Indianapolis: Vintage, It's Heyday

In his March Editorial Simon Arron wrote of the Memorial Day Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, saying that, for reasons he dealt with, “a piece of folklore which is conducted in much the same spirit as it was back in 1911 is about to be reduced to a meaningless sham”. This has encouraged me to look back to this once-great 500-mile contest in its hey-day.

As Simon rightly observed, the spirit of this unique American long-distance track race had survived from its inception in 1911, through a great many years, rule changes, and upheavals. In vintage times, even up to 1939 and beyond, it was a race which not many Englishmen saw and which the British enthusiast, content with, even engrossed in, what went on at Brooklands, was apt to regard as something rather strange and far distant. He might point out that in spite of Indy’s rolling starts, the BRDC Brooklands 500 Mile outer-circuit race had been won at a higher average speed than had the Indianapolis grind from 1929 to 1936, although the BRDC entry was a very mixed bag of what were by no means all special track cars, as were most of those in the American race. The insular Englishmen would almost certainly add, “and all the more fascinating for that”. I have advanced this argument myself — but in fairness it has to be remembered that, especially as the speed of the competing cars increased, Brooklands was a slightly faster track than the Indy-bowl with its four only slightly banked turns. And, more to the point, Indy racing cars were much smaller in engine capacity than most of our “500” winners in the pre-war period.

If we glance back at those inter-war races we see how very different Indy was from the Brooklands equivalent instituted by the BRDC, and why to European minds it was difficult to fully comprehend. In the pre-World War One days the Indy 500 had much more of a European, “Brooklands if you like, flavour to it. In 1913 Jules Goux was there, finishing victorious in a 1912 Grand Prix Peugeot, and in 1914 Rene Thomas brought a Delage home the winner, followed by Arthur Durays Coupe de L’Auto Peugeot, Albert Guyot in another Delage and Goux’s Peugeot. This trend continued in 1915 — the USA was not yet involved in the war — when the “500” was a duel between Ralph de Palmas 1914 GP Mercedes, (with its front brakes removed) as had dominated the last French Grand Prix at Lyon on the eve of the war, and Dario Resta’s Peugeot, the Mercedes coming home first, and in 1916 Resta had an easy win in a Peugeot.

But when the May Day event was resumed after the outbreak of peace, the situation quickly altered, as we can see by looking at Indianapolis as it was from 1920 to 1930. For one thing, many of the cars entered, with names such as HCS, Barber-Warnock, Ira Vail Special, Junior 8, Skelley, Jones-Whittaker, and as publicity took hold, Nickel Plate Special, Perfect Circle, Boyle Valve, Jynx, Thompson Valve, Elgin Piston Pin Special, SAI Special, Simplex Piston Ring Special Chromolite, Rusco Durac Brake, Richards Brothers, Sampson, Bowes Seal Fast. Coleman FD, Maw, Empire State, Trexlar, Hoosier Pete, and so on, were distinctly puzzling to us. How were we ignorant Europeans to know that most of these trade-names camouflaged Millers or Duesenbergs, or chassis so-powered? To the truly uninitiated it smacked of what they knew from the cinema, i.e. greasy garage-boys who had made good in specials of their own building, either to dare-devil-impress some “floozie” or else to win a fortune with the hero’s secret invention…

But why should the American race fraternity care? When 150,000 of then had gone to the Indianapolis “hoosier-bowl” on May 30th (30,000 was a big gate at Brooklands) to see close, exciting and sometimes accident-prone contests (far more frequent and spectacular crashes than at our tame Weybridge track), the cars (named, as the BARC would never have permitted) consisting of scientific, purposeful, single-seaters, very fast for engine sizes of only 1 1/2-litres or 2-litres, driven by the cream of America’s top racers, who had to qualify fast even to take the start?

But in England some of the top Indy competition seemed to be among all-alike Millers or Duesenbergs (in 1925, for example, of the 22 starters 12 were Miller Specials, four more were Miller-engined and four were Duesenberg Specials). Never mind that FWD had arrived on the American course when here we were only just coming to terms with Alvis’s adoption of it, and that in 1931 a Cummins Diesel finished the Indy race, but it was 1933 before Eyston was demonstrating a diesel car at Brooklands.

The fact that de Paolo had won the “500” at over 100mph for the first time by 1929 in a centrifugally supercharged 122cu in straight eight Duesenberg, in the 13th race of the Indy series (relieved by Batten for just 34 minutes) left us cold, for had not the winning Bentley in our initial “500” averaged 107.32mph? Nor did the Indy pitstops in the 1924 “500” impress, a race dogged by tyre trouble, when these averaged 6 1/2-minutes a car, remembering that the very heavy wheels of the Napier-Railton took only 1 1/2 minutes to change in the Brooklands “500”.

No, the great Indianapolis 500-Miler was a race apart, with its parades of bands and flags and drum-major females beforehand, the enormous build-up, with keen spectators queuing for two days before the Speedway gates opened, the pre-race qualifying, the employment of a pace car (of a different leading make each year) to lead the rolling pack away, and the race being slowed during rain or accident. All this had yet to come to our tracks, at a time when America was a long way away — no Transatlantic air-lines then, and Concorde sixty years in the distance. . . Those who did go to see this unique and historic race came back with tales of the dedication of the entrants, the cleanliness in the “Gasoline Alley” garages, and the pioneering not only of very quick small-engined specialised racing machinery but of front-wheel-drive, supercharging and balloon racing tyres. But we would have missed the amateur atmosphere and fascinating mix of cars old and new, that were the attraction of Brooklands Motor Course for all the 28 years of its active existence.

