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Indianapolis 500 Push Collectibles into High Gear

by Rob Bertrand (05/23/13).

An autographed photo of Johnny Rutherford, also known as “Lone Star JR.” He is one of nine drivers to win the prestigious Indianapolis 500 at least three times, winning the race in 1974, 1976, and 1980.

The Indianapolis 500, often referred to, as the Indy 500, is an annual race held on Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motors Speedway (IMS). The 500-mile race was first held in 1911 and is heralded as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” With its history, tradition and world-class drivers, the 500 provides collectors with numerous opportunities to pursue a plethora of collectible pieces. From driver autographs, original artwork, die-cast cars, ephemera and everything in between, the sky’s the limit for those wishing to add to or start an Indy 500 collection.

The month-long event that culminates in the 200-lap race, also hosts its own memorabilia show. The Open Wheel Collectibles and Sports Memorabilia Expo for 2013 will take place on May 23-25, 2013 in the Dupont Pavilion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The three-day event is home to the greatest assembly of racing enthusiasts and dealers, making the event a must-see destination for hardcore collectors and fans alike. When it comes to racing, teams, cars and sponsors are almost as popular—and collectible—as items from the drivers themselves. The fraternity of Indy racing includes many household names from the generational involvement in the sport with the likes of Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Allison, Penske and Foyt being some of the most memorable.

With so many avenues of collectibles to pursue, common-themed niches include: specific drivers, racing families, teams, car and engine manufacturers, sponsors, race years and more. In recent years, drivers like Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, the late Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick have contributed to the replacing of the old guard. And with this change they have added new fans and new collectibles to the market place.

As with other annually held sporting events, venue tickets make for a great collectible, with age and condition being the primary drivers for collectible value. This stub is from the 1936 Indy 500.

Even vintage tickets in Excellent to Near Mint condition, like this unused 1976 ticket, are extremely affordable and can be found for less than $100, making them a truly under-valued collectible.

This unused ticket from the 1950 Indy 500 features the likeness of 1949 winner Bill Holland.

As with other annually held sporting events, venue tickets make for a great collectible, with age and condition being the primary drivers for collectible value. However, even vintage tickets in Excellent to Near Mint condition are extremely affordable and can be found for less than $100, making them a truly under-valued collectible. Obviously, older tickets—particularly those prior to the Second World War—are the most desirable.

Racing offers a unique collectible not available in other, more mainstream sports. Die-cast model cars provide a fun way for fans and collectors to connect with drivers, their teams and even individual race years. Customary to most motor sport events, a pace car is used to organize the starting field while leading drivers around the track in formation as the they warm up their cars’ tires and engines. The pace car used for the Indianapolis 500 serves as a promotional opportunity for the manufacturer and is considered a prestigious honor. Because of this pageantry and tradition, pace car die-casts are highly collectible pieces of not only motor sports but Americana as well. For years, the official pace car of the 500 has been the Corvette made by Chevrolet. An iconic car and brand highly collectible in its own right, the crossover collectibility appeals to a wide range of collecting audiences. Available in many sizes, the most desirable and valuable of which are those in 1/18 and 1/25 scales.

What looks like a regular scale model of the 1978 Official Pace Car for the Indy 500 is really a china whiskey decanter.

A more traditional Indy 500 pace car collectible: a die-cast model of the 2006 official pace car.

Official race programs, in good condition, like this one from 1926, serve as a means of chronicling and preserving the event’s history and are therefore highly desirable to 500 collectors.

America’s long-time love affair with the automobile helps fuel the collectibility of all things associated with the Indianapolis 500. That rings true for seemingly trivial as this 1958yearbook.

America’s long-time love affair with the automobile helps fuel the collectibility of all things associated with the Indianapolis 500. That rings true for seemingly trivial items like yearbooks, programs, photographs and postcards, and the older the better. These ephemera items appeal to Indy collectors and automobile enthusiasts alike. However, yearbooks and official race programs, in good condition, serve as a means of chronicling and preserving the event’s history and are therefore highly desirable to 500 collectors. Postcards, like those pictured here, often sell for in excess of $50.

As is to be expected, the most valuable of all Indianapolis 500 memorabilia is race-worn items, particularly those worn by winning drivers. In 2012, a California collector put up for auction Mario Andretti’s race-worn fire suit from his 1969 Indy 500 victory. Despite receiving more than $5,000 in bids, when the gavel fell, it had not reached the seller’s reserve price. These types of items rarely become available, but when they do, they command top dollar. Al Unser’s 1975 race-worn helmet sold a few years ago for $3,100, beating pre-auction estimates of $500-$1,000. When it comes to items carrying this type of price tag, authenticity and provenance are the utmost of importance.

Ephemera items appeal to Indy collectors and automobile enthusiasts alike. However, Postcards, like those pictured here—from 1927 (above) and 1929 (below) often sell for in excess of $50.

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The Mario Andretti’s race-worn fire suit from the 1969 Indy 500 went up for auction and, despite having the bidding eclipse $5,000, it did not reach the reserve price and was pulled from the auction.

This helmet, worn by Al Unser in the 1975 Indy 500, sold at auction for $3,100.

There are numerous experts and resources available to collectors that specialize in racing memorabilia. Due diligence, research and common sense must be employed when pursuing these types of race treasures. Because of the high visibility and media coverage the event receives, collectors can start their own research by examining the unique characteristics of an alleged race-worn piece to photos of the driver wearing the actual item. This type of authenticity is referred to as photo matching and is used in almost all apparel-related memorabilia across all sports.

Racecar drivers, particularly those who race in the 500-style Indy Car circuit, are typically highly accessible, enjoy fan interaction and participate in numerous autograph signings both in season and out. As a result, even the most famous of driver’s autographs are readily affordable and available. Most driver autographs, signed on paper items like photos, magazines and trading cards, can usually be found for less than $20. 

A collection of Indianapolis 500-related pins.

A first-day issue postcard with a Jackie Stewart autograph.

Through the years there have been numerous trading card sets released focused entirely on Indy 500 drivers. This is an example of an autographed Dario Franchitti trading card.

Through the years there have been numerous trading card sets released focused entirely on Indy 500 drivers. While most are more novelty then collectible, there have been sets produced that are quite collectible. In 2007, a company called Rittenhouse published one of the most comprehensive trading card sets of that year’s current drivers. Every driver signed numerous autographs that were randomly inserted into packs. These autographed trading cards are by far the most desirable of any trading card product manufactured to date.

When it comes to the Indianapolis 500, there are collectibles for every budget size, making it a fun and challenging pursuit for collectors of all experience levels. Whether you are a veteran gear-head or a member of the junior circuit, the tradition and pageantry of the 500 has something for everyone.


Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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2 Responses to “Indianapolis 500 Push Collectibles into High Gear”

  1. Tom Mathews says:

    Please note that the 3 day show you reference at the Indiana State Fairgrounds is not the same show as it was in years past as most of the dealers that use to do that show are now at the at the Speedway the day before the 500 for the memorabilia show located in the Plaza Pavilion just east of the Pagoda scoring tower.

  2. Rob Bertrand says:

    Thank you for that clarification.

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