On May 30, 1911, a big event took place at the Indianapolis Speedway—the first running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race—200 laps around the track. It was called the 500-mile International Sweepstakes race back then. One story is that while there had been other races at the Speedway in the past, the owners wanted to pick up attendance, so they decided to run one special race—the Indy 500. At that time, the cars were “2-seaters.” There was a driver and a mechanic who also served as spotter—these days they have spotters up on the rooftop to help the drivers know what may be going on around them.
This picture was in my Grandmother, Margaret (Millikan) McKinley’s collection.
Ralph DePalma drove in that first race. He also drove in the 1912 race, where he lead for 196 laps, then came in 11th place after his car broke down and he and his mechanic had to push it across the finish line. He finished just out of the money. (Only 1-10th places were paid winnings). He won the race in 1915 & continued to race at Indy in the early 1920’s.
So how did this photo end up in Grandma’s collection? The assumption is that it belonged to her father, Arza Millikan. The only hint I have is from a letter that was written to Arza May 25, 1911. It was from a young lady, Bertha Shortridge, that he had met through her brother when they attended the Farmers Institute at Purdue. He kept up correspondence with her for a couple of years. Anyway, she wrote:
“I know of several who are going to the races but I hadn’t thought of going myself. I did think of it tho’ after getting your letter to-day. Several boys and some men and their families are going but I do not know that any of the girls are going. I have relatives in the city and would like, not only to see them and the races but would be glad to meet you there but have decided it is impossible for me to go. To explain—I am making some of the graduating dresses and the commencement is next Thursday night and I cannot finish them and go to Indpls. too, so feel I must keep my word and get the work done by then. You know it is always, “business before pleasure.” Thank you for the arrangements you have so kindly made for my pleasure and am very sorry I cannot enjoy the day with you but hope you can go anyway. Tell me all about it if you do. I think there are one or two Connersville men to be in the races. Expect to hear of several meeting their everlasting. Two men were hurt there yesterday.”
So the assumption is that Arza went to the race, he had apparently made plans to include Miss Shortridge, but even though she turned him down, I bet he still went. He probably went with a group of friends. There was a report in the Sheridan News from June 2, stating the early Monon train heading to Indianapolis on race day was full & some people were delayed in getting there until after the race started. If he did go, it was an all-day event. To qualify for the race, the cars had to go at least 75 miles per hour—if you consider 500 miles at that speed, the race itself would have lasted about 7 hours. The news article said the race was over at 5pm. I expect it would have been quite dusty and dirty out at the track, not quite like it looks now on TV. So it is kind of interesting to imagine that Arza was there for the first Indy 500 race. Maybe he went to another race as well.
I haven’t quite been able to tie the photo of Ralph DePalma to the Indy 500. In 1911, he didn’t drive a Mercedes. In 1912 he did and his car was #4, but I can’t find a picture of him in the car. There is a car in the Indy museum that is reportedly the car he drove, but it is a little different than what is in the picture, but then I wonder if they painted it a couple of times. In 1915 he drove a Mercedes #4 car and won, but that is a different car than what is in the picture. I did find a similar picture on-line & the caption indicates that it was of Ralph DePalma and his mechanic, Tom Alley in 1912 relating to the Elgin road race in IL. But he didn’t win that race until August 1912, well after the 500 was run. So there is still a little mystery to when the photo souvenir was acquired.
And I still wonder if Arza went to the first Indy 500.
© MJM 2017