On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II. On December 29, 1941, then-president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Eddie Rickenbacker announced that the 1942 Indianapolis 500 was cancelled, and the race would remain suspended throughout the duration of the war. The Speedway gates were locked, and the facility was abandoned. The race would not be held from 1942 to 1945. During the period in which the track was closed, it fell into a terrible state of disrepair. Grass and weeds overwhelmed the brick racing surface, and the old wooden grandstands became frail and unsuitable and inhospitable.
After World War II was over in the summer of 1945, Eddie Rickenbacker was mostly uninterested in reviving the Speedway, due to other commitments, including his involvement with Eastern Air Lines. He was looking to sell the property, perhaps to developers. Wilbur Shaw and Homer H. Cochran helped consummate a deal for Tony Hulman of Terra Haute, Indiana to purchase the track. On November 14, 1945 at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, Hulman signed the deal, worth a reported $750,000. Hulman's first official duty was to name Wilbur Shaw the president and general manager. T. E. "Pop" Myers was retained as vice-president, and Joseph R. Cloutier was named treasurer. Hulman himself was appointed the chairman of the board, and Leonard Marshall became the secretary.
Tony Hulman announced that renovation of the Speedway would begin immediately, and that the Indianapolis 500 would resume on its traditional date of Memorial Day for 1946. Within days, the Speedway's administrative offices at 444 North Capitol Avenue in downtown Indianapolis was reopened, and staff was hired, many rehired from before the war years. The AAA Contest Board subsequently announced that the specifications and rules would remain largely unchanged from 1941. Due to lingering post-war shortages of materials and manpower, it was decided to keep the rules the same as most, if not all, cars would be reused from before the war, and few if any new cars would be built on such short notice.
In mid-December, Indiana Lieutenant Governor Richard T. James, while on an official trip to Europe, formally extended invitations to European racing teams to enter for the 500.
The deadline for entries to be received was midnight on May 1, along with a $125 entry fee. As had been customary, the track was made available for practice beginning May 1. Some teams, however, began arriving and setting up at the track as early as mid-March. Due to the ongoing renovations and construction, spectators were not allowed through the gates until May 11. Only participants and members of the press were allowed to enter the gates up to that point. In addition, practice over the first ten days of May was limited to 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily. On Saturday May 11, the track was opened to spectators for the first time during the month for a charge of 50¢ per person. Also on May 11, practice time was extended from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Time trials was tentatively scheduled for five days - the two weekends leading up to race day, along with the Tuesday two days before the race. However, rain and the lingering shortage of necessary parts kept many of the cars off the track. Eventually, eight total days were made available for qualifying in order to fill the field to the traditional 33 cars.
By January, some of the construction work was already underway. The Paddock grandstand and the G grandstand were already being dismantled. Entry blanks were published in late January, with the entry fee set at $125. The rules announced were largely carried over from 1941, with few changes. Prize money was set at $20,000 for first place, and the traditional 33 cars would make up the starting grid.
Tickets for the 1946 Indianapolis 500 officially went on sale on February 1. Mail orders had been pouring steadily in since the track was sold in November. Some eager fans sent requests for tickets as early as August (shortly after V-J Day) anticipating the track would reopen. Even though at the time there were no plans yet in place to reopen the track, much less hold the race.
By mid-February, construction and renovation of the grandstands was well along. Due post-war shortages of lumber, crews began felling numerous trees in the infield to complete the project. Demolition of the Paddock grandstand on the mainstretch and the G Stand in turn two was complete, and steel and concrete stands were going to take their places. In addition, brand new grandstands along the inside of the track adjacent to the Pagoda were soon to be built. Other improvements underway were new restrooms, a new restaurant, improved food and water facilities, and repairs to other existing grandstands. The plans ultimately were to increase seating capacity from 65,000 to 75,000. Lastly, it was announced that a new public address system was to be built.
Numerous announcements were made with regard to officials and personnel. Seth Klein returned as the chief starter, Chester Ricker returned as the director of timing and scoring, and Henry Ford II was named the driver of the Lincoln Continental pace car. Kirkpatrick studio was signed on as the official photographers of the 500-mile race. The Indiana State Police was assigned to crowd control duties.
Entries slowly began to arrive, bringing the total to six by the end of the month. Cliff Bergere and Joie Chitwood were the first two drivers to be entered. Cars were entered for Russ Snowberger, Ted Horn and George Connor. On February 7, Harry McQuinn flew into the Speedway, landing his Aeronca Champion airplane on the backstretch, arriving to personally deliver his entry for the race. Construction workers at the track briefly halted work to watch the plane land. Though not yet entered, driver Al Putnam was preparing for the race.
Speedway officials continued to rebuild staff for the race. Clifford M. Rigsbee was appointed head of a new technical group at the Speedway. A welcoming committee with the local chamber of commerce was formed, in order to re-acclimate spectators to the event after the hiatus during the war. In addition, the Speedway announced Dr. E. Rogers Smith as the chief of the track medical staff.
