1956 started a new chapter in American open wheel racing and also saw the preliminary beginnings of today’s modern Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The American Automobile Association had announced in August 1955 that it would no longer sanction racing after the season ended. It had been the deadliest year in history. Three starters from the 1955 500 were killed racing, including Bill Vukovich in the horrific crash during the 500. Jerry Hoyt, the pole sitter, suffered fatal injuries in July, and former pole sitter Jack McGrath died in a crash in November. The United States Auto Club formed in September 1955 and the transition was nearly seamless. USAC sanctioned open wheel racing until CART was formed, then continued to sanction just the 500 through 1997.
Another Good Find
My annual visit to the memorabilia show the day before the Indianapolis 500 yielded another great bargain – the 1956 500 program. Last year I bought a mint 1954 program for $20. I later found a sticker inside the front cover indicating an $80 price tag. The 1956 program was not in mint condition and was just $7. Like the program I got last year, there were bonuses inside. The owner had stapled newspaper articles about qualifying and the race inside the program.
The cover was one of the first white background covers with the traditional flags over the wing and wheel. This cover lasted into the early 70’s. I wouldn’t mind a return to this cover instead of the artsy fronts that change every year now.
The ticket envelope, white in those days, is also attached. Some photos follow at the end of the article. The owner of the program wrote qualifying lap speeds in the entry list section of the program and also the number of laps each driver completed in the race. A newspaper clipping of the 500 entry list taped on an ad page had the names of drivers added to cars written in ink. From that list, Eddie Sachs took over the number 58 car from Len Duncan and Dempsey Wilson got a ride in the vacant car 22. Sachs did not qualify and was first alternate.
The story of the 1955 race had just one sentence alluding to the Vukovich crash, and no photos of the accident. The two time winner’s photo on the very crowded memorial page with the date of date of the race was the only other hint of what happened.
The pre-race ceremonies were a crisp, compact 40 minutes before “Gentleman, Start Your Engines” and the green flag at 10 am Central Time. Pat Flaherty won the race from the pole, followed by the next year’s winner, Sam Hanks. Flaherty won $93, 819 for his victory. Paul Russo, the 33rd place finisher, received $3, 974.
After the race, the speedway removed an iconic feature, the pagoda, which had stood since 1926. A steel and glass master control tower replaced it. A wall separating the pits from the track also appeared for 1957. The Museum opened in the east wing of the building at 16th and Georgetown, built for $100,000.
In some ways it seems the Speedway never changes. The basic look remains the same. Race Day pretty much follows the same pattern, although some changes have lengthened the prerace program. Yet it is still the original track from 1909, paved over many times. What we see today is the result of Tony Hulman’ vision after his first decade of owning the track.