First published in 2016
Consider yourself somewhat fortunate if you had the privilege to see first-hand the old garages that stood at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1985. The iconic green and white barn doors defined Gasoline Alley for many decades, including what most consider the “golden age” of Indianapolis. But as we approach the much talked about milestone of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in May 2016, we are also coming upon another milestone that is perhaps being mildly overlooked. Thirty years ago, the old Gasoline Alley garage area was torn down without much commiseration. A few months later, after the land was cleared, a new, modern facility was erected in its place. By the time teams and spectators arrived for the month of May 1986, a new concrete canyon of 96 garages units was receiving its finishing touches.
The “Gasoline Alley” garage area dates back to the very early years. The location of the garage area is mostly in the same location as it has been since the beginning. The term “Gasoline Alley” goes back to the 1920s, and originally referred to a location in the back corner where cars would refuel. Later on, the name was loosely adopted for the east-west main corridor of the garage area complex. Eventually the term was simply used colloquially for the entire garage complex.
In the 1920s, the garages area was one long building, running east-west. Garage stalls were situated on both sides of the building, and naturally resembled a horse track paddock. For 1929, a second bank of garages was built parallel to the first building. They became known as the ‘south bank’ of garages, and the older building was now the ‘north bank.’ The corridor that now ran
between them was, as mentioned, clearly defined as Gasoline Alley. The decade of the Thirties, known for the Great Depression, and the “stock” formula adopted at Indy (just don’t call it the “Junk” formula!) was also known for Tom Beall’s Diner. It was set up in the southwest corner of the garages, just inside the fence near the pits. It was THE gathering place for the month of May (and in some years the month of April too). Drivers, crews, and anyone involved hung out at the diner, many of whom ran up a tab for weeks…promising of course to pay it off when the race winnings were handed out after the race.
On the morning of the 1941 race, a fire broke out in the garage housing the car of George Barringer. The car (the ahead-of-its-time, rear-engined machine) was being refueled with gasoline. In a nearby garage, the car of Joel Thorne was being worked on with a welder. The gasoline fumes caught fire, and quickly spread. Barringer’s car, located near the end of the south bank of garages, was destroyed in the blaze. Every other qualified car was spared, as the teams quickly wheeled them out of harm’s way to the pit area. About a third of the south bank of garage was burned to the ground. As many as two other cars were destroyed, but they were not cars that had qualified for the race. In addition, a considerable amount of tools and other equipment was lost. Firefighters reportedly had difficulty arriving on the scene due to the heavy race day traffic. After a delay of about an hour or two, and with no one seriously hurt, the race was run as normal.
It is at this point which I have been looking for some clarity on what happened to the garage area. Ultimately, the garage area was rebuilt, but it was unclear exactly when, and to what extent. There is very little written about it, but the 1942 race was indeed scheduled for May 30, 1942. Ticket order forms were mailed out in November 1941, and once upon a time, one of those order forms was put up for sale on eBay. NI500CC has an image of a 1942 ticket proof, and they are extremely rare to find. The United States was thrust into World War II after the attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Speedway President Eddie Rickenbacker officially cancelled the 1942 race (and all subsequent runnings for the duration of the war). As we all know, the track was immediately shuttered for the next four years, and left to rot into a state is disrepair.
I had not been able to find a definitive answer on the specific status of the garages at that juncture until very recently. Over the summer of 1941, although the hostilities were escalating abroad, the U.S. was still not involved in the war. Speedway management was moving along preparing for a 1942 race. Plans were drafted in July 1941 to rebuild the garage area, although it is unclear if these plans called for a complete demolition of both existing banks, or simply the south bank singly. It is fairly clear that the garage area was rebuilt in the late summer and early fall of 1941, just weeks before the track shuttered. Therefore, the new garages sat unused for over four years awaiting the resumption of the race in 1946. There are only few photos of the facility during the war, and probably none taken specifically in the garage area. It was mentioned in the newspaper at the time that the garages built in 1941 kept up well and survived the war years and apparently did not need any significant attention during the clean up leading to the 1946 race.
As the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a golden era of roadsters, and later the rear-engined revolution, Gasoline Alley was the nerve center of this carnival of speed. The layout remained as two parallel, double-sided banks of garages, running east-west, with the “Gasoline Alley” corridor running up the middle. Interestingly enough, there was a time when there were not enough stalls for the number of entries. During practice some of the smaller teams were crowded out, and presumably had to work out of a truck or a tent on the back side of the complex. As the years went by, the track added stalls to the end, extending it east until it finally topped 88 units in the early 1980s. Up through the 1960s, and perhaps into the 1970s, the corridors were not all paved. The main middle corridor seems to have been paved going back a long time, but the two outer lanes were said to have been gravel until a later time.
Sam Posey did a rather fine piece about the old garage area (and the construction of the new garages) during the 1986 Indianapolis 500 Pole Day telecast on ABC Sports. Rather than retell the entire story, I’ll let him do the narration. It begins at approximately the 20:20 mark.
