Little big Man

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Mauri Rose was diminutive in stature but possessed huge gobbets of talent and determination. Joe Scalzo chronicles the career of the.. Little Big Man

This will take a moment or two to explain: If there hadn’t been an Eddie Rickenbacker, there’d probably have never been a Mauri Rose.

Projectile Mauri Rose, upon being loaded into the open chamber of a behemoth Indycar, truly became a projectile — blam! Bracing his hardgristled shoulders and skeletal elbows against the frame rails for support, Mauri-the-bullet was a broken-nosed little bone rack with a bad attitude who, despite looking tiny and lost rattling around in their vast cockpits for Indy’s rip-roaring 500 miles, always did the fastest job of juicing the monsters of the Brickyard’s 1930-50 front-wheel-drive epoch. Assassin Eddie Rickenbaker, who had brilliantly barnstormed Duesenbergs on dirt, boards and bricks in 1914-16, but who spent 1918 in the shooting-gallery skies above France, truly was an assassin, his blazing machine guns endlessly barking rat-a-tat-tat. World War I, ‘Rick’ had imagined, was going to be one big blast, just another fun race: the airstrips on the edge of No Man’s Land reminded him of the paddocks and pits at Sheepshead Bay and Corona; the Lafayette Escadrille and Hat-In-The-Ring squads, who maintained the SPAD he’d learned to fly in three weeks, were much like the factory mechanics who’d maintained his racing Duesies; and Rick further fantasised that going up against Manfred von Richthofen was going to be the same as duelling back in the U S of A with ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff or Dario Resta’s brother-in-law, Spencer Wishart.

Then one day he got swarmed by five Fokkers, and they chased him back to when he’d come from. Rick got pissed off. Retaliating, he proceeded to embark on 10 combat missions — all flown during October, 1918 — that made him flying’s greatest instrument of destruction in the Great War. In the first he set fire to a dragon balloon. In the second he mortally wounded a Halberstadt and blasted a Fokker. In the third he blew up a Halberstadt and a Rumpler. In the fourth he destroyed a Fokker.

In the fifth he pierced a second balloon. In the sixth he downed two Fokkers that hit the ground, burning, in the same instant In the seventh he exploded his fifth Fokker and damaged a sixth. In the eighth he claimed yet another. In the ninth he wasted two more. In the tenth he took out a member of the elite von Richtofen squadron as well as a third balloon. Decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Legion d’Honneur, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Croix de Guerre, Rick went home co-ranked with John ‘Blackjack’ Pershing as America’s biggest war hero.

Unhappily, the American public proved fickle and forgetful, and when Rick and some monied backers manufactured a Rickenbaker automobile, nobody bought one; Rick and the backers lost their shirts. An equally grave mistake of timing was Rickenbacker’s 1927-45 ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The combination of the Great Depression and the slaughter and stupidities of Indy’s junkyard Formula’ were making Indy’s economics and popularity unravel, and in 1933, the worst year of the Depression and the Formula, Rick faced his own worst moment as Speedway czar.

Just as the field of 42 — the largest in history — was all lined up and preparing to set out for the annual 800 left-hand turns, somebody went to the medics and ratted on Howdy Wilcox. Although Howdy had been 500 runner-up the previous year, up until race morning it had been a wellkept secret that he was a diabetic who had to take insulin hits while chauffeuring. Rickenbacker, then, was on the receiving end of the difficult responsibility of having to disqualify Wilcox for medical and safety reasons. But Howdy didn’t want to go and, because he was a popular guy, the other drivers didn’t want him to go. So they threatened Rick with a wildcat strike unless he reinstated their friend.

A tall erect man with a hard flat mouth and those assassin eyes, Rick immediately rounded up the would-be strikers and told them to read his lips: if they carried out their plot there’d never be another 500 because he’d turn the Brickyard into a parking lot. The race ran as scheduled. A replacement pilot still had to be located for Wilcox’s vacant Gilmore Special though, and who should pop up but this runt of a motormouth rookie who was as unpopular as Howdy was popular, and who’d mined for the 500 as a rough-and-tumble dirt tracker. He was — you guessed it — Mauri Rose.

