Wilbur Shaw: Savior of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Today, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway represents one of the largest tourist attractions in the United States, with millions of fans, drivers, and spectators participating in both the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, the 500 Festival, and all its associated Indianapolis events. However, Indianapolis might not have the famous Brickyard today if not for the efforts of driver, mechanic, automotive writer, and entrepreneur Wilbur Shaw. It was Shaw who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from becoming an industrial park at the close of World War II; without him and his contributions to Indy car racing, countless generations of racers would never have the chance to compete in one of the world’s greatest races.

Video highlights of the 1939 and 1941 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race; Shelbyville, Indiana resident Wilbur Shaw won the 1939 race but ended his racing career in a crash in the 1941 race


Wilbur Shaw was born in Shelbyville, Indiana in 1902, and gasoline flowed through his veins from the very beginning. Since his family lived so close to the Circle City, he attended Indy car races from a young age. Shaw began professional racing in 1921; his first race was at the Hoosier Speedway, and he drove a car he built himself using junked parts. Another notch on Shaw’s list of accomplishments: fellow drivers scoffed when he used a helmet in 1923 after suffering a fractured skull, but when Shaw’s helmet saved his life in a crash, helmets were made mandatory. Throughout the 20’s, Shaw used his custom built car to dominate race tracks around the Midwest, and by 1927 he had qualified to race at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His first Indy race was ran with his custom built car in 1927. He came in fourth, but the desire to win never left his system. By 1936, Shaw was the co-owner and driver of the Pay Car. Shaw placed seventh with the Pay Car in 1936, but he learned plenty of valuable lessons from that race. Just a year later, Wilbur Shaw won his first Indianapolis 500. After his hard fought victory in 1937, Shaw went racing in Europe, where discovered the power and control of a Maserati. In his new Maserati, Wilbur Shaw won the Indianapolis 500 in both 1939 and 1940, the first driver to ever win two Indianapolis 500 races in a row. Unfortunately, his next Indianapolis 500 Mile Race would prove to be his last. Five laps into the 1941 race, Shaw was in the lead. But a defective wheel on his car busted and sent Shaw careening into the wall, fracturing three of Shaw’s vertebrae and effectively ending his racing career.

Video of Shelbyville, Indiana resident Wilbur Shaw driving his Maserati in the 1939 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race

Though Shaw’s career as a driver was over, he still kept an interest in cars and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While working for Firestone during World War II, Wilbur Shaw had a chance to witness the dilapidated condition of the once famous race track. At the time, the Brickyard was owned by Eddie Rickenbacker, who had stopped maintenance on the track during the war. In fact, he was planning on selling the property and turning it into a housing subdivision or an industrial park. Rickenbacker said he would sell the track if he found someone willing to save it; Shaw went looking and found Tony Hulman, a businessman from Terre Haute, Indiana.

At Shaw’s urging, Hulman bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945, and Indy racing was saved. Through the efforts of Hulman and Shaw, the speedway experienced a golden age during the late 40’s and 50’s, though it was Shaw’s ideas and charisma that largely fueled the project. As president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Wilbur Shaw restored the vaunted race track to its former glory, creating the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” that has only grown in popularity in the decades since.

Video of the 2010 Indianapolis 500 Parade Lap, featuring the 1940 winning car of Wilbur Shaw, a famous native of Shelbyville, Indiana who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Unfortunately, Wilbur Shaw‘s life was cut short. In 1954, Wilbur Shaw’s life ended in a plane crash near Decatur, Indiana; he was just shy of 52 years old. Today, Wilbur Shaw has been recognized as a key figure in the racing world; he was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 1991 he became a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. The last native Indiana resident to win the Indianapolis 500, Shaw won the legendary race a total of three times and was the first to win it in two consecutive years. More importantly, this famous Shelbyville resident saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from sure destruction with almost nothing but his charm and determination. Thanks to Shaw, the Speedway experienced a surge in popularity that had grown to epic proportions by 2011; Indianapolis sports would not be the same without Wilbur Shaw.

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