I hope it was just distance, not sour grapes, that stopped many of the “Right Crowd” from going to watch the top American track race, because European cars never made the grade at Indianapolis after the 1919 Peugeot victory of Wilcox, until those of the Maserati driven by Wilbur Shaw in the “500s” of 1939 and 1940. Later, of course, the British, with their odd-to-Indy-eyes rear-engined racing cars beat the Americans at their own game, with Jim Clark winning in a Lotus-Ford in 1965 and Graham Hill following the pattern in 1966, driving a Lola-Ford.

What would those who boarded one of Cunard’s luxury liners back then and made their way to the “Motor City” have seen? Let us look at the 1925 Indy race, as representative of the vintage years.

The overseas visitors would have found the 2 1/2-mile track not an oval, as Brooklands is so often also wrongly described, but a square with its four straights joined by those gently banked curves (at an average of 26deg) with a radius of 840ft. The longer straights were 3301ft long, the connecting ones 660ft long. The track was 50ft wide on the straights and 60ft on the corners, compared to Brooklands more generous 100ft. The Indy surface was constructed with 3,200,000 bricks grouted with cement, an unique structure, as deserving of eventual preservation as the concrete structure of Brooklands was denied it.

After the razzamatazz that day in 1925, with American flags aloft, Army aeroplanes having a look, and around 1,000 bandsmen and players providing the sentimental music, more than 145,000 spectators settled down to watch a race that was to last for over 5 1/2 hours before the last finisher, Bordino’s Fiat, was flagged off. It was to win de Paolo 27,800 dollars. Twenty-two cars roar off as the Rickenbacker pace-car, driven by Eddie Rickenbacker himself, moves away, having been signalled by starter Seth Klein. The onlookers peer down the course, to see de Paolo in the Duesenberg leading two Millers. The eventual winner made a bad start but had recovered and did his first lap at 104mph. The Duesy is smoking but going great guns, followed by a string of Millers. The Italian ace Bordino, the supercharger of his Fiat very noisy, goes into his pit for fresh plugs, as do several others. The average speed is some 5mph up on the 1924 race and the new Firestone balloon tyres (all 30×5.25, at approximately 30Ib pressure) are standing the pace well, a total of 36 were changed during the race but the winning car was given only one new wheel, on its n/s rear (whereas the counter clockwise lappery caused 17 drivers to require fresh o/s rear tyres).

So they storm round. Bennie Hill (surely not that one?) is in his pit for 85sec for shock-absorber adjustments. But the first retirement is a Miller, with a steering-gear-key sheared. After 125 miles Shafer’s takes the lead, to yells from the grandstand. Herb Jones (Miller) smacks the wall. Bordino injures a hand and has hospital treatment while his co-driver takes the troublesome Fiat on. Even de Paolo blisters his hands and needs Batten to take over for a while. Hartz (Miller) has a tyre go and smacks the wall. The lead changes to Lewis (FWD Miller) with de Paolo’s stop. Then Cooper (Miller) hits the wall and Hepburn (Miller) has a 35sec stop for gas, oil and water and two wheels changed. However, de Paolo resumes, now third, and sets about wearing down Lewis’s long lead. Then Gleeson goes into the wall, and with less than 75 miles to go de Paolo leads again, chased hard by the FWD Miller, now with Hill driving. A desperate battle is joined between the Duesy and the FWD Miller, entered as a Junior 8. De Paolo’s pit warns him not to overstress the engine and with the crowds on their feet he takes the flag, 1 min 32sec ahead of his rival, who has also averaged over 100mph, as has the third car home, the Shafer/Morton Duesenberg (100.52 and 100.18mph). The winner’s average was 101.13mph. Four Miller Specials follow this trio home. In spite of the accidents, far more in one race than we were accustomed to expect in many years of racing at Brooklands, no driver was, that year, seriously hurt. For Pete de Paolo it was into Victory Lane and kisses from a film star, another Indy feature not yet introduced to the European race scene.

So Indy was different, but exciting and fast. And well supported — 46 entries in 1938. There is little wonder, though, that it remained confusing to European race-followers, when even in the mid1930s odd names disguised the make-identity of the cars — the 1935 race for example was won by a Gilmore Speedway Special, at 104 86mph, from a Pitting Special that lost by 40sec, third place by “Wild Bill” Cummings in a Boyle Products Special. And when Wilbur Shaw won in 1939 and 1940 in a Maserati 80, averaging 115.035 and 114.277mph respectively, slowed the first time by a fatal accident, the second by rain, the car was called a Boyle Special. Mercifully, Ragarti’s 8CL was given its maker’s name. . .

And what do you make of Quillen Refrigerator Special, Chicago Flask or Indiana Fur Special? (At Brooklands a car’s maker might be consulted, if an entrant wanted to use his own designation — Napier about Auto-Speed-Special and Lagonda re the Eccles Special. for instance).

No, the Indianapolis “500” was, in those times, undoubtedly different! But it was until recently a great and historic track race. I hope its former glory will one day return. WB