In the ragged 500 that followed, two drivers and one mechanic crashed and died; Rose, alone, seemed unperturbed by the considerable chaos he’d help create. Tucking into the opposition much like his ‘benefactor’ Rickenbaker tucked into Fokkers, Mauri went on the warpath. Ordered to start 42nd and not to pass a single car until getting his bearings, he overtook a dozen on his first lap. Forty-eight laps later he was fourth and about to give the leaders a flogging when his own engine unloaded.

The following year Mauri was holding down first place in a Leon Duray sled that Wilbur Shaw had derided as the worst handling on the track. It finally wore Rose out, and ‘Wild’ Bill Cummings slipped past; Mauri hung on for second. He dropped out with another broken car in ’35, surged from 30th to fourth in ’36, snapped an oil line in ’37, sheared a supercharger in ’38, took eighth in ’39 and ’40 and, by ’41, was more than ready to win.

A fittingly mad Mauri Rose scenario unfolded. Following a morning Gasoline Alley fire that roared through 24 of the 33 stalls and destroyed three cars, Maui — who’d started from pole in a fast but short-fused Maserati — led or stayed with leaders Shaw and Rex Mays for 65 laps until grounded with unrepairable mechanical ailments. Still full of racing and going crazy with impatience, all Mauri could do was wait for his car owner Lou Moore to flag off the track a second team car that was running a hot 12th, and sit Maui in it. When Moore at last did so, something like a third of the 500 miles were history. Mauri now was expected to gun this hoodoo wagon (one year it had won the 500; the next it had killed its driver) past 11 other drivers, including heavies Shaw and Mays, in just 300 miles, but Mauri was the life of the party He only needed 200. Indy 500 wins don’t come any hotter. IP+

Following a four-year hiatus for WWII, the Indy 500 resumed in 1946 with Matiri’s faithful car owner Moore, once a decent Speedway chauffeur himself, deciding he wanted to play the genius role. Spending all his money building up two Blue Crown Specials, Moore gave one to his difficult ace Mauri and the second to ex-ice skater Bill Holland, a hunk who was as handsome as Mauri was homely, yet a terrific race driver in any case. Moore’s pay-off was an unprecedented three 500 scores in a row: 1947 (Mauri, aided and abetted by a controversial Moore pit signal); ’48 (Maud again) and ’49 (Holland).

For half a century Indianapolis has been waiting in vain for somebody to duplicate the Blue Crown hat trick, but — easy as Rose and Holland made it look — having two prima donna champions on the same team didn’t make Moore’s life easier. Mauri, for example, dictated to Moore at every 500: “Lou, when the racecar is sitting still in the pits, you can be the boss. When it’s on the racetrack, I am.” Not only that, but somewhere along the line, Mauri acquired the briar pipe that he was forever puffing in Moore’s face; and, among numerous Maud raceday demands, Moore was expected to co-ordinate personnel to pass Mauri sticks of chewing gum during pitstops (if it wasn’t Beeman’s Pepsin, there’d be a tirade). Meanwhile Holland — so vain about his good looks that he reportedly sued and won a big defamation lawsuit against Hollywood because the actor depicting him in The Big Wheelwasn’t handsome enough — could also be a royal pain. To be fair, however, the lives of Mauri and Holland weren’t carefree either.

Beautiful as they were, the Blue Crowns were dated and a handful to control. Moore, after all, was a survivor of the 1930s, when the sorry engines of the Junkyard Formula used to carry 60 gallons of oil, threequarters of which got pumped onto the bricks. To have any hope of steering through the goo, a driver had required front-wheel-drive, which was what Moore’s hard-to-steer battleship Blue Crowns were, even though the Junkyard Formula was a decade in the past.

Come 1949, Moore solidified his standing as the finest team strategist Indy has ever seen, because this was the 500 when he defeated two great teams single-handedly, the supercharged-but-hexed V8 Novis, and his own Team Blue Crown. Getting greedy for a 1-2-3 sweep instead of the usual 1-2, Moore mobilised Rose and Holland plus a third veteran, George Connor. When the Novis sent over an air raid that was making his men nervous, Moore found a strategy to rescue them and Blue Crown was again living mellifluous days. But instead of 1-2-3, Blue Crown reaped only first (Holland) and three (Connor). Parked by a sparkless magneto — and blaming Moore for paying more attention to the maintenance of Holland’s and Connor’s cars than his own — Rose quit Blue Crown in anger.

