By: Spencer Neff
November 21, 2019| 12:47 PM
In 1909, entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher began creating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A 2.5-mile, rectangular-shaped track on the west side of Indiana’s capital city, IMS was to become a proving ground for automobiles.
However, IMS’ main legacy has evolved from Fisher’s original vision.
On May 30, 1911, the speedway hosted the inaugural 500-mile International Sweepstakes. In that race, some pioneers of the automotive industry starred.
Race winner Ray Harroun debuted the first rear-view mirror. Also in that race was Arthur Chevrolet, younger brother of Louis, founder of the automobile company bearing his name.
Nearly 110 years later, the Indianapolis 500 (as its now know), is still a spotlight for the racing and automotive industries. Today, the Indianapolis 500 is among the biggest events not only in racing but across the world.
In the latest installment of Open-Wheels’ Faces of the 500 series, we take a look at the life, racing career and lasting legacy of Walt Hansgen. Although Hansgen’s time at the speedway was brief, his impact is still felt to this day.
Born on October 28, 1919 in Westfield, New Jersey, Hansgen’s racing career did not begin until he was in his 30s. While working in his father’s body shop, Hansgen borrowed money from his mother and obtained a Jaguar XK120. Driving with Randy Pearsall, the duo finished 10th in their first race at Sebring.
Later in the decade, Hansgen’s focus shifted toward road racing. For the up-and-comer, it would prove to play host to his greatest triumphs.
From 1956 to 1958, he drove his Jaguar C-Type to the SCCA National Championship. During this time, Hansgen drove for Alfred Momo and Briggs Cunningham. By 1959, Hansgen moved over to a Lister Jaguar and won his fourth title.
By the 1960s, Hansgen’s focus had shifted primarily to open-wheel cars. In 1959, Hansgen won Formula Junior’s inaugural United States Grand Prix meeting at Sebring as well. Throughout the decade, Hansgen would see success on the road courses of Formula 1 and NASCAR as well.
In 1964, Hansgen would also take on the world’s most famous race course as he looked to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
In 1964, Kjell Qvale’s team fielded a Huffaker-Offenhauser entry for Hansgen’s debut at Indy. During qualifying, he posted a four-lap average of 152.581 mph.
At the time, it was a new record for rookies in the race. During the 200-lap event, Hansgen was able to stay running at the finish and completed his first “500” in 13th, albeit 24 laps down.
A year later, Qvale returned to Indianapolis yet again with Hansgen behind the wheel. For his second Indianapolis 500, Hansgen qualified 21st. After overheating issues plagued the team during the race, they completed 117 of 200 laps and settled for a 14th-place finish.
Despite continuing his road racing career, Hansgen still made the Indianapolis 500 a goal each year.
1966 began in exciting fashion for Hansgen as he and portage Mark Donohue finished third as Ford swept the Top 3 at the Daytona 24. In march, he and Donohue earned a runner-up finish at the 12 Hours of Sebring.
In addition to planning another appearance at the Indianapolis 500 in may, Hansgen joined on to Ford’s effort at June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
During an April 3 test at the famed Circuit de la Sarthe in France, Hansgen lost control of his Ford GT40 Mk2 and drove down an escape road into a barrier. Four days later, he succumbed to his injuries at the age of 46.
Later that year, Ford earned a 1-2-3 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, led by co-drivers Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren. Co-driving with Paul Hawkins, the Holman-Moody team Donohue raced for dropped out with a gear differential issue just five hours into the event.
Three years later, Donohue made his debut at the Indianapolis 500. In 1972, the Sommerdale, New Jersey-native won the race with Car Owner Roger Penske. Donohue credited Hansgen with introducing him to auto racing and cites friendships with racers like Hansgen as his “Unfair Advantage”.
Although it has been over 50 years since Hansgen’s passing, his influence continues to this day. That 1972 victory for Donohue marked the first for Car Owner Roger Penske.
After driver Simon Pagenaud won from pole on May 26, Penske extended his records as an owner to 18 in both pole positions and race victories.
On November 4, Penske Corporation announced its acquisition of Hulman and Company via the Penske Entertainment Group subsidiary. As a results, Penske acquired Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions.
Header Image By Motorsportsmarketingresources.com