The $300,000 renovation project at the track was reported to be on-schedule. The grounds were now mostly cleaned up, and the biggest item of work was the pouring of concrete for the new Paddock grandstand across from the Pagoda. Excavation for the new G grandstand was underway, and many new parquet seats were already in place behind the pit area. The old diner adjacent to Gasoline Alley had been razed and a new restaurant was to be built in its place. With less than two months until race day, advanced reserved tickets sales were reported as brisk.
By the end of the month, the entry list was up to 15 cars. Cars were entered for Al Putnam, Steve Truchan, and Arthur M. Sims entered the machine that Wilbur Shaw drove to victory in the 1937 race, but a driver was not yet named. One other car was entered by Ed Walsh without a driver named. Three-time pole position winner, and 1941 National Champion Rex Mays was slated to drive the Bowes Seal Fast Special, the same car he drove to second place in 1941. Despite facing financial and transportation difficulties, at least five European drivers were inquiring about submitting entries.
Early in the month, a minor controversy was looming. It was reported that some drivers, particularly those from the west coast, were expressing concern about the perceived low purse announced for the race.
With less than a month to go before the track officially opened for practice, entries continued to pour in. Cars were entered for Harry O'Reilly Schell, "Raph", Emil Andres, George Barringer, Joel Thorne, Cliff Bergere, Rudolf Caracciola, Tazio Nuvolari, Chet Miller, and several others. By the end of the month, the entry list was up to 44 cars.
Refurbishment of the facility continued, including the near-completion of new grandstands. On April 6, the Speedway Golf Course opened for business. Officials announced that a small number of tickets were still available.
George Barringer arrived with his car on April 22, and two days later on April 24, Barringer became the first driver to take to the track for the year. Barringer's supercharged rear-engined machine completed laps over 115 mph. Track president Wilbur Shaw, George Connor, Chet Miller, and others were on hand to watch. The following day, April 25, Tony Bettenhausen became the second driver to take laps.
Off the track, Roy E. Cole, vice-president in charge of engineering at Studebaker, was named the chairman of the technical committee for the race. Also, the Lap Prize Fund was accumulating, and the prize fund was announced at $60,000, quelling some of the concern about a low purse.
Time trials was originally scheduled for five days (May 18–19, 25–26, and 28), but rain delays took away available track time. In addition, post-war shortages of certain replacement parts delayed some cars from being able to participate in practice sessions. Officials eventually would make the track available for qualifying on three additional days in order to fill the field to the traditional 33 cars. The minimum speed to qualify was set at 115 mph. Approximately 56 entries were expected to make attempts to qualify.
Officials retained the four lap (10-mile) qualifying runs that were traditional from 1920–1933 and from 1939–1941. The fastest qualifier on the first day of time trials ("pole day") would win the pole position. Cars that qualified on the second day would line up behind the first qualifiers, and so on. Prior to World War II, on time trials days the track would typically be open until "sundown." But for 1946, the times were standardized such that the track would close each day at 5:30 p.m., except for the final day - unless weather interfered.
The first day of time trials was scheduled for Saturday May 18. The track would be open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The favorites for the front row included Harry McQuinn, Cliff Bergere, Rex Mays, and Ted Horn. Since many teams were lacking practice time, and some lacking parts, less than a dozen cars were expected to take to the track on Saturday.
Over 20,000 spectators arrived for the first significant track action in nearly five years. However, rain threatened most of the afternoon, and allowed only six cars to complete runs. During a practice run, Frank McGurk in the Shoof Special spun coming out of turn four and hit the outside wall. The car hit the outside rail a second time, then slid across the track hitting the inside guardrail. McGurk was not seriously injured. The car was not seriously damaged, and was expected to be repaired.
Indy veteran Cliff Bergere won the pole position with a speed of 126.471 mph. At age 49, Bergere became the oldest pole winner in Indy history up to that point. Paul Russo, driving a unique twin-four-cylinder engine machine, qualified second to sit in the middle of the front row. On Russo's car, one engine drove the front axle, and the second engine drove the rear axle. Sam Hanks rounded out the front row. Rear-wheel drive cars swept two spots on the front row, with Jimmy Jackson (5th) the highest front-wheel-drive-only machine.
Rain closed the track for nearly two hours, prompting officials to extend qualifying until 7:30 p.m. Still, only seven cars made runs, and only six were completed. Mauri Rose had a fast first lap that could have put him on the front row, but the engine threw a rod on lap two.Source: The Indianapolis Star
Time trials was scheduled for 12:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A crowd of 60,000 spectators arrived but not a single car made a qualifying attempt. High winds kept most cars off the track early on, and later rain washed out most of remainder of the afternoon. Some cars did practice, but when the rains came, most spectators departed. Officials announced that Monday May 20 would be designated for qualifying, in order to make up for lost track time over the weekend.
