These Car Features And Technologies Came From The Indy 500

·11 min read
The start of the 1993 Indianapolis 500.
The start of the 1993 Indianapolis 500.

We’ve finally arrived: It’s the Month of May, and that means the motorsport world is gearing up for the Indianapolis 500, also fondly known as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

This year marks the 107th running of the iconic oval race, and as you can imagine, the cutthroat nature of the race over the years has created a mad dash between entrants to develop faster, lighter, and more powerful cars with features that push the boundaries of innovation. Today, we’re looking at those innovations.

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Some of these changes are the first of their kind ever introduced in a vehicle. Some existed in some form but gained popularity through their deployment in the 500. Some others were prevalent in Europe but needed to break the ice here in America. All of them, though, tell a story about the evolution of the American automotive industry, developed in 500 hard-charging miles.

Rearview Mirror (1911)

The “Marmon Wasp” winning car of the first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is driven on the track during prerace ceremonies at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011. The rearview mirror is visible just above the driver cockpit.
The “Marmon Wasp” winning car of the first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is driven on the track during prerace ceremonies at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011. The rearview mirror is visible just above the driver cockpit.

There are some automotive features that we tend to take for granted, and the rearview mirror is one of them — but that simple invention made its big-time debut at the Indy 500. Ray Harroun, the winner of the first-ever Indy 500, in 1911, started in 21st position and managed to take the victory; at the time, most drivers competed with riding mechanics next to them, who kept an eye on the action and ensured the car was performing up to snuff. Harroun, unable to find anyone to ride along with him, fashioned a mirror just above his cockpit in order to keep an eye on what the cars behind him were doing. It’s the first recorded use of a rearview mirror on any automobile.

Four-Wheel Hydraulic Brakes (1921)

1921 Indianapolis 500 and 1921 French Grand Prix

As the first cars in the world hit the scene, automakers were really working with a blank slate, stealing ideas and bits of technology from existing transportation. So, for quite a while, folks were driving around with brakes that really weren’t all that different than what you’d see on a bicycle — and that really put a damper on being able to achieve higher speeds. So, for the 1921 Indy 500, Duesenberg pioneered a vehicle with four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Essentially, the brake fluid amplified the pressure in the braking system, which allowed cars to stop much faster without requiring a driver to use their full body weight to arrest its motion.

Seat Belts (1922)

Road to 100: 1922

If you or your family members are of a certain age, there’s a good chance you’re able to remember the days before mandatory seatbelts. They definitely weren’t popular in the racing world, where accepted wisdom was that it was better to be thrown from a car than to be trapped inside it, engulfed in flames. According to Indy 500 legend, a man named Barney Oldfield commissioned a parachute manufacturer to make him some seat belts for the 1922 Indy 500. The trend of seatbelts in Indy machines didn’t really start to catch on until the 1950s. They would eventually become mandatory on road cars in 1968, but you didn’t legally have to use them in the U.S. until 1984.

Supercharged Engines (1920s)

Never Before Seen: Original Footage from 1923 Indy 500

A supercharged engine is one that compresses the air taken into an engine to lend it more power and torque — and this technology was introduced to the 500 by Mercedes-Benz in the early 1920s. The marque by no means invented superchargers with that introduction, but it did come to popularize them in American racing and automotive circles.

Front-Wheel Drive (1924)

Joe Boyer wins the Indianapolis 500, 1924

The iconic Henry A. Miller became a pioneering force for front-wheel drive vehicles as opposed to rear-wheel drive, which helped stabilize the front-engined roadsters at the time.

Intercoolers (1927)

Indianapolis Speedway classic 1927

Miller also patented the intercooler in 1931 after running it at Indianapolis in 1927. Basically, an intercooler helps reduce the temperature of the air that superchargers take in, which allows more air to be forced into the engine and therefore creates even more power. These didn’t really make it into the road-going sphere until Porsche introduced them on the 911 in 1977.

All-Wheel Drive (1932)

1932 Indy 500 Newsreel

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one hell of a slippery track back in the day, and that was largely due to surface materials and the fairly young forms of tire, engine, and suspension technology. In an effort to get a little extra grip, automotive designer Harry Miller showed up to the 1932 Indy 500 with an all-wheel drive machine. It was the first time in recorded history that someone had created a car like that.

Caution Lights and Helmets (1935)

1935 - Indy 500

Alright, this slide isn’t quite as relevant to the racing to road car part of the automotive industry, but the 1935 Indy 500 was a big deal for the ongoing direction of safety in motorsport. This was the first year that participants had to wear some form of head protection, and the track also installed green and yellow caution lights to help warn drivers of danger on the track. Modern racing simply wouldn’t exist without those innovations.

Turbocharged Engines (1952)

formula 1 1952 race 02 Indianapolis 500 by magistar

After superchargers came the next big step: the introduction of a turbodiesel-powered machine in 1952. That was the first attempt at turbocharging an Indy racing engine, but the concept didn’t really take off until the mid-1960s, when Joe Huffaker fitted his Offenhauser engine with a turbo.

British Invasion (Early 1960s)

How the 1965 Lotus-Ford Racecar Revolutionized the Indy 500

No, the British invading a country wasn’t specifically developed by the Indy 500, but the arrival of British marques in the early 1960s completely changed the name of the game in Indy 500 racing.

