Speedway Has Plenty Of Connections To First 100 Years Of Flight

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

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The centerpiece structure at the Yard of Bricks inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is named the Bombardier Pagoda. Bombardier's main business is building and selling airplanes, and the name is another in the long list of connections between flight and the world's most famous racetrack.

On this centennial day of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., it is noteworthy that although the Speedway was built for racing and the Indianapolis 500 has become the most famous automobile race in the world, the track has ties to the history of the airplane that date back to before the first "500" took place in 1911.

The first race at the Speedway was between gas-filled balloons in June 1909. In June 1910, the first airplane event at the track took place over several days in the infield, with both Orville and Wilbur Wright attending and fielding planes in the display. A map in the 1910 Speedway program shows the airplane course in the infield and hangar buildings.

On June 17, 1910, Walter Brookins reached 4,938 feet over the Speedway to set a world flight altitude record.

One of the participants in the 1910 display was Mel Marquette, who built his plane at his Indianapolis shop. The next year, Marquette was one of the drivers in the first Indianapolis 500, starting 20th and finishing 25th in a McFarlan.

Ray Harroun, who won the first "500" in his famed Marmon Wasp, also built an airplane and flew it off the Speedway grounds.

Caleb Bragg, a Yale and MIT graduate, finished 37th in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 and co-drove with runner-up finisher Teddy Tetzlaff in 1912. A Cincinnati native, Bragg not only was a pioneer driver but also became an Army test pilot during World War I. He was co-organizer of the Wright-Martin Co. in 1916, and in 1917 became the first American to exceed 20,000 feet in flight.

Bragg's flying career continued after that record. He was the governor of the Aero Club of America and member of its contest commission. He also was director of the Wright Aeronautical Corp., and later formed a company that eventually was absorbed by Bendix Aviation. Bragg became president of Langley Aviation, and his final position was vice president/engineer for C.M. Keys Aircraft Service.

The exploits of Eddie Rickenbacker are legendary in both Speedway and aviation lore. He drove in the Indianapolis 500 in 1912 and 1914-16, then learned to fly in France and became the leader of the American 94th Hat-in-the-Ring squadron flying and America's ace-of-aces with 26 German plane kills during World War I.

After the war, he bought the Speedway and ran it from 1927-45. He also ran Eastern Airlines. During World War II, he survived 21 days in a life raft after his B-17 bomber was ditched in the Pacific Ocean.

Georges Boillot was a Frenchman who was favored to win the 1914 Indianapolis 500 after capturing the 1912-13 French Grand Prix. He was the fastest qualifier for the 1914 race at 99.86 mph - nearly the first 100-mph lap at the Speedway - but placed 14th after problems with the frame of his car.

Boillot returned to his native France following that lone appearance at Indianapolis and enlisted in the army, becoming the chauffeur for French Gen. Jonfre. He took up flying as a sport and moved to the aviation corps. On May 20, 1916, he flew over Verdun and encountered five or seven (depending on reports) German pilots.

He shot down one before he was struck by a German bullet and crashed to become the only Indianapolis 500 driver to die in aerial combat.

During America's participation in World War I in 1917-18, the Speedway closed as a racetrack. But it remained open as an airfield. The 821st Aero Squadron, based on the grounds, repaired and serviced planes flying on hops across the country.

Just last month at Lake County, Ind., among items sold at an estate auction was a picture of the squadron standing in front of the Speedway hangar.

One of the early fliers in those days was Henry Boonstra, who was a pilot for the Signal Corps. He joined the Post Office Department and ferried surplus aircraft to the repair depot. He attended the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard heavyweight fight in July 1919, carrying Mary Bostwick of The Indianapolis Star on the flight to Toledo, Ohio. He then became one of the first pilots to make a night flight as he flew her back to Indianapolis.

Boonstra circled the track until enough cars lined up with their lights on to enable him to land.

The years between the world wars saw many aviation personalities, such as Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran and Roscoe Turner, appear at the Speedway as guests or honorary officials.

When World War II began, some of the best mechanical minds of the Indianapolis 500 were chosen for key roles in the war effort. For instance, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wilbur Shaw headed Firestone's aviation depart. Other drivers, like Rex Mays, flew planes.

Smokey Yunick, later to become one of racing's most famous mechanics, flew on bomber raids over Europe. Ray Crawford was a P-38 fighter pilot who shot down seven planes and after the war became a jet fighter test pilot and a three-time Indianapolis 500 starter. Rodger Ward, destined to win two Indianapolis 500s, taught pilots how to fly a P-38.

Drivers Bill Cheesbourg, Mike Magill and Marshall Teague also were World War II Army Air Force veterans, and six-time Indy starter Jimmy Reece served during the Korean War.

Many drivers flew their own planes after the war.

Two-time Indy 500 starter Pete Halsmer flew helicopters during the Vietnam War.

In the 1960s, astronauts began making regular appearances at the track in May. Jim Rathmann, 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner, had a prominent car dealership near Cape Canaveral and made friends with many astronauts.

Gus Grissom, one of the original five astronauts, was from Mitchell, Ind. Grissom, fellow astronaut Gordon Cooper and Rathmann co-owned the race car Art Pollard drove during the second half of the 1965 champ-car season.

Among the astronauts who visited the Speedway were Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, Cooper, Pete Conrad, Alan Shepard and Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, rode in the Pace Car convertible in 1971.

In 1998, Indianapolis native David Wolf came down from 4½ months aboard the Russian space station Mir and was a star celebrity at the "500." Seven other astronauts who participated in the 16-day shuttle flight of the Columbia STS-90 also attended the race.

Just last May, legendary Indianapolis 500 team owner Roger Penske announced that NASA had become involved with his team and its telemetry.

Looking at Indianapolis 500 Pace Car drivers, Gen. Chuck Yeager, who handled the duty in 1986 and 1988, had top pilot credentials. He was a World War II flying hero who became the first pilot to break the sound barrier during post-World War II testing of jet fighters.

There undoubtedly are many others who have a connection with the Speedway and flying since the Wright Brothers first brought their cloth-winged fliers to the track in 1910.

So the Speedway can claim it has had a special niche in the first 100 years of flight.