Tag Archives: Frontenac

Wall Smacker by Peter De Paolo

On January 21st, I attended the Indiana Racing Memorial Association’s Collectible Show and found Wall Smacker a book written by Peter De Paolo in 1935.

Pete De Paolo in his 1925 Duesenberg
Pete De Paolo in his 1925 Duesenberg

After perusing the many tables of racing collectibles, I picked De Paolo’s book to learn about auto racing in the early days. In this well-written book, De Paolo describes his life as a riding mechanic and as championship driver from 1920 to 1935.

His introduction started watching his Uncle Ralph De Palma’s racing exploits at the Brighton Beach Course in 1914, where he won all five of the program’s races. His uncle went on to win the 1915 Indianapolis 500 driving a Mercedes Benz. Shortly thereafter, his uncle convinced De Paolo to get some mechanical experience working on cars in New York City.

In the fall of 1919, his uncle hired him as a riding mechanic on a Ballot racer that they campaigned across the country in 1920. Of his first racing experience at the Beverly Hills, California, board speedway, De Paolo stated, “I’ll never forget the thrills that were packed into those opening laps of my first speed experience.” He shares a lot of details of his first experience at the Indianapolis 500 where they finished fifth. Later that summer, they raced Ballot racers in France and Italy.

After the spring 1922 Beverly Hills race, De Paolo parted working with his Uncle Ralph. De Paolo started his first race driving one of Louis Chevrolet’s Frontenacs. In his first Indianapolis 500 driving the Frontenac, at 255 miles he had a lap and a half lead before having to stop for fuel and tires. After returning to the race, while attempting to pass three Duesenbergs, he slid into the northeast infield and smacked the inside wall and damaged the transmission. As the relief driver for Joe Thomas’ Duesenberg, De Paolo finished in tenth place.

In 1924 at Indianapolis, De Paolo finished in sixth place driving a Duesenberg Special. He drove the rest of the season for Duesenberg. In spring 1925, De Paolo finished second at Culver City, California, and first at Fresno, California. De Paolo’s confidence was growing as they reached Indianapolis for the 500. He qualified in second place to start the race. By the 25th lap as he came down the home stretch, no other car was less than a mile behind him. On his 250-mile pit stop, he was relieved from his car for bleeding hands. When he took over again, his car was in fifth place and quickly moved up to second place. He soon drove the Duesenberg Special to first place. In winning the Thirteenth Annual Indianapolis Classic he set a record of 101.13 miles an hour average, which stood for seven years, and answered a question many times asked of him – “What was your greatest thrill?” His total winnings were approximately $40,000. Later that summer, he won at Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Laurel, Maryland.

He continued to win in 1926, at Fulford-By-the-Sea, near Miami, Florida, and finished fifth at Indianapolis. He finished third place in the national standings. He continued to race in 1927, winning again at Altoona, and finishing second at Salem, New Hampshire and won the AAA National Championship. He retired from racing in 1929. In 1935, he was the mentor for Kelly Petillo in winning the Indianapolis 500.

Pete De Paolo had a colorful career in auto racing. His book Wall Smacker does a great job telling his story. I invite you obtain a copy and enjoy the story.

You should attend the Indiana Racing Memorial Association’s Collectible Show in late January and the Indy Bench Racing Weekend in late March to find some racing collectibles.

Louis Chevrolet and his Frontenac Racing Team

In preparation for the 1916 championship racing season, Albert Champion and Joe Boyer provided Louis Chevrolet with financial help to form the Frontenac Motors Corporation of Michigan. Louis and his younger brothers Art and Gaston launched an “immediate crash program” to build three all-new Frontenac race cars with 300-cubic-inch displacement engines for the 1916 Indianapolis race. They made generous use of aluminum construction for the best possible power-to-weight ratio. They barely accomplished their task in time to attempt qualification at the Speedway. However, their speed of development provided no opportunity to eliminate the mechanical “bugs” that were a part of such a project.

Louis qualified at 87.70 miles an hour. The car Art chose to drive himself had to be abandoned when its cylinder block cracked. Because no spare engine was available, he commandeered the car assigned to Boyer and qualified at a speed of 87.72 miles an hour.

Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac
Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac 1916

During the race, Art was the first of the team eliminated on lap 35 due to a magneto failure and finished in 17th place. Louis dropped out of the race on lap 82 with a broken connecting rod and finished in 11th place.

However, as the season progressed, they gradually solved all of their mechanical problems. Louis accounted for the first of many Frontenac victories by winning the Inaugural 100-lap race at the new Uniontown, PA, board track at more than 90 miles an hour.

In 1917, Louis scored victories at the 250-mile event in Cincinnati, OH, and additional victories in 100-mile races at Chicago, IL, and Sheepshead Bay, NY. Then the AAA Contest Board discontinued sanctioning racing for the duration of World War I.

Ralph Mulford in Frontenac 1919
Ralph Mulford in Frontenac 1919

Full-scale racing operations resumed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1919, and Louis was jubilant when all four of his Frontenacs were among the seven cars that qualified in Indianapolis at more than 100 miles an hour. Then “Lady Luck” turned her back on him again. Race Day was almost a complete disaster for the team. Boyer’s and Ralph Mulford’s cars were eliminated early by a broken axle and broken drive shaft, respectively. Gaston limped across the finish line in 10th place, slowed by ignition trouble. Louis lost a right rear wheel while out-dueling Ralph DePalma for the lead during the first 150 miles and finished in seventh place, while DePalma finished in sixth place. The Frontenac Racing Team saga was over for this era.