The sport had suffered a bit of stagnation in terms of chassis design after World War II, so most American Indy 500 entrants were competing in large, heavy “roadsters,” or front-engined cars. Jack Brabham showed up in 1961 with a rear-engined machine, and its elegant handling highlighted the fact that this new engine layout might have a distinct advantage on an oval, not just on the Grand Prix circuit. It wasn’t the first rear-engined car to appear at Indy, but it was the first to make a statement.

It really wasn’t until Colin Chapman showed up with his Lotuses, though, that Indy entrants took notice. In 1963, The Ford-engined machine finished in second place, stunning the naysayers who couldn’t believe that such a small, light car would have any competitive heft. The next year, Jim Clark drove his rear-engined Lotus to a pole position, and the year after, to a win. The rear-engined design proved so desirable that 1964 was the final Indy 500 ever won with a front-engined roadster.

Turbine Engines (1967, 1968)

The Silent Screamer - Andy Granatelli’s gas turbine car run at the 1967 Indy 500

The concept of a turbine engine never really took off in conventional road-going cars, but these machines did force other manufacturers to start looking outside the box. In 1967, STP CEO Andy Granatelli outfitted his team’s Indy 500 machine with a turbine engine taken from a helicopter, making it the first-ever turbine car to qualify for the race. Multiple teams took inspiration from Granatelli’s innovative idea by implementing turbine engines in their vehicles for 1968, but racing regulations tamped down innovation to the point where turbines were noncompetitive by 1969.

Bolt-On Wings (1972)

Bobby Unser and the 1972 Gurney-Eagle Olsonite Indy 500 record car,

The 1972 Indy 500 saw the greatest year-over-year increase in speed in the race’s history thanks to one key invention: bolt-on wings.

In the past, USAC (which sanctioned the 500) only allowed wings that were integrated into a car’s bodywork — but in 1972, it opened the rulebook to allow wings to simply be bolted onto the machine. That simple change saw a huge increase in downforce and a resulting increase in speed as cars were able to stick to the track more effectively, catapulting automotive design technology into a brand-new era.

But how effective were the wings? Well, in 1971, Peter Revson’s pole speed for the 500 was 178.696 mph. In 1972, polesitter Bobby Unser clocked a four-lap average of 195.940 mph.

Ground Effect (1980)

1980 Indy 500 ABC

While we often think of Formula 1 as being the pioneer of ground effect (when really that distinction should go to Jim Hall’s Can-Am Chaparall 2J), the aerodynamic principle achieved its zenith in IndyCar. Basically, ground effect refers to the radical idea that the racing surface itself — not just the cars — should be included aerodynamic development models as a way to generate greater downforce. Rather than relying entirely on wings, engineers could create a greater level of downforce by manipulating airflow in and around the vehicles.

Ground effect was hugely controversial in F1, resulting in its ultimate banning. In American open-wheel racing, though, designers found the perfect blend of ground effect and wings to create downforce. That meant the cars could ride higher than their F1 counterparts, didn’t require a skirt to suck the car to the track, and could still stick to the tarmac as they sped around the IMS oval at increasingly higher speeds.

Advanced Engineering (1980s and 1990s)

Indianapolis 500 - The 1990s

Motorsport in general was something of a down-home affair throughout much of its history, but in the 1980s and 1990s, those down-home constructors who threw together a car in their home garage gave way to hyperspecialized teams dedicated to innovating in every possible way. Immense amounts of money were poured into racing development, and it resulted in Indy 500 machines being crafted out of carbon fiber and utilizing specialized forms of monocoque chassis. While American open-wheel racing did often lag behind Formula 1 in the technology department, these oval-specific construction innovations coincided with an incredibly prosperous racing era here in the States.

1993: Crash Data Recorders

1993 Indianapolis 500

While the Indy 500 served as a testbed for new technologies for decades, various levels of infighting within American open-wheel saw it lose its innovative edge over Europe’s Formula 1. That being said, the high-force crashes that took place on ovals inspired American open-wheel to install crash data recorders in every car for the 1993 Indy 500. The hope was that these black-box style devices would help researchers better understand crashes in order to both prevent them and, in the event of an unavoidable accident, to protect the driver. This information contributed to increased levels of safety in all motorized machines — and there’s a good chance that your car is outfitted with a similar recorder that was first used in this race.

SAFER Barrier (2002)

INDYCAR 101: SAFER Barrier

The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier System was first installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ahead of the 2002 Indy 500. In short, this form of track protection equipment was designed to absorb significant amounts of energy in racing crashes by essentially becoming a “soft” wall rather than a hard concrete barrier. Dr. Dean Sicking, who led the team of engineers that developed the SAFER barrier, says that they were able to “reduce the actual risk of serious injury by 75 percent” with this one invention alone. This form of barrier has since been installed on countless ovals and at notoriously dangerous sections of track around the world. Since then, engineers have been looking at ways to implement SAFER technology in highway applications.

Tire Development (All Years)


As the one part of a car that actually makes contact with the racing surface, tires are one of the most critical components of a motorsport machine — and the Indy 500 has been a great place to develop new tire technologies.

I’ll guide you to Popular Mechanics for a more in-depth discussion on tire innovation courtesy of Indy, but here’s the summary: the first tire to compete in the 500 only saw 2.5 inches of rubber touching the ground at any one time. The Firestone-Goodyear battle in the 1960s, though, inspired both manufacturers to consistently hit the drawing board with new, innovative ideas. What resulted was a massive increase in traction, cornering grip, and speed thanks to the new tires’ radial construction, greater width, and slick surface. Even today, Firestone is pushing the boundaries of tire composition with its more sustainable “green” tires made from guayule, a desert shrub.

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