It’s easy to assume that the first competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be a race involving automobiles, or at least motorcycles. It was not. On this day in 1909 the first competitive event at the raceway began. To catch this race, you had to look up. The event was a manned gas balloon race, in which the winner was determined by most distance covered from the take off point. Track founder Carl Fisher, a balloon enthusiast himself, was anxious to generate revenue for himself and other investors in the track. To get the money rolling he held the balloon race before completion of the automobile track.
Due to his fascination with aviation, Fisher 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. He named his personal balloon Indiana.
The start of the 1909 event took place in turbulent winds, providing 40,000 spectators with a spectacular take off. Nine balloons floated up from the Speedway infield that day. More than 24 hours later, one named Universal City landed 382 miles away in Alabama, a distance that earned it a victory.