Howdy Wilcox won the race in an Indianapolis Speedway Team Company-owned Peugeot.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.

Remembering the 1916 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.

Eddie Rickenbacker in a Maxwell
Eddie Rickenbacker in a Maxwell

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.

Gil Anderson in a Premier
Gil Anderson in a Premier

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.

Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac
Louis Chevrolet in a Frontenac

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.

Dario Resta in a Peugeot
Dario Resta in the winning Peugeot

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.

Louis Chevrolet’s Indianapolis racing exploits

Before achieving success in building automobiles, Louis Chevrolet gained fame as a racing driver. In his first race in 1905, he defeated Barney Oldfield. On June 19, 1909, Chevrolet drove a Buick to victory in the first 400 mile Cobe Cup race in Crown Point, Indiana. He then won the inaugural 10-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 19, 1909.

In 1911, with the encouragement of William C. Durant of General Motors, Chevrolet developed the first automobile to bear his name—the Chevrolet Classic Six retailing for $2,150. By 1913 there was a growing rift between the two individuals over the type of car that should wear the Chevrolet name. He left the company, but General Motors retained the rights to the “Chevrolet” name.

Cornelian 1915 Louis Chevrolet
Louis Chevrolet at the wheel with Joe Boyer in the 1915 Cornelian race car. Chevrolet brothers Arthur and Gaston are standing at the extreme right.

In early 1915, he went on to design the lightweight Cornelian race car with four-wheel independent suspension and a monocoque chassis for the Indianapolis 500 in 1915. Both innovations proved to be successful about 50 years later, appearing on the rear-engine cars used from the 1960’s to the present. The little car weighted only 920 pounds. The Cornelian engine had a 103 c.i.d. compared with the other 298 c.i.d. entries. Chevrolet qualified the car at 81.01 m.p.h. Unfortunately, valve trouble sent him to the sidelines prior to the halfway mark.

During the next year, Louis built a number of Frontenac racing cars with a generous use of aluminum that he and his brothers, Arthur and Gaston, drove to many victories.

For the 1920 Indianapolis 500, William Small of Indianapolis contracted with Chevrolet to build four Monroe and three Frontenac race cars. Gaston Chevrolet won the race driving one of the Monroes and became the first driver in Indy history to go the full 500 miles without changing tires. Another Chevrolet-design Frontenac, with Tommy Milton as the driver, won the 1921 Indianapolis 500. With this victory, Chevrolet became the first car builder to win two Indianapolis 500 mile races. Additionally, he accomplished that feat with new four-cylinder and eight-cylinder engines of his own design.

Gaston Chevrolet in 1920 Monroe
Gaston Chevrolet in the winning 1920 Monroe

Later, Louis and Arthur Chevrolet and Cornelius W. Van Ranst developed a new overhead valve cylinder head that would develop higher horsepower from a Ford Model T engine and make it competitive in races on dirt tracks. They also incorporated the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis to produce “Fronty-Ford” cylinder heads in 1922. They produced over 10,000 units during the next five years that dominated dirt track racing across America.

Louis Chevrolet’s motto was “Never Give Up.” He never did.

For more information about Louis Chevrolet follow this link.

Frontenac, 1921 – 1925

In 1921, after achieving the distinction of becoming the first car builder to win two Indianapolis 500 mile races, Louis Chevrolet (who had been building race cars under the Frontenac name since 1915) allied with Stutz Motor Car Company executives to form the Frontenac Motor Company, a Delaware corporation. The company was capitalized for one million dollars and secured the former Empire Motor Car Company plant (323 West 15th Street) for production.

Frontenac brochure
Frontenac brochure

The Frontenac was designed by Chevrolet and Cornelius W. Van Ranst (noted engineer, who later contributed to the design of the Cord L-29, and worked at Paige-Detroit and Packard). It featured a chain-driven single overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine, four wheel brakes, with front and rear bumpers constructed as an integral part of the frame, all on a 120-inch wheelbase chassis. The 196.8 c.i.d. engine with thermosyphon cooling, developed 60 h.p. It featured a Delco ignition, starting and lighting system.

The car was formally announced at the New York Auto Show and the Chicago Auto Show in 1922. The Frontenac prototype made its official debut at the 1922 Indianapolis 500. The economic conditions during the post World War I recession in the early 1920’s, resulted in the inaugural Frontenac never reaching production, and the corporation filed a bankruptcy petition in May 1923.

A short time later, a second Frontenac of Louis Chevrolet’s design featured a 140-inch wheelbase chassis with an 80 h.p., single-sleeve valve, straight-eight-cylinder engine. Again, Chevrolet was unable to obtain sufficient financing to commence production. During the 1924 – 1925 period, Frontenac also produced four units of an export car named Anahauc.

In the 1920’s, the Chevrolet brothers, Arthur & Louis owned the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Company at 410 West Tenth Street, that made cylinder heads for Fords and racing cars called Fronty-Fords. The Fronty-Ford creations consistently won at smaller race tracks across the country. In seven years, the company filled over 10,000 orders for cylinder heads and race cars.

For more information about Louis Chevrolet follow this link.