His name is seldom – if ever – mentioned when British drivers’ contribution to Indianapolis history is discussed, but Hughie Hughes was a Speedway pioneer
Writer Ian Wagstaff
Four of the last five finishers at the 2014 Indianapolis 500 were British. The glory days of Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti suddenly seemed a long way off. However, it should be recalled that an Englishman, Hughie Hughes, took the final place at the inaugural 500 in 1911. Within a year he had become one of the favourites.
Others have been claimed as the first Englishman to participate in the Indianapolis 500, but the local newspapers in 1911 and 1912 made much of the fact that Hughes came from the UK. There were times when they almost overdid it. According to the Indianapolis Star, in a quote that sounds more as if it came from the pen of the journalist rather than the mouth of the driver, Hughes was going to “buy a manor house and farm in merry England” should he take home the winner’s $50,000 prize. The Indianapolis News was among those that even referred to him as ‘Lord’ Hughie but, as the track’s England-born historian Donald Davidson quips, “Americans thought that most Englishmen were ‘lords’ then.” Hughes was also described as having “a foreign grin and carriage”.
Said the Star in 1912, “He is an Englishman and is one of the old-school drivers of which few are now racing.” The paper then describes the basis for this statement, claiming that he had driven a De Dietrich in the 1904 Gordon Bennett International Cup in France. There are two flaws in this. Set aside the perhaps understandable one about where the race was held (it took place in Germany that year). What is questionable is that Hughes could have driven a De Dietrich, for the Gordon Bennett regulations were very specific that driver and car should come from the same country. The Indianapolis News is another that refers to a 1904 Gordon Bennett appearance, at the same time as saying that Hughes was “only 25 years old” when he started the 1911 Indianapolis 500. (It was elsewhere stated that he was born on January 1, 1886.) Perhaps it is not surprising that the records for the 1904 Gordon Bennett contain no reference to Hughes.
Two years previously, the Star had written about time trials for the new Indianapolis speedway. Hughes is quoted as saying, “I am going to drive a quarter in seven seconds on that new brick course. There is no reason why I should not be able to do this on that track, which beyond all doubt has the Brooklands surface beaten by far.” Another paper, the San Francisco Call, described him as being “fresh from his triumphs on the Brooklands track in England”. Yet, again, there are no records of Hughes in the archives at Brooklands, so make of this what you will.
What does seem certain is that Hughie (one paper describes him as ‘GH’) Hughes sailed to the USA during 1906, coming to prominence driving an Allen-Kingston in 24-hour races on Brighton Beach, New York, where, in 1909, he was badly burned when his clothes caught fire following an accident. His riding mechanic and another driver rolled him in the sand to extinguish the flames. The Call was referring to him as “the famous racing driver” even then. That same year, he is also reported as driving the Allen-Kingston in one of the year’s major racing events, the Massachusetts-based Lowell Trophy, crashing the New York-made car in the last third of the race after starting second.
The first reference to Hughes with regard to Indianapolis concerns the time trials that took place in December 1909, following the Speedway’s resurfacing with bricks. It was reported that Walter Christie, the first American to race in the French Grand Prix, was going to drive his “freak” front-wheel-drive car and had brought with him Hughes, “The veteran Allan-Kingston driver and one of the most experienced men on the track of this country.” Even though he had raced the ‘long-nosed’ car on Californian dirt tracks, Hughes, it appears, was mainly there “to look after the Christie car, tuning it up and getting it ready for the fray”. The plan was that he should drive the quarter mile, but it was Christie who set a new American record for this. By the following September, Hughes was the factory driver for Indianapolis-based Parry Auto Company (founder David Parry had previously been a partner with his brothers, in what was one of the world’s largest carriage factories). That month the track opened for the fourth, and last, in a series of short and handicap race meetings. He participated in three of the 20 events on the card, including two five-lap handicaps – one of them described as “wild and confusing” – and a two-lap scratch race, with a best finish of fifth.
The following year the sprint races gave way to the first Indianapolis 500 and Hughes was among the 40 drivers on the grid. He was now a Mercer factory driver, his virtually stock 300 cubic inch Raceabout being typical of the period with its box-like bonnet, artillery wheels and racing number roundel standing proud above the fuel tank. It was nicknamed ‘The Monk’ by virtue of the fact that Hughes carried a toy monkey. That the Michelin-shod car was on the seventh row of the grid was no reflection of Hughes’s ability. That year the grid was decided by the order in which entries were received.
