Thanks, Wilbur Shaw!

Wilbur Shaw is probably best known as a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1937, 1939, and 1940. He was also the first to win consecutive races.

Yet that is only part of his story. Another notable achievement in his career was his leadership in restoring the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following World War II.

Shaw’s racing career began in 1921. He raced his own car built from used parts. By 1924, he was assigned the famed old Red Special and became the National Light Car Champion.

Wilbur Shaw in Boyle Maserati
Wilbur Shaw in Boyle Maserati
Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

As a rookie driver, he finished fourth in his first Indianapolis 500 in 1927. He finished second in 1933 and 1935. In 1936, he returned to Indianapolis as the builder and majority owner of the Gilmore Special and finished in seventh place. Driving the same auto, he finally won the 500 in 1937. After a second place finish in the Shaw Special the following year, he charged back in 1939 to win in one of the most famous cars in Speedway history—the Boyle Maserati. In 1940 it was another win for Shaw in the Boyle car. He was well on his way to becoming the first four-time winner of the Indy 500 in 1941 when his right rear wheel collapsed, and his Maserati crashed into the wall.

Then World War II intervened all racing activities. During this time, Shaw organized and directed Firestone Tire and Rubber Company’s aviation division. He developed Firestone’s Channel Tread tire and the self-sealing fuel tank.

Following World War II, Shaw was back at the Indy track. This time he drove a 500-mile test run at Firestone’s request to test the durability of a new automobile tire made from synthetic rubber. He was the first to drive the track after the war.

Wilbur Shaw - Speedway executive
Wilbur Shaw – Speedway executive
Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

But, he found the famous Speedway in deplorable shape. Weather had almost stripped the paint from the wooden stands, and hundreds of cracks marred the track surface in all four turns. Grass was growing between the bricks on the main straightaway. As soon as possible, Shaw visited Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker to ascertain his plans for the track. Shaw developed a prospectus for potential investors and finally interested Anton Hulman, Jr., in saving the once-grand racing facility in the fall of 1945.

Thus, the six and a half month saga began to rebuild the Speedway for the Memorial Day classic in 1946. Seven wooden stands and the Pagoda required major repairs. The largest safety challenge was replacing the Paddock and grandstand G. Due to material shortages after World War II, there wasn’t enough of the right kind of steel available in the entire country. Finally, Harry Tousley walked into the Speedway office and proposed to build the stands around the kind of steel available. His proposal was accepted in early January, and the new steel stands were finished by race day.

Wilbur Shaw served in the dual role of president and general manager of the Speedway until his untimely death in an airplane accident in 1954. His contributions became a major part of the track’s viability. Thanks, Wilbur Shaw!

This article was excerpted from Indiana Cars: A History of the Automobile in Indiana

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