Genius versus destiny

As slender and frail as his beautiful record car, Frank Lockhart had an innate, mysterious engineering sense. He was convinced fate was on his side, but, as Joe Scalzo relates, he was wrong

In May 1960, a clapped-out Meyer-Drake Offenhauser roadster careering along at nearly 150mph rewarded its gadfly chauffeur Jim Hurtubise doubly: it gave ‘Herk’ the satisfaction of setting an Indianapolis record, and it broke one of the oldest US speed standards. After a run of almost 33 years, Frank Lockhart’s incredible lap of 147.229mph, established on the looming boards of Atlantic City by Lockhart’s very own pygmy Miller of barely 1.5 litres, fell at last.

Beverly Hills, Culver City, Salem, Charlotte and Altoona were just a few of the other ‘toothpick theatres’ where Lockhart set records. So, of course, was Indianapolis, where he won as a rookie in 1926 and then parked on pole position the following year with Indy’s original 120mph lap. Nor was he one to rest upon his accomplishments. Just prior to running up those big numbers at Atlantic City, he and the same supercharged little hot-rod had an adventure in a windstorm on the wide open spaces of Muroc Dry Lake and created da77Iing international record marks of 171.02mph one-way, and 164.85 for two.

Yet Lockhart the amazing record-setter was equalled by Lockhart the amazing race driver. Competition in the roaring 1920s was conducted on a dangerous menu of board, brick, dirt and sand. Though physically frail, Lockhart had a special technique for each and dominated all four, especially the banked boards. From 22 timber track starts, he won eight and finished in the top five 15 times.

Lockhart also was one of the 1920s’ major brains, which is really saying something, because this was the decade of Leo Goossen, Ed Winfield, the Duesenberg brothers and Harry Arminius Miller, whose engines won 39 Indy 500s. Though he had little formal education, Lockhart was said to possess a scientist’s mind, and the exquisite racing cars he engineered were sophisticated little jewels bristling with wailing blower intercoolers and other unique touches.

He was a nonpareil, couldn’t sit still, and his overachieving ultimately devoured him. At Daytona Beach in 1928, while in pursuit of the Land Speed Record — just about the only record he didn’t hold — his Stutz Black Hawk turned endo at better than 200mph. He was only 25.

Amazing as it sounds, he made all his magic in the space of barely two seasons, 1926-28. Somebody has yet to really scratch the surface of Lockhart, whose wife was his only intimate. But trying the hardest to spread the Lockhart legend were the enemy historians and Lockhartphlles, Griffith Borgeson and Mark L Dees, who used to exhaust themselves arguing about who knew the most about him. One thing they agreed upon was that he was born on April 3, 1908, in Ohio, probably in Dayton, where the family’s next-door neighbour was alleged to be the father of the Wright brothers. Wright Snr was himself an inventor with his own modest garage laboratory and was young Frank’s introduction to science.

The early passing of Lockhart’s father and the subsequent decision of his mother to uproot the family — Frank had a younger brother — across the USA to Los Angeles was fortuitous: a great racing driver of the future like Frank could hardly have chosen more congenial surroundings. LA was racing’s pulse: Goossen, Winfield and, of course, the brilliant Miller were just a few of the geniuses in residence.

Frank’s first ‘racing car’ was a rusted Model T Ford the engine of which he rebuilt on the kitchen table. After converting it into a Frontenac bobtail with Chevrolet cylinder heads, he proceeded to turn himself loose on every dirt surface from Ascot to Bakersfield. Many things about the unconventional Lockhart style immediately stuck out. For one thing, he depended on front-wheel brakes only. For another, long before attacking the corners he already had his raging bobtail crossed up and veering sideways on the straights.

On the fringe of inner-city LA was Harry Miller’s, the hottest address in the colony, and Lockhart’s home away from home. The Miller Products Co was where he absorbed his choice internal combustion education. In 1926, when Miller decamped with his cars to Indy for the month of May, Lockhart went along. For the first couple of weeks he was lost in the crowd, just another of those cocky LA guys with their hip racing cars whom Brickyard resident Fred Duesenberg — his products had lost many a 500 to them — memorably lambasted as “damn cowboys from California”. But Lockhart’s subsequent debut was one of the most fantastic in the Speedway’s history.

Miller permitted him to shake down one of the works cars and, with zero education about bricks, Frank immediately lapped faster than the car’s assigned driver — and even threatened the track record. After that there was nothing to do but provide him a ride for the 500. Lining up 20th, and totally inexperienced in the art of working traffic, he found himself separated from Earl Cooper on pole position by six rows of front-and rearwheel-drive Millers and Duesenbergs.