By the end of 10 laps, Hughes was up to 19th, just behind team-mate Charlie Bigelow. With 100 miles to go he was reported to be running well. The prize money that year was divided up between the first 12 finishers, each of whom had to complete the full 500 miles irrespective of how many times they had been lapped. Hughes was originally announced as coming 10th, but this was revised to 12th and last with an average speed of 67.73mph. As The Automobile reported, “The small end of the purse went to Hughes. The New Jersey car ran smartly from end to end but did not have quite the power to land higher in the list.”
Within 12 months Hughes had risen from last-placed finisher to one of the favourites. “Hughes is one of the most reliable drivers in the game and his big Mercer, a new creation built especially for this race, has made an impression on the rail birds and many predict that Hughes will be a winner. The Englishman has studied the track and believes his tire wear has been reduced to a minimum,” reported the Indianapolis Star four days before the race. There was also support from a significant quarter. A day later the same paper stated that 1911 winner Ray Harroun was “stuck on Hughie Hughes’ Mercer. Ray says that Hughes has the likeliest car in the race because it has a small engine and is shy on avoirdupois.” (Harroun obviously had a way with words – he could have just said it was light.)
Hughes’ new Mercer, the smallest engined entry but looking more like a racing machine than his 1911 car, posted a speed of 81.81mph in practice and Hughes found himself on the fourth row of the grid. His race is perhaps best seen through the contemporary words of The Horseless Age. “Of all the finishers probably the most praise is due to the work of Hughes in the Mercer and Merz and Zengel in the Stutz cars. They were the most diminutive machines in the race, yet they withstood the battle of the heavier cars… Hughes drove his usual perfect race and sent his wire-wheeled machine around the course at a consistent speed.” By the end of the first 100 miles he was running ninth, moving up to a steady fourth by half-distance.
Through a rather unfortunate oversight, the Mercer ran out of fuel on the back stretch, coming to a stop at the start of the home straight. That meant Hughes and his mechanic Eddie Pullen had to push the car three quarters of a mile to the pits. It was a costly error as he was to finish eventually just one minute 40 seconds behind runner-up Teddy Tetzlaff. He also had to make six stops due to tyre trouble. Averaging 76.13mph, however, he finished third behind Joe Dawson and Tetzlaff and was awarded a prize of $5000. Then the Stutz team put in a protest. Their man Charlie Merz had come third, they reckoned. The AAA (American Automobile Association) officials retired to the Claypole Hotel to recheck the figures from the timing instruments. Late that night they confirmed that an Englishman had, indeed, finished third in the 1912 Indianapolis 500.
It was to be Hughes’s last 500 start, although he had not yet done with the Speedway. Relief drivers were then allowed and the following year he took over Bob Burman’s Keeton for a while. He was back in 1915, assisting Bill Carlson. In fact it was Hughes who was at the wheel of Carlson’s Maxwell as the chequered flag fell, assisting him to ninth place. (Hughes, himself, was one of the few not to use a relief driver in 1911, a feat he repeated in 1912.)
In 1914 Hughes put in a late entry for the side-radiatored Hughes-Rayfield Special, a collaboration between himself and carburettor manufacturer William Rayfield. Just 10 days before the 500, Hughes arrived at Indianapolis having driven the car from Illinois. He then proceeded to set practice times that would have been good enough to qualify him for the race. On the eve of qualification, however, he took the car downtown. It is now lost in the mists of time as to whether he was showing off to a girl or to the press, but what is certain is that he over-revved his six-cylinder engine, destroying a crankshaft bearing. Rayfield’s son George remembered how he and his father had been at breakfast when “someone came in, shouting we’d better run over and see what our crazy driver had done”. The car was withdrawn.
A year later, Hughes tried again to qualify, this time in an FRP, but failed to make the grid.
