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Published: Saturday, 5/17/2008

Plenty of off-track thrills at Hall of Fame Museum

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

INDIANAPOLIS - How many people sitting on the edge of their seats at the Indy 500 race May 25 will fantasize about driving one of the cars, even for a few minutes?

Such people and others can get closer to the action - and the track's cars and history - than they think.

I have to admit that I am not a race car fan. I live 15 miles from the Michigan International Speedway and have yet to see a race.

But visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum piqued my interest in the sport that will draw thousands of people to the Indiana capital this month and millions more to their televisions.

There is a lot to see inside the museum where more than 30 Indy 500 cars are showcased with many other vehicles, but the $3 lap on the world-famous 2 1/2 mile track is fascinating from the minute the recorded voice of Mari Hulman George announces "Gentlemen, start your engines." The Hulman family has owned the speedway since 1945.

Traveling by bus is slow motion compared to the race cars that top speeds of 225 mph, but riding on the race track as the driver narrates the highlights is informative and gives a stunning perspective compared to watching the action from one of the 275,000 bleacher seats or 132 corporate suites.

The history of the track unfolds on the 30-minute ride. Visitors learn why it is referred to as the Brickyard, and the valuable contributions the race has made to the automotive industry. The track, covered with several layers of asphalt, hides previous surfaces. The original surface of crushed and powdered rocks was later covered with bricks. Many of the 3,200,000 bricks, secured by mortar, remain under the asphalt. The exception is the "yard of bricks," the portion of exposed bricks at the start and finish line. It is traditional for the winning driver to get on his hands and knees and kiss the bricks.

The bus, following the track's straightaways and turns, passes the 13-story, pagoda-style building and the pit stops where it takes 13 seconds to change wheels.

Four local businessmen built a motor speedway in 1909 as a test track to determine the potential of automobiles when Indiana was a leading state in the industry. Marmon, Cole, National, Marion, Overland, and American Underslung were all operating in and near Indianapolis when the track opened. Stutz and Duesenberg were added to the local pride later.

Designed deliberately with straightaways and gradual turns, the track was first used by the manufacturers to test models that were capable of greater speeds than could be judged on the dirt roads. It became a public attraction when manufacturers were invited to race stripped-down car models, which the public could purchase.

Several industry improvements were the result of the testing, including front-wheel and four-wheel drive, hydraulic shock absorbers, four-wheel brakes, and essential car parts such as piston rings and spark plugs, that 98 years later, we take for granted.

It is believed that the first rearview mirror on any car helped Roy Harroun to win the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911 with a $25,000 purse. The time was 6 hours and 42 minutes with a top speed of 74 mph. The winning time was a perfect fit with projection of the track owners who decided on the 500-mile distance. They determined that for public appeal, that distance would take about seven hours between mid morning and late afternoon, or an appropriate time for a day's outing.

Harroun's car, the Wasp, was a version of the locally built Marmons. It is on exhibit in the museum complete with the 3-by-8 inch innovative mirror. Harroun got the idea for the mirror as a safety measure after seeing one on a horse-drawn taxi in Chicago.

The museum features exhibits for antique car buffs as well as for race fans. A 20-minute visual presentation of historic footage and Indy 500 highlights is shown in the Tony Hulman Theatre.

The Indy 500 winning cars that are featured include Dale Evans' Cummins Diesel Special, which in 1931 was the first car to complete the 500 without a pit stop. Visitors can compare the model differences in the four cars driven by A.J. Font, the four-time 500 winner. The Lightning/Offy, driven by Janet Guthrie, the first woman to qualify for the 500 in 1977, is in the lineup along with the Monte Carlo that took Tony Stewart to the finish line first in the 400 Brickyard in 2005. NASCAR races at the Indy track are called 400 Brickyards and are held the last weekend in July or the first weekend in August.

Classic cars on display include the 1927 Duesenberg that was the personal car of company co-owner Augie Duesenberg and a 1925 McFarlan Passenger roadster. The three-wheel French race car that won the race between Paris and Marseilles in 1896 is among the foreign models.

Motorcycles in the exhibit are classics, including a 1970 two-cylinder Harley-Davidson, but they hint at the future of the track: Its first motorcycle race, the Red Bull Moto GP, is scheduled for Sept. 12-14.

Contact Mary Alice Powell at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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