Get out of the way!

Gathering momentum every lap, in seven miles he had picked off 15 outclassed opponents to be riding a rocketing fifth. Manipulating the big steering wheel and pouncing on rival iron every lap, at 50 miles Lockhart was sitting second. Whereupon rain struck, and the racing was red-flagged for 65min.

Come the restart, Lockhart tap-danced into the lead and plunged on to win by two laps. As a reward, Miller offered him the same works eight-cylinder car to drive for the remainder of 1926. But Lockhart proffered a counter-proposal. Wanting to create his very own Team Lockhart, he put up some of his prize money to purchase the Indy-winning machine. Financially straitened as usual, Miller accepted. Lockhart later purchased a second Miller. By season’s end he was operating with such superiority that he won the campaign’s last four races in a row. Continuing into ’27 at the same pace, he set off his big blasts at Atlantic City and Muroc; ahead by a lap, and on the verge of winning two Indy 500s in a row, he failed late when his engine popped.

Dream about setting speed marks and, ultimately, you start thinking about the biggest one of all: the Land Speed Record. So Lockhart did. Circa 1927, the LSR was property of a pack of daring, monied Englishmen in their gargantuan cars. One of these, Parry Thomas ‘Babs’, a Liberty airplane-engined mastodon that in 1925 set an LSR target of 172mph across the sands of Pendine in Wales, subsequently crashed and was buried there. This disaster proved that the venue was unsound for further LSR exploits, so the British speed nobility started conducting their business in a former colony, where they behaved as if Daytona Beach was theirs: Henry Segrave beat 200mph there, then Malcolm Campbell topped 206.

In comparison to Campbell’s four-ton Bluebird, Lockhart’s own LSR contender, the Stutz Black Hawk, was a toy, weighing less than 3000 pounds and able to fit within the wheelbase of Bluebird. Its construction process had been complex. Lockhart first grafted together two Miller straight-eights to create a blown 16; then he visited the Duesenberg works and carried off some of its best talent; finally, he hit up the struggling Stutz Motor Company for sponsorship cash and actually got some! By early 1928, Lockhart’s streamliner was ready to confront Campbell on the beaches of Florida. The Brit turned a critical eye on the Black Hawk and tut-tutted that she was so lightweight she might sail out of control; and sail she ultimately did, on two occasions. The second, on April 25, 1928, was the end of Lockhart.

No ominous feeling, no foreboding that with his flyaway Stutz he had unknowingly engineered his own destruction, came to Lockhart that final morning of his life. If anything, he was jubilant. Repairing the car from her first crash had exhausted most of his prize money savings, but he was confident that setting the LSR would anoint him as the globe’s greatest driver: a fortune awaited in product endorsements. To his destitute, widowed mother, who was semi-supporting herself by taking in sewing, he cabled confidently: ‘Ma, I have the world by the horns. You’ll never have to push a needle again. I’ll never have to work anymore. Frank.’

In a peculiar way, his passing was almost a blessing, because racing in the extravagant, full-throttle, supercharged 1920s was followed by the lean and mean ’30s, racing’s most hard-boiled and penny-pinching decade. Lockhart never could have tolerated the ‘Junkyard Formula’ of 1930-37 and the repackaging of thoroughbred Indy single-seaters into lumbering passenger sedan-based eyesores which brought back into being a species that had gone out with flagpole sitting: riding mechanics. The Junkyard Formula’s two-man leviathans promptly turned eight ranking drivers into statistics, but did an even better job on their wretched riding mechanics, annihilating at least nine of them.

No-one ever appeared as a natural successor to Lockhart, but ‘Herk’ Hurtubise, who took out Lockhart’s long-standing Atlantic City mark, was certainly a soulmate. Like Lockhart, `Herk’ was a self-educated hairpin with a wild bunch of genes in his make-up. To give you an idea, a modern relative, Troy Hurtubise, a Canadian scrap metal merchant, was a while back investing $100,000 in a space-age suit so he could go wrestle a 600-pound grizzly bear.

Successor or no, Lockhart’s powerful legacy continued exerting itself. Sold by his widow at a 1928 estate sale, his matching pair of custom-built Millers remained so technically advanced that they succeeded in dominating the Indy 500 and the US national championship for the following two years. And, of course, his Atlantic City numbers stood fast through the next 33.