflate as the crews readied them for the race. Another 40,000 spectators clogged the streets outside in a bid to watch the spectacle free. Fisher would race one balloon himself, one he had dubbed the Indiana.
Fisher and his racing partner George Bumbaugh took off in the Indiana, along with the eight other balloons. Fisher and Bumbaugh endured a harrowing flight, during which they discovered that someone had replaced their drinking water with oil. They had to descend low enough for people on the ground to give them some. Caught in turbulent weather upon resuming their flight, the balloon soared to a bone chilling 14,000 feet. The men managed to descend, but another updraft caught them and carried them up to 9000 feet. When they finally came down, they persuaded some farm workers to pull them down. They rested in a tree a short distance from the balloon, smoking cigars. Before nightfall, they ascended again, finally coming down for good on a farm near Tennessee City, Tennessee.
It took six days for the committee to decide who won the race. Fisher and Bumbaugh in their Indiana had been in a close race with a balloon called University City. They finally decided University City won the race, having traveled to Alabama, a distance of 382 miles in a little more than twenty-four hours. Thus, the first race winner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a balloon, not a car.
A Year of Indiana History - 2016
© Paul Wonning