The 1986 episode of Legends of the Brickyard showed some short footage of the construction of the new garage area. It begins at approximately the 2:18 mark.
Lastly, a friend of mine happened to do a rather nice walk-through tour of the garage area in May of 1985 using his good old fashioned video camera. Knowing that it was going to be torn down, he took the time to show all around one last time. It is one of the only documentations of the last days of the garage area you might ever find on YouTube. It is a good look of the typical hustle and bustle on a qualifying day that went on in the garage area at the time. The narrow, jam-packed corridors, showed how the sport had literally outgrown the complex. The stalls were so small, some equipment had to be stored outside, creating further bottlenecks.
The “Old” Garages are gone
No doubt anyone who was around at the time, misses the old garages, at least sentimentally. No question though it was time for an updated facility. It seems that not much was spared from the rubble, although numerous doors were kept and were collected. In fact, the doors were replaced from time to time anyway, as they would wear out, so there were quite a few out there already. Oddly enough, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum did little if anything to recognize the old garages for better than twenty years. I do not even recall a set of doors on display anywhere on property, although that’s not usual. The Speedway, while heavy on tradition, as Posey said in the clip above, is light on sentiment. When something gets removed or torn down, they usually leave no trace.
It was not until about 2005 that they set up the mock garage stall in the museum. Now it is a popular static display, with a car from the 1950s or 1960s typically parked inside. They have a set of green and white doors on display now, definitely a nice touch.
The “New” Garages are here
In hindsight, it is actually a bit of a shame that the time to rebuild the garages coincided with the early/mid-1980s. The architecture of the era was not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing. The goal was to make the garage complex ultra-modern, with vastly increased work space, improved amenities, widened ingress/egress lanes, and a long, durable lifespan. If those were in fact the published goals, they succeeded in all of them. At the age of 30, they are still as functional as ever, and they are not at all looking dilapidated. Far from it. The travel lanes are wide enough to drive the transporters up to the garage stalls, and the individual stalls are still big enough for the teams.
One of the other quiet “goals” of the new garage complex was to take the opportunity to scale back the ‘Snake Pit’ inside turn one. By constructing the three banks of garages north-south (with the main Gasoline Alley corridor now at the north edge), the garages ate up a significant area that used to be for rowdy spectators and revelry. Couple that with the new motorhome row that was set up along the south side of the garages, the infield of turn one lost a good amount of real estate. It only mattered a little bit though, as the patrons had already began migrating to the infield of turn four, and establishing the ‘Snake Pit II’ up there.
The main problem with the new garages, however, was the lack of visual appeal. Going from the quaint, nostalgic barn doors to a bare concrete canyon was a striking change. The terms “plain” and “antiseptic” come to mind. But that was the style then. We were still at the tail end of the dreaded cookie-cutter era of multi-purpose stadiums (for baseball & football), and the IMS garages fit right in with that style. Plain, unpainted, pre-cast concrete, set up with bland, gray garage doors, bland gray-painted floors, no windows (except tiny windows on the passage doors), and an even more cavernous and hollow-looking interior. The vast interior space allowed the teams the luxury of setting up their equipment as they pleased, and eventually several stalls began to sport checkered tile floors or something similar. Some teams put up dividers, and some even set up a break room complete with carpeting, couches, and perhaps a kitchen area.
About six years later, Camden Yards in Baltimore opened, changing the landscape and attitudes of architecture in the sports world. Major League Baseball teams began constructing “retro” ballparks (or renovating their existing stadium to conform to the style). Football teams began building gridiron-specific facilities, and as we moved into the 21st century, one by one, nearly all of the dreaded concrete cookie-cutters had been torn down (or were slated to close). While MLB and NFL were building spectacular edifices of superior form and function (and NBA & NHL were doing the same with their indoor arenas), Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis seems to have been left behind, bare concrete and all. It was just unfortunate timing. The race track construction boom of the 1990s further magnified Gasoline Alley’s dull façade. A number of new speedways popped up around the country, each going in new directions to improve their garage designs, to make them not only increasingly functional, but aesthetically pleasing, and now more than ever, fan-friendly.
When the United States Grand Prix was added to the calendar at Indianapolis, part of the requirements to achieve proper FIA grade 1 status was to construct pitside F1 garages. After the 1998 season, the Speedway tore down most of the Tower Terrace (yellow back seats). By 2000, a new expanse of pitside garages (complete with suites and seating above) was completed along the south half of the mainstretch. While these garages had to be built to specific FIA specifications, there was enough latitude to give them at least some aesthetic charm.
Not so “new” anymore
Clearly the Gasoline Alley garage area serves its purpose, and they probably have at least another ten years or so of lifespan. The garages at Indianapolis are probably better than
those at most race tracks across the country. At the same time, they are lacking in visual appeal, and fan amenities. Back in the early 1980s, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was purchased by Jim Trueman, and he built a garage area that was years ahead of its time. There are three two-story building, with the garages on the first floor. A staircase leads to a pedestrian-only second floor, which doubles as an observation catwalk. The first floor garage is open to the second floor ceiling, allowing spectators to look down into the garage stall from above and observe the crews working. During the track activity, that second floor also offers a view of the start/finish straight and pit area.