After weather interfered on Sunday, officials made Monday May 20 available for qualifications. Three cars completed runs in front of a small crowd of only 3,000 spectators. Ted Horn (driving Wilbur Shaw's 1939 and 1940 winning car) was the fastest of the day. Horn's car, prepared by "Cotton" Henning, ran two identical laps, and put him on the inside of row three.
Officials announced that Tuesday May 21 would not be available for qualifications.
Charles VanAcker crashed. Duke Nalon made an exhibition run.
Qualifying resumed on Wednesday May 22. Approximately 20,000 spectators saw five cars complete runs, and the field was filled to 14 cars. Mauri Rose, who threw a rod on his first attempts, returned Wednesday with a different engine, was the fastest car of the day.
During a practice run for his driver's test, Hal Robson broke an axle in turn two, lost a wheel, and spun out. Robson was not injured, and completed the test later on in a different car.
After two days of practice only, time trials resumed on Saturday May 25. With a speed of 128.861 mph, Rex Mays tentatively became the fastest qualifier in the field. As a qualifier on the fourth day, however, Mays would line up in 14th starting position. Mays was followed by George Robson and Jimmy Wilburn, both over 125 mph. Wilburn had passed his rookie driver's test just two hours prior to making his attempt. A crowd of about 12,500 witnessed the afternoon.
Ralph Hepburn shattered the one-lap and four-lap track records and became the fastest qualifier in the field. Hepburn returned to the track a day after his car quit during his first attempt. Under cold weather and threatening skies, about 22,500 spectators saw fours drivers complete runs, and the field was filled to 22 cars.
Hepburn's fourth lap was the fastest, a track record 134.449 mph, and his four-lap average was a record 133.944 mph. Hepburn drove the 8-cylinder, front-wheel drive Novi Governor Special entered by W.S. Winfielfd.
At the request of many teams, time trials was extended into yet another day, with the track open from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Four cars completed runs, tentatively filling the field to 27 cars. Hal Robson joined his brother George in the field, but the speeds were noticeably down from Sunday's record-breaking efforts.
With only one day remaining to qualify, six positions were tentatively left to be filled.
The deadline for qualifications was set at sundown (8:08 p.m.) on Tuesday May 28. When the day opened, six spots were left open in the field. Tony Bettenhausen withdrew his previously-qualified car due to a broken crankshaft. He would re-qualify a new car to be the fastest driver of the day.
During a practice run, Rudolf Caracciola in one of the Joel Thorne Specials lost control and crashed in turn two. He was thrown from the machine, which was badly damaged. Caracciola was seriously injured, and rushed to the hospital.
Danny Kladis was the first driver to complete a run during the afternoon, at a relatively slow pace of 118.890 mph. He slipped down the standings as the day progressed, but his speed would hold up and he barely held on to qualify 33rd. Late in the afternoon, Charles Van Acker completed a run at 115.666 mph to fill the field at 33 cars. Buddy Rusch was now "on the bubble", the slowest car in the field. Steve Truchan was the next car out, but he pulled into the pits after only three laps.
Just minutes before sundown, three cars took to the track in an effort to bump their way into the field. Tony Bettenhausen, Billy Devore and George Connor all took to the track at the same time in order to make it in before the deadline. Bettenhausen earned a new spot in the field after withdrawing his previous car. Connor and Devore bumped out Buddy Rusch and Charles Van Acker, respectively. One final car, Freddy Winnai made a last-ditch effort to make the field, but the car quit on the backstretch before completing a lap.First alternate: Buddy Rusch (R) (#37) – Bumped
At the start, Mauri Rose tied an Indy record by leading the first lap from the 9th starting position. Attrition was high in the first race after World War II, as three of the first four cars on the grid were out before the 50 mile mark.
George Robson took the lead for good on lap 93, and led the rest of the way. Robson's six-cylinder Sparks was the first 6-cylinder winning car since Ray Harroun in 1911. Rookie Jimmy Jackson finished second, at the relatively close margin of 44 seconds.
Ted Horn made two lengthy pit stops and fell seven laps behind the last running car. Horn returned to the track, and charged all the way up third place at the finish. Horn was the fastest car on the track in the second half, and he completed the entire 500 miles, but was 12 minutes behind Robson.
A mild controversy came about after the race, as race winner George Robson was accused of breaking the rules by not exiting the cockpit of the car during pit stops. A protest was filed, but it was later dismissed.
The race was carried live on the Mutual Broadcasting System, the precursor to the IMS Radio Network. The broadcast was sponsored by Perfect Circle Piston Rings and Bill Slater served as the anchor. The broadcast feature live coverage of the start, the finish, and live updates throughout the race.