Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Radio Scene at the Indianapolis 500

The Indianapolis 500 is an annual motor car race that is staged usually on the Sunday Memorial Day at the end of May each year.  For many years, this annual sports occasion has been listed as the world’s largest one day sporting event, with anything up to a million people flooding into Indianapolis over the holiday weekend.

On Sunday, May 27, the 102nd running of the Indy 500 came to a successful conclusion with driver Will Power in car number 12 as the outright winner at an average speed of 166.9 miles per hour.  Will Power is a 37 year old driver from Toowoomba Australia.  He led for 59 of the 200 laps in the race and finished in just under 3 hours; that is, 2 hours 59 minutes and 42 seconds to be exact.

It was back during the year 1908 that a level farmland area of 328 acres, known as the Pressley Farm some five miles from downtown Indianapolis, was purchased for the purpose of establishing a closed circuit motor car race track.  Subsequent purchases have brought the total land area for the Indianapolis 500 to 1025 acres.  Work on the new race track itself began during the following year (1909).

The original surface for the Indy 500 track was made up of a sticky amalgam, that is several different layers of soil, stone, rock, oil and tar.  However it was soon demonstrated that during a race, the surface quickly showed signs of wear with ruts and potholes, with gravel and stones kicked up by speeding cars, and oil splattered over cars and drivers.  In addition, the rough surface popped many tires on the cars racing at a speed of about 70 miles an hour in those days, causing accidents, injuries and even death. 

A few months after the track was taken into usage for car racing, a new surface was laid down, made up of 3.2 million specially designed locally made red or black bricks, weighing 10 pounds each.  These totally solid bricks were provided by five different local brick making yards and they were laid down flat on a 2½ inch thick bed of sand, and then they were cemented in place.  Over the years, the total surface of the indy 500 track has been resurfaced several times, though a small section of brick measuring one yard across, that is three feet, or 36 inches, remains in place at the Start/Finish Line.

On three separate occasions, a gold brick has been temporarily inserted into the brick section at the Start/Finish Line.  On the occasion of the completion of the laying of the original brick surface in 1909, the then newly appointed governor of Indiana, Thomas R. Marshall, ceremonially laid the final brick, a golden brick weighing 37 pounds that remained in place only temporarily.

Marshall was subsequently elected Vice President of the United States in 1912 and it was he who in referring to the limited role of that office coined the famous humorous statement: Once there were two brothers; one ran away to sea, the other was elected vice president.  Nothing was ever heard from either of them again.

On two subsequent occasions a golden brick was laid in the center of the brick section of the Indy 500 track.  In 1961 on the occasion of the 50th running of the 500, and again in 2011 on the occasion of the 100th running of the Indy 500, the brick was ceremonially inserted into the center of the exposed brick surface by race officials.

The first running of the Indy 500 took place on Tuesday May 30, 1911, when a total of 40 cars participated.  They lined up 5 in a row.  During the Indy 500 annual event, drivers race counter-clockwise around a 2½ mile rectangular oval track, making 200 laps for a distance of 500 miles.

During the running of the first Indy 500 race, 14 cars failed and withdrew, leaving a field of just 26 still on the track.  At the end of what became a lengthy endurance test lasting 6 hours and 42 minutes, 32 year old Pennsylvania born Ray Harroun, driving a single seater Marmon Wasp, was declared the winner.

Back one hundred years ago, the development of all three areas of inventive endeavor (motor cars, airplanes and radio equipment) were all taking place somewhat simultaneously.  As far as radio is concerned, the first broadcast of events at the Indy 500 took place in the year 1922 when two very new and quite primitive radio broadcasting stations in Indianapolis, WLK and WOH, carried live reports with progressive coverage.

Radio station WLK began as an experimental venture in the barn out back of the family home at 2011 Alabama Street on the part of young Francis Hamilton.  His home brew equipment was on the air under three different callsigns; 9ZJ as a government acknowledged Land Station, 9JK as an amateur operation, and WLK as a program broadcasting station.

The other radio station WOH was established by the Hatfield Electric Company of 102 South Meridian Street, though the studios (and apparently the transmitter too) were installed in the Hoosier Athletic Club Building at 902 North Meridian Street.  This station was inaugurated on March 10, 1922 and their broadcast of Indy 500 information was in the same style as WLK.

In May 1925, another new mediumwave station WFBM, (along with the already established WGN in Chicago) carried a series of broadcast updates on the running of the Indy 500.  The studios for WFBM were likewise in the Athletic Club Building, on the 4th floor.  However, the transmitter, a converted carrier current unit, was installed at the Harding Street electric power generator facility.  Radio station WFBM is on the air these days as WNDE with 5 kW on 1260 kHz.

For the first time ever, commentary on the entire race lasting 5½ hours was broadcast live in 1929, and the two mediumwave stations that carried this epic event were the comparatively new WKBF and the by now well established WFBM.  Station WKBF had been temporarily installed in the Ford Motor Company showroom on East Washington Street for just one week in November 1926.  Program production was then transferred to their studios in the afore mentioned Hoosier Athletic Club Building and co-sited with WFBM. 

Station WKBF has operated under a cluster of more callsigns than any other radio station in Indiana.  Consecutively, they have identified on air as WKBF, WIRE, WFXF, WCKN and WMYS, and their current call is WXNT, with 5 kW on 1430 kHz.  During the 1930s under the callsign WIRE (and along with WLW in Cincinnati), they carried a full broadcast of the Indy 500 in its entirety.   

On the shortwave scene, AFRS, the Armed Forces Radio Service, carried a full relay of the Indy 500 during the 1950s, and in recent times the similar AFN American Forces Network has carried the same programming.  In addition, during the era that WHRI shortwave was located a little north of Indianapolis, they also broadcast a live commentary of the Indy 500.

Shortwave listener Chris Lobdell says: I remember listening to the Indy 500 on WNYW from Scituate Massachusetts in the mid 1960s.
(AWR-Wavwscan/NWS 484)