When Daytona International Speedway renovated their garage area in the mid-2000s, they came up with a design which allowed patrons without credentials the ability to still observe the inner workings of the garages. The garages are set up in a somewhat of a “V”, with the cars on the outside perimeter, and the spectators on the inside. A wall divides the actual garage from a grassy spectator “courtyard” in the middle. Windows line the wall, allowing the spectators a nearly full view of the crews working. Similar concepts have been used at other tracks as well.
As far as age, most people who have been around long enough still refer to the current complex as the “new garages.” Although at over thirty years old, it is getting harder and harder to use that vernacular. Of the 33 drivers in the field for the 2015 race, sixteen of them were not even born yet when they tore down the old garages, and another 7-8 of them were young enough at the time they probably would have little or no first-hand recollection of them. Fewer than ten of the drivers are probably old enough to have been around to see the green & white barn doors, yet none of them would have been old enough (age 18) in 1985 to have been allowed in. Alex Tagliani was the oldest driver in the field in 2015, and he would have been 11 at the time.
The “Gasoline Alley”sign.
- In 1985 and prior, the Gasoline Alley sign resembled a banner over the entrance (See slideshow photos).
- In 1986, a new modern sign was installed over the entrance. A rectangular white sign with the IMS wing & wheel logo, and the words “Gasoline Alley” was located at the traditional gate. A nearly identical sign was installed at the back gate (now in the southeast corner of the complex), except it said “Garage Area.” The wheel & wing logo depicted on both signs was the long-used 1970s-2008 logo.
- In 2000, when the new Pit Terrace and F1 garages were completed, the look of the Gasoline Alley entrance changed drastically. A video board was installed over the thru-way. The new entrance appeared more closed than before, although the corridor itself was mostly unaltered. In 2015, the original Daktronics video board was replaced with a larger 16:9 wide screen HD video board.
- The white overhead sign at the traditional Gasoline Alley entrance was removed at some point after 1999 or 2000. It was definitely gone by 2001. The “twin” sign located at the back gate near the hospital remained for several years longer. It appears to have been up through 2011. Despite the Speedway adopting a new retro-style logo for the Centennial Era (2009-2011), the back gate sign maintained the 1970s-2008 logo through the duration of the Centennial Era.
- In 2000, a new “Gasoline Alley” sign was affixed to the Pit Terrace overhang. One was situated on the outside (the traditional location facing east to the pits), and now one was also installed on the inside, facing the garage area (facing west). The first such sign was blue with yellow lettering. A small IMS logo was in the upper left corner, and a silhouetted image of a checkered flag waving was on the backdrop. This appears to have been a temporary sign, as finishing touches were still being made to the new F1 garages, the Pagoda, and other related construction.
- In 2001, a newer, larger Gasoline Alley sign replaced the small one from 2000. It was blue with yellow lettering, and checkers behind the lettering. This sign was used through 2008.
- In 2009, the Gasoline Alley sign was replaced with a new one, matching the color scheme for the Centennial Era celebrations. This sign remained in place from 2009-2011. The colors were maroon and white, with the IMS Centennial Era logo flanking on each side.
- After the “Centennial Era” concluded on race day 2011, the Speedway retired their retro style Centennial Era logo, and rather than reverting back to the 1970s-2008 wheel & wing logo as some expected, they designed an updated wheel & wing logo (known here as the “Chunky logo”). This newer rendition had the wheel facing left, featured different fonts, and for the lack of a better term, looks more “chunky” than the predecessor. This version of the logo debuted at the 2011 Brickyard 400, less than two months after the 2011 Indianapolis 500, indicating the Speedway was ready to move on. As a result, the back gate sign (which kept the 1970s-2008 wheel & wing logo during the Centennial Era) had to be replaced. At some point after the 2011 race, but apparently no later than 2013, the panel was replaced with the new panel featuring the new “chunky” wheel & wing logo and a much bolder font for the words “GARAGE AREA.”
- In 2012, at the traditional entrance, the Centennial Era style Gasoline Alley sign was removed (as mentioned, Centennial Era graphics were mostly retired from use during the summer of 2011), and replaced with a new one without any reference to the centennial era. It was a black and white sign, with bold black lettering, and two of the new IMS wing & wheel logos (one on each end). This sign appears to have been used in 2014 also.
- In 2013, the sign was a solid black sign, with white letters. The two IMS logos were on each side, but said “Gasoline Alley” in large letters, and “Indianapolis Motor Speedway” in small thin lettering. This sign was removed after only one year, and as mentioned above, the 2012 sign was reinstalled.
- In 2015, the sign was updated to a blue and black sign, with white lettering. On the left is a Sunoco logo, and on the right is an IMS logo. This sign was also in place for 2016, and as of the spring testing in 2017, still remains.
EDIT: This article was edited to include revised information about the rebuilding of the garage area in the summer of 1941.
EDIT: This article was edited to include details about the new panel on the garage area back gate sign, and to add additional photographs.