You may not give two honks about the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 this weekend, but if you’ve ever driven a car, the race has made you safer, faster, and more efficient. Motorsports have always played a crucial role in advancing automotive engineering, and as one of the world’s most important and longest-running races, the Indy 500 has done more than most. Over a century’s-worth of racing, the famed oval has seen the debut of some crazy ideas that have become so standard that you’ll have a hard time picturing your car without them, from the rearview mirror to the turbocharger.
Back in the day, racecar drivers had a ride-along mechanic, who doubled as a spotter for other cars. But at the inaugural Indy 500, a driver named Ray Harroun decided to fly solo. When his competitors kicked up a fuss that he’d be driving blind, he slapped on a mirror, did the spotting for himself, and went on to win the race. Here is Harroun in 1950,taking a seatin his famous Marmon Wasp, with a couple of younger Indy winners.
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In the early days of automobiles, even race cars depended on two-wheel, mechanical brakes that were really only a few steps ahead of what you’d get on a bicycle.Knowing cars were getting too fast for this to be even remotely safe, Duesenberg Motor Co. developed a car (seen here at Le Mans in 1921) with all-wheel hydraulic brakes,which use brake fluid amplify the pressure in the systemrather than relying on racer’s calf muscles.
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Legend has it, driver Barney Oldfield (the first guy to drive at 60 mph) recruited a parachute manufacturer, Leslie Leroy Irvin (credited with completing the first-ever free-fall parachute jump) to design a restraining harness for his Indy 500 car. This picture shows Oldfieldin the Indy pace car in 1922. At the time, conventional wisdom saidit wasbetter to be flung from a car at high speeds that risk being trapped inside, so seat belts didn’t really catch on until after they returnedto Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1956. That year, Ray Crawford opted for a car with seat belts, and proved a point by walking away from a head-on collision unscathed.
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Sometimes, innovations intendedpurely for speed deliversafety and environmental upsides, too. Driver Leon Duray ran his Indy car on ethanol way back in the ’20s. Back then he was the exception, but after a few extremely fiery gasoline-fueled crashes, all Indy cars now run on the safer, greener E85, a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. (Here,Purdue student George Saunders crosses the finish line to win 1927’sIndy 500.)
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It wasn’t the fastest to run that year, but the Clessie L. Cummins-designed diesel-powered car that debuted in 1931 demonstrated the value of a high-performance gasoline-alternative. The car completed the 500 mile race without making a single pit stop (and without cheating on emissions tests).
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Harry Miller was a famouslytalented automotive designer andinnovator, and possibly the first person to attach a motor to a bicycle. On the Indy 500 side of things, he’s the man behind sending power to all four wheels, which he debuted in 1932 in an effort to give his tires extra grip onIndy’s slippery track.
Early race cars took a lot of cues from WWII aircraft, including the use of the turbocharger, whichforces more air into the intake chamber, making more power.The Cummins Diesel Special thatFreddie Agabashian drove in the 1952 Indy 500was the first race car to use the tech, anincreasingly common way to keep performance-minded customers happy without hurting fuel economy. (Agabashian took pole position for the race, but a clogged air intake left him in 27th placeat the finish.)
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In the second half of the 20th century, Indy racing gave up its place at the leading edge of automotive creativity to Formula One. Still, the American race series had some tricks to roll out. Those included the 1993 requirement that all driversuse on-board crash data recorders, hoping thatknowing more about wrecks would help prevent them in the future. The race organizers were right,and chances are good that you have event data recorder in your car that owes its DNA to the Indy 500.
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