Written By: Bill Syken
When first looking at Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photos from the 1939 edition of the Indianapolis 500, it’s the nostalgia that comes at you fast.
The race cars themselves really grab your eye. With their narrow bodies and open cockpits, the cars look as if they sprang directly from the imagination of a kid preparing for a soap box derby.
Then there’s the stands, which in one photo look as if they were hammered together by the Three Stooges the morning of the race.
The outfits are different too. One driver is so wrapped up in face coverings, not an inch of skin showing, that he could be the Invisible Man. The fans’ clothing, from the hats and ties to the undershirts, transport you to the late 1930s.
And what could be more old-school than the big celebrity at the event—not some reality TV star, but World War I flying ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who later became an auto racer and president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The details in Eisenstaedt’s photos only enhance the nostalgia trip—the giant newsreel cameras, the sight of a driver at a pit stop drinking water from an actual glass rather than a squirt bottle, the sign that reads BLEACHER SEATS $1.
Of particular note to racing fans is the surface of the track, which was brick in those olden days. Today the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is still known as The Brickyard, though its racing surface is now paved with asphalt, except for three feet of brick at the start/finish line. Those bricks are kissed by the winners of the modern races as a ceremonial nod to the past—the history at Eisenstaedt documented in these photos.
The pictures tell the story of what appears to be an enjoyable day at the track—even if a share of the fans seemed to be napping on the infield. Eisenstaedt, while focussed on the scene more than the race, did capture the celebration of the winning driver, the legendary Wilbur Shaw. But he missed the sobering news of day, a mid-race crash that took the like of defending champion Floyd Roberts.
The story that ran in LIFE’s June 12, 1939 edition understandably focussed on the fatality, carrying the headline “145,000 Watch Sport of Death at Indianapolis Speedway.” LIFE illustrated the crash with frames of newsreel footage from one of those giant cameras.
LIFE’s story argued that the Indianapolis 500 was a Memorial Day tradition which needed to stop, and the writer’s tone suggested that the demise of auto racing was inevitable.
“American automobile racing had its heyday when the automobile and speed were new and thrilling,” LIFE wrote. “Its grueling tests and materials and innovations contributed mightily to automotive progress. But as speed became the possession of every motorist, as airplanes came along to outstrip the fastest automobile, car racing lost favor.” The story approvingly quoted columnist Bill Corum, who had written, “I can’t believe there is enough sport or enough scientific gain to justify the sort of Memorial Day Mrs. Floyd Roberts and her three children had yesterday.”
LIFE was wrong about the future of racing, which continued and thrived, despite a list of racing deaths that is now astoundingly long. Fans accepted crashes as a part of the sport. Famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray famously summed up the situation in 1966 with his pithy line in previewing another Indy 500 race: “Gentleman, start your coffins.”
While Eisenstaedt, more focussed on the characters around the track than straight sports photography, missed the fatal crash, he did capture the essence of the communal experience of race day, one that has been essential to keeping the sport alive.