The 1916 Indianapolis 500 will be remembered forever as one of the most trouble-packed undertakings in the Speedway’s history.
Following the 1915 500-mile race, Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison became concerned that European teams would not participate in International races during World War I. They decided to develop their own racing team to fill the expected gaps in the starting lineup caused by the growing absence of factory-sponsored entries. They commissioned five racers and formed the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company in September 1915. As part of the team, Eddie Rickenbacker encouraged them to include the two Maxwells sponsored by the Prest-O-Lite Team.
In 1916, Allison became the sole owner of the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company and moved operations to a small shop on the corner of the Prest-O-Lite lot in the town of Speedway. Of the 30 cars entered in the 1916 race, seven were from the Speedway Team and Prest-O-Lite Team companies consisting of two Peugeots, two Maxwells, and three Premiers.
Track officials also complied willingly with suggestions made by spectators and press representatives designating 300 miles as the “ideal distance” for high-speed championship events. More than half of the available cars were two or three years old. Fisher was skeptical of their ability to finish a 500-mile test.
When entries closed on May 1, the official list consisted of 30 eligible cars for the 33 available starting positions, not too bad under the circumstances. Track management, however, still had cause for considerable concerns.
Eleven of the 30, including three Speedway Team Premiers, were new cars still under construction. There was considerable doubt that any of the 11 could be completed in time. Several of the others were of questionable quality, with comparatively unknown drivers assigned to them. An honest appraisal of the situation convinced Track management that were only 13 bona fide contenders. These were the four-car Speedway Team, three Delages entered by Harry Harkness, two Duesenbergs, Dario Resta’s Peugeot, Barney Oldfield’s Delage, Ralph Mulford’s Peugeot, and an English Sunbeam assigned to Josef Christiaens.
The Track’s concern of a full field was not alleviated when only 10 competed in the first championship event of the year on the new two-mile board track at Sheepshead Bay, NY, on May 13.
Oldfield and Christiaens reached Indianapolis on May 16 to open the pre-race practice period, joining Johnny Aitken and Charley Merz on the track in Speedway Team-owned Peugeots. Resta and Tom Alley arrived two days later, with Rickenbacker and Pete Henderson also on hand to tune-up their Speedway Team-owned Maxwells.
The first two Premiers, painted green and assigned to Gil Anderson and Tom Rooney, were fired up for the first time on May 23. The Frontenacs arrived the following morning and all three members of the new Crawford team completed a tiring overland drive from Hagerstown, MD, later in the day at the wheel of their respective racers.
But only 22 cars were on the grounds for the start of time trials on Friday, May 26. Twelve of them still needed considerable work in order to attain the required minimum speed of 80 miles an hour. When the 10 successful qualifiers were joined by only four more on Saturday, race officials held an emergency meeting and set up an additional two-hour period for time trials on Sunday. Five successful runs against the clock increased the list of eligible cars to 19, including the third new Premier, which Howdy Wilcox qualified after driving it only eight laps.
Another extension of time permitted Ralph Mulford to qualify on May 29, and Eddie O’Donnell also made the grade in a Duesenberg. Several of the early qualifiers were far from satisfied with the performance of their respective cars, however, and insisted that additional practice time was necessary on race morning, May 30, for final “tuning.” Such permission was granted at another emergency meeting of officials, who also announced that any unqualified car could make another attempt to get into the lineup during the special practice session scheduled from 10 a.m. until noon. The start of the race was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
Art Chevrolet “blew a cylinder” in the Frontenac that he had qualified earlier. Fortunately, he was allowed to start the race in another Frontenac previously qualified by Joe Boyer.
The 21 starting positions for the race were assigned according to speed in time trials, regardless of the day on which the various entrants had qualified. Members of the Speedway Team were strong favorites because they had captured seven of the first nine positions.
The starting lineup was Aitken, Rickenbacker, Anderson, Resta, Oldfield, Wilcox, Rooney, Merz, Henderson, Wilbur D’Alene, Art Chevrolet, Louis Chevrolet, Jules Vigne, O. F. Halbe, Christiaens, Billy Chandler, Aldo Franchi, Art Johnson, Dave Lewis, Jack LeCain, and Alley.
Rickenbacker and Aitken set the early pace. But a series of misfortunes engulfed every member of the Speedway team in rapid order. Rickenbacker broke a steering knuckle on the tenth lap, and Aitken blew a tire on his 17th lap. Resta, pressing them relentlessly at speeds up to 98 miles an hour, roared into the lead at this point and never was challenged seriously during the remainder of the event. After lapping the entire field and making his only pit stop of the day without losing first place, he built up a six-minute advantage over his nearest rival by running a steady 85 miles an hour and “coasted” to victory.
Wilbur D’Alene, a comparatively unknown young member of the Duesenberg team, finished a surprising second with Mulford in third, Christiaens in fourth and Oldfield in fifth. Rickenbacker, driving relief for Henderson after a long pit stop, struggled home in sixth position. Wilcox salvaged seventh place despite repeated ignition trouble. Louis Chevrolet in his Frontenac and Gil Anderson in his Premier finished 11th and 12th respectively. As for the others members of the Speedway team, mechanical failure ended the hopes of Merz and Anderson, and Rooney hit the wall in the third Premier.
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