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Studebaker legacy ties South Bend to early years of Indianapolis 500

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - It's nearly impossible to walk around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway without noticing the extensive history all around.

And the formative years of Indy's world-famous race hold a deep connection with South Bend.

“The Indianapolis 500 is the United States’ iconic automobile race," said Andrew Beckman, the archivist at the Studebaker National Museum. "From those beginnings in 1909 to 100 years later, it still holds that title, which is an impressive feat. Studebaker, from their part, was active in the racing scene in the early 1930s.”

According to Beckman, Studebaker's involvement began with a group of engineers putting together a car in 1930, then using one of the biggest factory-backed efforts ever to enter a team in both 1932 and 1933.

And even though it's been decades since the last Studebaker entry, the early years formed a lasting legacy.

“The ties are still very strong between South Bend and Indianapolis," said the museum's assistant director Jo McCoy. "I think there’s a huge appreciation for automotive history right here in South Bend because of the connection with Studebaker and the race.”

Beyond Studebaker's multiple entries into the field, it had an even larger and more extended presence as a pace car. Four different models were used as the ceremonial automobile across the 1920s, 40s, 50s, and 60s.

“As Indiana’s preeminent automobile manufacturer, it certainly was an honor and kind of a natural fit that Studebaker would have that distinction on a number of occasions,” said Beckman.

From there, it was time to capitalize on the exposure that comes from a world-famous race just a couple hours away.

“The saying is “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday,” and certainly that’s what Studebaker was trying to do," said Beckman. "They maximized their campaign at the 500 with their advertisements. They used the slogan ‘From the Speedway comes their stamina, and from the Skyway comes their style,’ and the Speedway was of course referring to the IMS.”

Though Studebaker's own history came to an end years ago, the story lives on thanks to the company's impact, both on the South Bend community and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“It’s incredible," said McCoy. "South Bend is known for its automotive history and Studebaker really put us on the map. Obviously they’re not still in business, but it had a huge impact on not just the automotive history, but the entire manufacturing community here in Northern Indiana.”

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