It’s easy to assume that the first competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be a race involving automobiles, or at least motorcycles. However, on this day in 1909 the first competitive event at the raceway began, it was a race amongst manned, gas filled balloons. Track founder Carl Fisher was anxious to generate revenue for himself and his investors, so he held a balloon race before the track which was designed for automobiles before it was even finished. Fisher was fascinated with aviation and wanted to participate in the race himself. In order to do so, and so he could host the National Balloon Championship, he formed the Aero Club of Indiana and received his balloon pilot’s license, just the 21st person to do so in America. He worked with his mentor, George Bumbaugh, to develop balloon vehicles. His was called the Indiana. The purpose of balloon racing at the time was to take off and then whoever flew the farthest from the takeoff point won. The take off of the race in 1909 took place in turbulent wind currents and gave the 40,000 spectators a great race. Nine balloons took off and the winner was a balloon named Universal City which landed 382 miles away in Alabama after spending more than 24 hours aloft.
Photos show the balloons setting up and getting ready to take off.