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The 500 and the Photographer

Charles Bretzman took this self-portrait in 1929.

Before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was completed in 1909, a national balloon race was held there in June to generate revenue and interest in auto races. Thirty-five hundred paying customers were inside the track, while outside, 40,000 spectators watched the balloon race for free, causing a huge traffic jam. 

In August, the track held inaugural races over three days for both motorcycles and automobiles. The track was paved with a mixture of crushed stone coated with oil, and track conditions deteriorated as the races progressed, resulting in several wrecks and some fatalities. This prompted the owners to pave the entire track with more than 3 million bricks and build 9-inch thick concrete retaining walls to protect spectators. 

In May 1910, another three-day program featured 42 races ranging from five to 200 miles on the new brick track. The owners were delighted the high-speed competition ended without a major accident. 

In 1911, it was decided to hold a one-day extravaganza race in May with the winner taking home a huge purse – and the Indy 500 was born. The first race, called the “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race,” was on May 30, 1911, with 40 cars. Drivers and their mechanics lined up on the straightaway before the start. The pace car, a Stoddard-Dayton driven by Carl G. Fisher, led them around the track for the pace lap while 80,000 spectators watched. Ray Harroun won the race in 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds driving his No. 32 Marmon “Wasp.” 

As with any sporting event, photographers were there to record the race. Most notable was Indianapolis

Motor Speedway, 1909
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the 250-Mile Race, Aug. 19, 1909.

photographer Charles F. Bretzman, who was the official IMS photographer. Bretzman had also photographed the earlier events and races in 1909 and 1910 and continued in that role for several years.

Bretzman was born July 26, 1866, in Hannover, Germany, and in 1885, came to the United States at the age of 19. He spent a few years in studios in New York City and other eastern cities, and did photographic work in Denver and other western cities. By 1894, he was a partner in the photo company Koehne & Bretzman of Chicago. According to an interview Bretzman gave in The Indianapolis Star on Feb. 9, 1920, he arrived in Indianapolis on Feb. 13, 1900, and for several years was a staff photographer for three daily city newspapers. 

Bretzman opened his earliest studio in 1900 at 142 S. Illinois St. in the heart of the business district. Later in 1905, his studio was at 22 ½ N. Pennsylvania St. It was while Bretzman was in this studio that he became the first official photographer for the Indy 500.

Margaret Dexter, Bretzman’s granddaugther, says photography was part of everyday conversation when she was growing up. “He ranked with the best of the best and just got lost in the shuffle somehow,” she says. 

She and the rest of the Bretzman family are happy the Bretzman Collection is housed at the Indiana Historical Society. “It’s wonderful that this body of work is there for people to appreciate,” Margaret says. “Mother [Marie Bretzman] would just be thrilled that this is happening, and I’m thrilled for her, because she felt he should have had more acclaim.”

Note: Although the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been in business since 1909 and the first 500-Mile Race was held in 1911, the year 2016 marks the 100th running. The track was closed during both world wars, and no races were held during those years.