He was the team’s heart, of course, so Mauri’s departure led to an epic Blue Crown meltdown. Holland subsequently managed to take second in the rain-shortened sweepstakes of 1950, but then couldn’t keep his mouth shut and popped off about Speedway president Shaw purposely turning on the yellows to stop him from winning. For this and other transgressions, Holland, in the course of the next three 500s, was purged, partially reinstated, and then fell from grace over and over again. Moore, in turn, fell completely behind the times. FWD was passé; he could no longer build competitive Indycars; and when he suffered a fatal cerebral haemorrhage in 1956, he wasn’t even at the Speedway but at a NASCAR meet in Atlanta, where he was trying to direct Pontiac’s backdoor stock car programme Almost typically, it was Rose who did the best job of landing on his feet following the Blue Crown debacle. After finding employment with moneybags oil tycoon Howard Brighton Keck (the future sugar daddy 704 of Indianapolis icon, Billy Vulcovich), Mauri being Mauri-the-bullet promptly parked Keck’s Pennzoil Special on the 1950 500’s front row. Whereupon all the usual Mauri madness broke out

Walt Faulkner had put one of the new Kurtis-Krafts on pole position with a breakthrough time-trial speed, and when Mauri got into an argument with him and suggested that Faulkner not try and run over everybody in the first turn, Faulkner’s riposte was that Mauri should stay out of the way. Faulkner was a hotshot rookie with an attitude much like Mauri’s own in 1933, and Mauri, now a member of the 40-plus brigade, had turned into a curmudgeon. Mauri next discovered he still had $3 in his trousers and, because he was frugal with his greenbacks, handed the money over to a mechanic for safekeeping. Subsequently the three bucks, all of the mechanic’s clothing, and very nearly the Pennzoil Special and Mauri himself all got consumed in an inferno sparked by a botched refuelling stop. Rose resumed the 500 anyway prior to the fire he’d gotten ahead of young Faulkner and was leading as usual and finished third.

The next year, Mauri finally pushed his luck too far and had the Pennzoil throw a wheel and land on its top in an infield creek with himself underneath. His smallness saved him, but afterward he decided upsidedown in a race car at his age was an omen, and he retired. By then he’d become bored with the rest of his life too, which amounted to a post as engineer-without-diploma for the Allison Engineering Company, just across the street from the Speedway: every month of May he’d arrive to take practice laps in his lunch hour, faithfully carrying the same inadequate Cromwell helmet he wore in 16 Indy 500s, the brown cotton gardening gloves he wore for almost that long, and a lunch pail. Whenever he finished practising he’d open the pail, eat lunch, and return to work.

Hyperactive all his life, he turned his retirement into a kind of race.

Going to college, he became an engineer-with-diploma and worked for the Studebaker Corporation, American Motors, and directed Chevrolet’s stock car racing effort. Having pledged to work every day of his life until they planted him, Mauri was still working for AMC when the end came in 1981 (old team-mate Holland outlasted him by four years). Though no longer physically capable of manhandling brute FWDs, one of Rose’s final passions was exceeding 150mph in National Hot Rod Association drag races, and also throwing in one-handed push-ups by the dozen.

Eddie Rickenbacker, Maurini unintentional mentor died in 1973. His late-winning accomplishments included starting Eastern airline, and spearheading the use ofjets for commercial travel. Just like Mauri though, Rick’s adventures never actually ended, and during World War II he got into as much trouble as in WWI. Called back into military harness as a special assistant to the secretary of war, Rick was on his way to New Guinea for a powwow with Douglas MacArthur when his B17B crash-landed and sank so fast that he and the crew barely had time to inflate life-rafts. Before a Catalina rescued them, they were adrift and lost for 24 days with no land in sight, sustaining themselves on rainwater, fish and seagulls. One man died. The five survivors later admitted they almost wished they had too, for Rick, the oldest man in the raft, ceaselessly hounded, berated and goaded them into staying alive apparently in much the same manner as he’d coerced Wilcox and those would-be strikers. Poor Wilcox never was granted medical permission to race at Indianapolis again. Still needing something exciting to do, Howdy took up the practice of starter flagman at the dirt-track races. In 1946 he somehow got in the way of himself and was nailed and carried off by the pack of cars he was flagging away.

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