As far as Indianapolis was concerned, there was to be one last hurrah, indeed perhaps his finest at the Speedway. In 1916, Hughes was entered in a Hoskins Special for all three races on the card of a unique event, the Harvest Auto Racing Classic. It was in the 50-mile race that he really shone, briefly leading eventual winner Johnny Aitken. On the final lap the pair ran neck and neck. Said a breathless Indianapolis Star, “On the last lap Hughes took the entire two and a half miles with the throttle wide open and his car wracking itself at every revolution. He gave Aitken the race of his life down the final stretch.” The honour of being the first British driver to win a race at Indianapolis had already fallen earlier that year to Italy-born Dario Resta. At the end of the Harvest Classic 50-miler, Hughes was a scant 0.23sec away from being the second.
A dramatic photograph shows Aitken and Hughes thundering under a makeshift bridge from which the chequered flag is being waved. Hughes was also runner-up to Aitken in the 100-mile encounter, albeit 19sec adrift. The size of Hughes’s purse was reflected in the length of the race, $2000 for the 100-mile race, $500 for the shorter event. He also finished fourth in the 20-mile encounter, winning $100.
Away from Indianapolis, Hughes had achieved some significant victories, notably in the 1911 Savannah Trophy in Georgia for Mercer. The Vanderbilt Trophy was to be held on the same track a few days later and the New York Times asked Hughes for a prediction. Hughie wrongly suggested Victor Hémery. He was a regular contender in AAA National Championship contests, winning four times (the Kane County Trophy, Elgin and Fairmont Park, Philadelphia in 1911, the Aurora Trophy, Elgin in 1912, all driving a Mercer, and the Golden Potlach Trophy in 1914, at the wheel of a Maxwell). In 1912 he competed in the American Grand Prize in Milwaukee, but suffered a broken fuel line.
Prior to a road race at Tacoma, the New York Times described “The Hughes-Mercer combination (as) one of the most feared in the entire contest… It should prove a dangerous contender.” The Mercer was put on display at the 1912 National Automobile Show in Madison Square Gardens, New York. The Times was again effusive: “Cups won by Hughie Hughes and other drivers are piled up on the yellow Mercer racer, which has such a sweeping career in the 300-cubic inch class events.”
Towards the end of his life Hughes drove ‘Toodles V’, a 9-litre airship-engined Sunbeam that had made its way to the USA and was now owned by wealthy New Yorker Richard Adams. A fortnight before the 1916 Corona GP in California, he was permitted to make a dawn trial along the three-mile course. It was said that no one could remain asleep because of the sound of the Sunbeam’s V12 engine and that virtually the whole city witnessed his run with a best lap of more than 100mph. He did not last the distance but reappeared with the car, now with a two-seater body, for a 150-mile race at the Ascot dirt track, where he finished down the field.
Later that year Hughes was entered at the Uniontown, Pennsylvania board track. It was reported as being a bright and sunny day and that the track was of superior construction to those built in previous years. “Hughie Hughes is one of the best automobile drivers the world has ever seen,” said the programme. At noon, Hughes was scheduled to make a one-mile and then a five-mile exhibition run in Toodles V. After the race he was expected to take a tilt at the world’s 10-mile record with the car. On the 64th lap of the race, however, engine trouble forced his Hoskins into the guardrail. Hughes, who was now living in Los Angeles having recently married Peggy, got out and walked toward the press stand, where he began to engage car owner J C Hoskins in conversation. Frank Galvin then lost control of his Premier and hit the structure. Hughes was reported to have seen the danger but had no chance to escape. He was killed instantly, his body being buried in the wreckage. A journalist, caught up in the demolished stand, escaped to find a telephone and file a report to the Fayette County Daily News Standard. The edition carrying his story had the highest circulation in that publication’s history. Another paper, the Connellsville Daily Courier reported Hughes as being aged 34 from London, England.
In the annals of British racing drivers, Hughie has been largely ignored, an expatriate who impressed inhabitants of a distant country in the days when trans-Atlantic communications were still primitive. Others were to follow, with Resta succeeded by George Robson, who in 1946 became the first UK-born driver to win the event, and then Jim Clark, the 50th anniversary of whose victory is celebrated this May. However, never let it be forgotten that Hughie Hughes was on the grid for the inaugural Indianapolis 500-miles Sweepstakes, the first Briton to compete at the Speedway.