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The last time the Indianapolis Motor Speedway changed hands, it was a dilapidated wreck

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Hemmings archive photos.

These days, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway looks pristine, polished, and ready for the world stage pretty much any day of the year, and that condition certainly played no small role in the sale of the American motorsports institution from the Hulman family to Roger Penske, as announced on Monday. That was not the case, however, when Tony Hulman first laid eyes on the track prior to buying it nearly 75 years ago.

Eddie Rickenbacker likely didn’t intend to let the track deteriorate during World War II. He bought it in 1927 for about $675,000 from its founders, Carl Fisher and James Allison, and not only oversaw a series of improvements to the track – among them the construction of the golf course inside the track, the initial efforts at paving over the original bricks, and the reconstruction of the track retaining walls – he also kept the track open through the Depression years.

Yet even before the start of the war, Rickenbacker let himself be pulled in many other directions. He worked with GM to transform North American Aviation into Eastern Air Lines before managing and ultimately buying the company, and he worked with the federal government to reform its air mail service. And then during the war, he traveled to England and the Pacific theater in support of the Allied forces. While Rickenbacker’s brother, Al, managed the track in the war hero’s absence, Eddie Rickenbacker still served as the president and face of the track when, in late December 1941, he announced that “tradition and priorities demand that we voluntarily suspend the race in the interest of a full-out victory effort.”

While he’d hoped the U.S. armed forces could make use of “this great outdoor laboratory,” the government – which banned auto and motorcycle racing effective July 31, 1942 – declined, leaving the track desolate and essentially abandoned.

As the end of the war came into sight a couple years later, curious onlookers wanted to know what would happen to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. According to Brian G. Boettcher’s “The Indianapolis 500, a History – Volume One: Resurrection and Blue Crowns,” Eddie Rickenbacker might not have made a public announcement that the track was for sale, but he certainly didn’t keep that from being known.

In 1944, the American Legion looked into buying the track to use for veteran rehabilitation, but the Securities and Exchange Commission shot down that idea because it “failed to qualify as a charitable and benevolent institution.” A year later, a group led by Robert Bowes came close to buying the track, but the deal fell apart when Bowes died of a heart attack. Rickenbacker sensed that the only option for the track was to shut down racing for good and sell it off to Lem Trotter, who planned to develop it into a housing development and shopping center.

Amid these talks, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wilbur Shaw was hired to run a government-sponsored tire test for Firestone at the track in November 1944. He was not impressed by the state of the track, as he wrote:

Grass and weeds were growing between the bricks on the main straightaway and the old wooden grandstands looked as if they were about to fall down. The depressing sights actually haunted my dreams for several nights.

Al Rickenbacker sang a different tune. According to Boettcher, in May 1945 he told reporters that “the track is in nearly as good condition today as it ever has been. Wilbur Shaw was out here testing synthetic tires. He averaged better than 100 miles per hour for the full 500 miles. So evidently the track is okay.” He promised that he and Eddie would hold races there as soon as 1946.

After receiving word that the track may be torn down for Trotter’s housing development, Shaw – dismayed at what he saw and heard – tracked down Eddie Rickenbacker in New York and asked him what it would take to buy the speedway. With Rickenbacker’s asking price – $750,000 – in hand, Shaw approached a number of Indianapolis-area businessmen to front a purchase.

One of those, Anton “Tony” Hulman, Jr., the Terre Haute businessman in charge of the Clabber Girl products, came recommended by Shaw’s financial advisor. According to Boettcher, “Shaw saw Hulman as a perfect financial angel for the Speedway, with no connections to the automotive industry and no promotional aspirations.” While Shaw based his pitch on profitability, Hulman saw investment in the speedway as a matter of civic pride, seeing it as analogous to the Kentucky Derby’s place in that state’s culture.

Hulman, in his visit to the track days later, found it in no better condition than when Shaw ran his tire test there. “We unlocked the gate, and it fell down,” Hulman employee Clarence Cagle was quoted in Sigur E. Whitaker’s “Tony Hulman: The Man Who Saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.” “Everything was rotten, there were weeds everywhere. It was a terrible mess.”

Still, Hulman left convinced that the track needed to be restored to its former glory, a decision no doubt aided by the government lifting of the restrictions on auto racing in August 1945. He pulled together the financing under the oversight of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and signed the papers on November 14, 1945. Shaw would serve as president and Pop Myers as vice president.

To see his vision of restoring the track through, Hulman committed another quarter million dollars to track improvements and pledged to reinvest any profits from the race back into track maintenance and improvement. Hulman, who spent the next 30-plus years improving the track, was succeeded by his daughter, Mari Hulman George, and her son, Anton Hulman “Tony” George, as the stewards of the track up until this week’s sale.

Hulman’s work ultimately paid off in March 1975, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway became the first racetrack to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.