Brief encounter

Frank Lockhart shot to fame aged 24, becoming the youngest winner of the Indy 500. Two years later, he died trying to break the Land Speed Record. Gordon Kirby recalls a too short career.

Seventy-two years ago this summer Frank Lockhart was America’s most famous driver. His flame burned intensely for a short period, leaving a legend that has grown with the passage of time. But of all the great American drivers who followed it’s hard to argue one who achieved more in such a short time.

Lockhart captured the imagination of the American public in 1926 when he became the youngest winner of the Indy 500, at his first attempt, aged just 24. He went on to win nine more AAA Championship races over the next 17 months, making himself the most feared driver of the era, before crashing to his death on April 25, 1928, trying to set the Land Speed Record at Daytona in the remarkable supercharged V16 Stutz Black Hawk which Lockhart himself had designed and built.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Lockhart moved to California when he was just six years old after his father died. Raised by his mother, Frank scraped together the money to start racing a modified Model T Ford in the summer of 1923 when he was just 20. In 1924 he started to win regularly at local tracks including the then-new Ascot Park dirt track.

Lockhart had few social interests and by most accounts was a remote, hard man. As magnificent a driver as he was, Lockhart was an equally brilliant, self-educated engineer, and he spent his time tinkering and tuning his cars. Racing was everything to him and his speed and burgeoning reputation attracted the attention of Harry Miller whose cars were battling for supremacy in AAA championship races with those built by the Duesenberg brothers.

In 1925 Miller gave Lockhart a 3-litre dirt racer with which Frank scorched the west coast’s dirt tracks. But renowned as he became around California’s dirt bowls, Lockhart had no experience on big tracks; even so it was obvious that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway beckoned. In the spring of 1926, Lockhart was hired by Harry Miller as a back-up, or relief driver, for Miller’s multi-car team. He made the long railway trip east to the Brickyard with Miller’s entourage and produced impressive practice laps in a supercharged 1.5-litre Miller owned by established driver Bennett Hill. But, despite this, Frank still wasn’t scheduled to start the race.

Then, before qualifying for the 500, independent Miller driver Pete Kreis fell ill with ‘flu. From his hospital bed Kreis urged his team to give Lockhart his cat The youngster set a lap record at 115.488mph on his first of four qualifying laps but tyre failure stopped him on his second lap. A second qualifying attempt was aborted by engine failure and in the end Lockhart qualified twentieth with a slow but steady third run.

On raceday he quickly moved up the field, taking the lead before the race was interrupted by rain. After a restart Lockhart battled with Harry Hartz who had finished second in the 500 in 1922 and ’23 and would subsequently win the 1926 national championship. But during the 1926 Indianapolis race Hartz flubbed a pitstop, leaving his ignition turned off: It was the chance Lockhart needed to run away, and he was leading by two laps when the race was finally cut short by a second bout of rain after 400 miles. For a quarter century, until Troy Ruttman won aged 22 in 1952, Lockhart was the youngest man to win the Indianapolis 500.

Lockhart’s cinderella Indy victory launched his career nationally and he grabbed the opportunity with every ounce of his being. With his winnings he bought his own cars and modified them in ways that upset Harry Miller, but Lockhart pushed on, making his own mods to engines and superchargers.

In those days most Indy-type races took place on banked ‘board tracks’ constructed from pine wood. In fact, between 1921-27 every AAA Championship race save the Indy 500 took place on a board track. Nineteen of these ovals, ranging from 1-2 miles in length, were built between 1915 and 1926, but thanks to the cost of maintaining the boards, these tracks enjoyed short lives. Most survived only three or four years. The longest-lasting board track was the 1.25 mile oval at Altoona, Pennsylvania, built in 1953 and out of business in 1931.

But as fleeting a period as it was, there’s no doubt the board track era of the ’20s was the Golden Age of AAA racing, with titanic struggles between teams from Miller and Duesenberg on tracks in places like Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Miami, and Atlantic City. The board tracks drew massive crowds as Lockhart and his peers lapped at 130-140 mph, staggering velocities for the times. Indeed, in May 1927 on the 1.5-mile Atlantic City track, Lockhart set a qualifying record of 147.729mph with his Miller. Some 33 years would pass before any driver lapped an American .superspeedway at a faster speed!

By this time Harry Miller was developing a front-wheel drive version of the famous straight-eight Miller Indy car. The front-wheel-drive layout enabled the driver to sit lower in the car, and Earl Cooper, Dave Lewis, Leon Duray and Pete DePaulo all used it to great effect. And though Lockhart was beaten to the AAA title by DePaolo it was clear he was the fastest, most motivated driver of the day.

It was said of Lockhart that he had the ability to determine the dimensions of components simply by feeling them between his fingers. Right or wrong he fostered this image, working in great secrecy all through the night.

By the autumn of 1927, Frank became entranced with the idea of setting a Land Speed Record and sold car manufacturer Harry Stutz the idea of building an LSR special with two Miller straight-eight power plants side by side. In company with a brilliant pair of engineer brothers called John and Zenas Weisel who had assisted him with his Indy cars, he set to work on the project.

With twin superchargers, the V16 produced over 550bhp at 8300rpm, and tests at the Curtiss Aircraft and US Army wind tunnels projected that the 2700lb car could exceed 280mph. Called the Stutz Black Hawk, Lockhaxt’s elegantly streamlined white and silver car represented a size revolution compared to the behemoths which dominated the record books in in the hands of Englishmen Sir Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell, and American Ray Keech.

Lockhart first ran the Black Hawk on the Daytona sands in adverse weather on February 28 1928, only to crash into the sea. He narrowed escaped drowning and was taken to hospital suffering from severed tendons in one hand, shock and bad bruising. Two months later he was back for another try.

The beach was in poor shape and the officials were anxious to leave but Keech had set a new record at 207mph three days before, and Lockhart was not to be diverted from his goal. Slowly working up to speed, Lockhart broke 200mph on his third pass down the beach, running against the wind. At the end of the run he locked his rear brakes, causing the right rear tyre to be cut by a shell in the sand.

Although it was accepted practice to examine the tyres after each run, this was not done on this occasion. It took a long time to remove the Black Hawk’s wheelspats and Lockhart was eager to get back out there and get the job done. After a quick visual inspection he set off once more, twin superchargers wailing shrilly amid the ocean breeze.

Lockhart had also switched from Firestone to Mason tyres for this series of runs. In dire financial straits he felt compelled to accept $20,000 in sponsorship offered by the Mason Tyre Company. Charging down the beach just before 8am that morning on his fourth run, trying to set an official record according to the rules, the damaged tyre exploded at an estimated 225 mph. The Black Hawk snapped one way, then another before slicing into the sand and executing a series of lurid roll-overs. The car just missed the crowd and came to rest near the feet of his distraught wife. This time there was to be no escape. At just 26 years of age, one of the most intense careers and remarkable lives in the history of motor racing was already at an end.