How The Indy 500 Changed Motorsport Forever

If you know what ‘the Brickyard’ is, have ever sung ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ or understand the significance of a bottle of milk in Victory Lane, you are probably a fan of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race or the Indy 500, as it is better known. Indy 500 history is steeped in tradition but it has also been a dynamic hub for motorsport innovation. They say that necessity is the mother of invention and for Indy 500 constructors and drivers this has always been true. We take a look at how the Indy 500 has changed motorsport forever.

indy 500 history

Indy 500 History – Rear view mirrors

On today’s overcrowded roads it is hard to imagine driving without the ability to see behind us in the rear view mirror but these reflective driving aids came along relatively late and are a rather surprising element of Indy 500 history. When Ray Harroun, in 1911, wanted to enter a single-seater vehicle with no room for a co-pilot to relay information about what was behind him, he solved the problem by mounting a rear-view mirror similar to one he had seen on a horse-drawn vehicle. Despite vibration rendering this particular rear-view mirror virtually useless, this practice continued into both motorsport and daily motoring. All F1 cars are required to have two rear-view mirrors to strict specifications and drivers have to prove that these allow them to read boards placed both behind and to the sides of their car.


The introduction of driver helmets

With today’s ever-updating safety regulations, it is hard to believe that any motorsport, let alone something as fast-paced as the Indy 500, ever allowed competitors to drive without helmets but when the Indy 500 made helmets compulsory for every driver in 1935, they were 17 years ahead of European grand prix racing and Formula One. Just imagine what drivers in Indy 500 history would have made of today’s discussions about the controversial F1 Halo.

indy 500 racing

Seatbelt safety

At one time the school of thought was that being flung out of an Indy 500 car as it crashed was far safer than being trapped inside one that was likely to catch fire. In Indy 500 history, seatbelts took a while to catch on but, when in 1956 Ray Crawford survived a head-on collision whilst wearing one, seatbelts became commonplace in motorsport. A six-point seatbelt has been mandatory for Formula One since 1972. Incidentally, the wearing of seatbelts on public roads was not made compulsory by law in the UK until 1983.


Magnesium-alloy wheels

We have all seen the skill and dexterity with which pit crews deal with today’s cumbersome wheels but most of us would be surprised to learn that ‘mags’ or magnesium wheels were first developed for Indy 500 race cars and were used by all of the winning cars between 1946 and 1963. Ted Halibrand, who made the first Halibrand magnesium wheels in 1946, after using the technology on WW2 aircraft, saw success as his ‘Halibrands’ took off across motorsport. Today’s Formula One wheels are still made from magnesium alloys in order to obtain maximum rigidity for minimum weight.

motorsport history

Four wheel drive

Although four wheel drive had its beginnings in French tractors and gun tractors as long ago as 1898, Indy 500 history shows that it wasn’t until 1932 that Harry Miller designed a car which powered all four wheels in order to deal with the slippery track surface of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These early 4x4s were generally slower than their two wheel drive equivalents but did lead to the creation and introduction of the brake disc, which first came on offer to the American public around 1945. 4WD remains on the F1 agenda to date and was discussed as part of a front-axel kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) as recently as 2017.


Turbocharged engines

It is true that Formula One has been at the forefront of turbocharged engine design since the appearance of Renault’s Gordini V6 Turbo in 1977 but Indy 500 history records the first turbocharger at the 1952 Indianapolis event. This debut was not exactly a success story because, despite gaining pole position, the driver Freddie Agabashian had to retire after tire debris congested the engine and made it overheat. No such problems with today’s turbocharged engines but Formula One does have restrictions as to how often an engine’s turbo can be changed during a season.

indianapolis 500

Crash data recorders

EDRs or Event Data Recorders are now installed as standard in most new cars. Also known as the black box, this device activates as soon as the brakes are applied suddenly, you swerve or the airbags are deployed. Today’s data recorders track data points such as speed, braking acceleration, seatbelt use and force of impact and are useful, once the data has been retrieved, for insurance and injury claims. Once again the Indy 500 history of innovation has been proven, as it was as early as 1993 that on-board crash data recorders were made mandatory for all Indy 500 cars. The aim was to learn from crash data and the idea became popular throughout a range of motorsport series including Formula One where it has been compulsory since 1999.


Barrier safety

Motorsport safety is not just about protecting the driver and, once again, Indy 500 has led the way towards modern day standards. The SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier or ‘soft wall’ was designed to absorb some of the kinetic energy produced on impact with a motor vehicle. Oval tracks such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track allow for high speeds and excessive centrifugal force and, in May 2002, the first SAFER barrier was installed and proved successful for that year’s Indy 500. Today the FIA utilises a range of barriers to suit different track and road situations but the principles of the SAFER barrier still save lives.

Many developments in Indy 500 history and other motorsport have come about as a response to calls for safety improvements. For example, Formula One racetrack medical centres are now equipped to deal with a wide variety of medical and surgical emergencies on site. At MDD we offer the very best in driver cover, extrication and medical support. For professional help and advice regarding safety cover personnel and all of your FIA approved medical equipment, feel free to get in touch with our experienced team today.