This week I would like to share with you a book for all Indianapolis 500 fans. That book is Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500 by Charles Leerhsen.
Before I go further, I have to disclose that Charles talked to me as a resource in his research, and he mentioned our interviews in his book. With that being said, I want to share why I think this book is of interest to Indy race fans.
When I met Charles a few years ago, I was not aware of the controversy surrounding the running of the first 500. I accepted as fact that Ray Harroun won the race.
One of the items that drew Charles to write Blood and Smoke was the controversy around the publishing the first 500’s final results. He uses this as a springboard to write a compelling tale of the people and events that shaped that race and events that make the 500 the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Charles takes us back to the coming-of-age of automobile racing in the American entertainment industry. Some race fans might remember that Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler hosted the first auto races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August 1909. The track’s attendance was over 75,000 for the three days and numerous records were set. By the time the three days of racing were over, one driver, two riding mechanics, and two spectators were dead. To make the track safer, the owners decided to repave the track with 3,200,000 ten-pound paving bricks “The Brickyard” was born.
Shortly after the 1910 events, the Speedway founders announced plans for a automobile race with a purse of $25,000 in cash prizes for a single day of racing. The date for the first Indianapolis 500 was finally set for May 30, 1911.
Leerhsen does an incredible job of describing the story as the event unfolded. As the race progressed, the race standings of the 40 race cars became more and more confused. The Speedway’s four manual scoreboards were usually not in agreement, and at mid-race the pit timing stand was unattended for about 10 minutes due to a nearby accident. Other problems with the official timing system further muddled the race results. Ray Harroun was awarded the first place winnings of $14,250 in purse and accessory prizes.
Charles Leerhsen’s incredible research, writing, and character studies of the story’s key figures, like Carl Fisher, Barney Oldfield, Ralph Mulford, Ray Harroun, Howard Marmon, and their riding mechanics weave you into the story. His familiarity with the times of the era create a riveting tale of the birth of the Indianapolis 500.
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.
For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.
As preparations for the 1914 Indianapolis 500 moved along, the field shaped up to feature France versus America. Jules Goux, the 1913 500 winner, headed the Peugeot assault with teammates Georges Boillot and Arthur Duray, and they seemed confident of a second French victory. The French Delage team of Rene Thomas and Albert Guyot, plus Joseph Christiaens’ Excelsior entry, provided extra support.
The U.S. met them with a crack contingent of men and machines – Barney Oldfield, Earl Cooper, and Gil Anderson for Stutz; Caleb Bragg and Spenser Wishart for Mercer; Teddy Tetzlaff and Willie Carlson for Maxwell; and Eddy Rickenbacker and Willie Haupt for Duesenberg.
A crowd of 100,000 surged into the Speedway to fill the stands to capacity. The top three qualifiers were Boillot, Goux, and Tetzlaff. Oldfield managed to qualify 29th among the 30 starters. Oldfield deliberately held back because of a blue-gray cloud of exhaust, castor oil, and burning rubber.
Rene Thomas assumed the lead on lap 13. On lap 16, Oldfield worked his Stutz to 19th position ahead of his American competitors. Anderson’s Stutz retired early, and he waited to relieve Oldfield. By lap 48, Oldfield edged into the top 10 with Rickenbacker close by and Cooper following in the third Stutz.
Oldfield was seventh by lap 72, with Guyot leading the pack in his Delage. Anderson climbed into the Number 3 Stutz on lap 100, with Thomas driving in first place. By lap 150, Oldfield was back in his Stutz holding on to fifth place.
With 50 laps to go, Thomas, Duray, Guyot, and Goux in four French cars led Oldfield in the lone Stutz in fifth place. Oldfield represented the last serious American threat. As the miles rolled by, the cars finished in that order. Rickenbacker and Haupt drove the Duesenberg entries to 10th and 12th respectively.
The fourth annual 500 was over, a singular triumph for France, but America had not lost without honor.
Almost overlooked by most spectators was the accomplishment of Willie Carlson’s Maxwell, which completed the full 500 miles on 30 gallons of kerosene priced at 6 cents a gallon and finished 9th. Indy 500 winner Ray Harroun had designed the new type of carburetor for kerosene on the Maxwells. This was the most economical high-speed performance in automotive history.
For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.
Thursday, August 19, 1909, was opening day of the first auto racing program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Louis Schwitzer of Indianapolis, driving a Stoddard-Dayton won the first event, a five-mile dash for cars of less-than 230 cubic-inch displacement. Louis Chevrolet, driving a Buick won the first 10-mile event, and Ray Harroun, won another 10-miler, with a four-cylinder Marmon. Bob Burman won the featured 250-mile Prest-O-Lite trophy race with an average speed of 53.77 miles an hour, in his Buick.
Louis Strang won Friday’s 100-mile G and J Trophy Race with a speed of 64.74 miles an hour.
Eddie Hearne, Barney Oldfield, and Ralph DePlama scored victories in Saturday’s preliminary events
The program’s grand finale was Saturday’s 300-mileWheeler Schebler Trophy Race. Seventeen cars in the 450-600 cubic-inch displacement class vied for the huge seven-foot cup created by Tiffany’s of New York. Lee Lynch, driving a Jackson, was awarded first place, with an average speed of 55.61 miles an hour. Trailing in order were DePlama in a Fiat, Stillman in a Marmon, Harroun in another Marmon, Oldfield in a National, and Harry Stutz in an Indianapolis-built Marion.