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Firestone Tires Went The Distance at Indy for Winner Chevrolet in 1920
Note: This is the first of a series of feature stories highlighting historic milestones and anniversaries honored in 2020 leading up to the Month of May and Legends Day presented by Firestone on Saturday, May 23 at IMS.

In the early days of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, then known as the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes, the race was used as a proving ground for automotive innovation.

Each year, the automotive industry would show up in Indianapolis and test what they worked on all year: engines, chassis and even rear-view mirrors. It is believed that the first-known use of a rear-view mirror was in 1911 by Indianapolis 500 winner Ray Harroun.

In 1920, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company used the 500-mile test to see how strong of a tire it could produce for its consumers. Durability on the tough surface was key.

“To begin with, the Indianapolis 500 was not a sport of drivers, it was automobile companies,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson said. “The idea was that the track was built as a proving ground for private testing, but when they had automobile races, it was an extension of testing. In the very early days, the credit went to the company, not the drivers. The drivers were an afterthought.”

The idea was that if a product worked in the grueling 500-mile race, it would work on everyday roads and was something companies or manufacturers could sell to consumers.

Back then, roads were tough on tires, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was no exception. The 2.5-mile course did not have the smooth asphalt surface race fans see today. It was paved entirely with brick and mortar, which quickly exposed unreliable tires.

One hundred years ago, Firestone produced an extremely durable tire under one of its brands, called Oldfields, that lasted from start to finish.

That year, Gaston Chevrolet completed all grueling 500 miles in under six hours, averaged 88.619 mph and won the Indianapolis 500 without changing tires. Davidson estimates that Chevrolet pitted once or twice for fuel, but he never changed tires while on pit lane.

This was a first at Indy. No one in the seven previous races had won the race without changing tires.

“It was very notable that the car could go 500 miles and average around 88 mph,” Davidson said. “But certainly, the fact that they never changed tires, that was bragging rights for the tire company.”

Chevrolet was the younger brother of Arthur and Louis Chevrolet, the namesake of the Chevrolet automobile line. The two brothers were engineers that poured their hearts into the innovative nature of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Arthur and Louis designed and built race cars, called Frontenac’s, specifically to compete at Indianapolis, and they were a part of Gaston’s win 100 years ago. Gaston’s car was entered in the race as a “Monroe Special.”

In just his second Indianapolis 500 attempt, Chevrolet led the final 14 laps in his Frontenac after Ralph DePalma had a mechanical failure late in the race and handed the lead over to Chevrolet.

The impressive feat by Firestone to cement a car and driver in Indianapolis history on a single set of tires turned out to be a rare feat. It took 44 years for this to be accomplished again, when A.J. Foyt drove into Victory Lane in 1964 on the same set of Firestone tires on which he took the green flag.

Tickets for the entire Month of May, including the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and GMR Grand Prix, are on sale at IMS.com and the IMS Ticket Office.
 
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