Indianapolis was Different — A look at the American “500” in Vintage Times
With the classic Indianapolis 500 mile race flirting with the idea of altering its rules to permit F1 3-1/2-litre non-turbo engines to be eligible and with drivers up to the calibre of Ayrton Senna casting a thoughtful glance at this money-rich race, it is amusing to reflect on how British enthusiasts saw this fast, prestigious event in what we now refer to as the vintage years. Indy seemed very different from British racing in those days, just as it still retains its magic as one of the world’s fastest long distance races attracting some of the biggest motor race crowds ever.
Long ago, between the wars, those who flocked to Brooklands did not quite know what to make of the annual Memorial Day grind. For one thing, not all that number of Englishmen had seen the American race — no trans-Atlantic flights, no Concorde, in the 1920s. Such reports as they might read merely served to convince them that, fast and exciting as this race at the “Hoosier Bowl” was, it was very different from the sport they enjoyed; not quite English, you see. . . .
At that time, of course, there were no long distance races of this kind run at Brooklands, if you disregard the JCC 200 Mile Race, which was 300 miles short of the Indy marathon, and was for light-cars anyway. Not until 1929 did the BRDC introduce Brooklands to such a race, which ironically proved up to 1936 to be faster (except in 1930) than the Indianapolis “500”, as I showed in July. In the early 1920s the only 500 mile contest Brooklands’ supporters had been able to see was that once-only motorcycle “500” run off in July 1921 and won by Bert Le Vack’s 998cc Indian at 70.42 mph. No wonder, then, that in this little Island the distant Indy “500” was regarded with awe as something rather far removed from the racing we enjoyed.
Rumours filtered through of the enormous Indy crowds, estimated at 150,000 (the same as this year’s British GP attendance) at the 1923 race, although there was some debate about this; but the Indy grandstand held 42,000 anyway, and was full, which must have rather staggered those who were part of what was soon to be called “The Right Crowd and No Crowding”, because it took a big day at Brooklands to bring in around 30,000 people. There were stories of drivers with names like Jimmy Murphy, Tommy Milton, Peter dePaolo, Earl Cooper, Joe Boyer, Leon Duray, Ralph Hepburn and dePalma, seemingly more appropriate to film stars than racing motorists — and not a title, and not many amateurs, amongst them, (although Boyer was reputed to be a millionaire). They drove very fast round the virtually unbanked, four-turn track in lookalike efficient single-seaters, which curiously had front-wheel brakes, perhaps to help when they had to make quick pit-stops.
At first, the Indianapolis track had been raced over by less specialised racing cars, and there was a link with Brooklands when pre-war Grand Prix Peugeot, Delage and Mercedes were victorious in the races of 1913, 1914, 1915 and 1916, driven by those from Europe. It was from 1923 onwards, under the 2-litre engine limit (and 1-1/2-litres from 1926 onwards) that Indianapolis followed the European GP rulings without attracting the current GP cars, that these Indy Specials came into their own. They were a further puzzle to our “right crowd” especially when they ran under unfamiliar trade names and it was often difficult to know which were Millers, which Duesenbergs, or which were a combination of both! “My dear, some of the Brooklands’ cars have amusing nicknames but their make has to be properly declared as well”. And where else would there be (in those days) a Firestone tyre monopoly, the pace-car start, the periods of no overtaking after an incident, and the qualifying?
So what was it really like at Indy in those Miller-dominated years? Unusual then to European ideas were qualifying laps to ensure a field of fast runners, and prizes for those leading the race at given lap distances, donated by local businessmen or auto firms, which tended to give rise to sudden sprints within the development of the race itself. On race day celebrities were prominent, there were the pre-race 1200-piece bands playing “The Stars and Stripes”, nubile girl marchers, balloons, beauty parades, stunts of many kinds, the kiss for the winner in “Victory Lane” from a famous female film-star, the spotless condition of race car garages and pits in “Gasoline Alley” and of the cars themselves. Indy seemed poles away from the less-organised, less Show-Biz, happy-go-lucky racing taking place in England at that time. And where else but in the USA could a race be preceded by the famous command: “Gentlemen, start your engines?”
The 1923 “500” was won by Tommy Milton’s HCS (or Stutz) which averaged 90.95 mph and won him 28,500 dollars (say about £7000), compared with the speed of the winning 1-1/2-litre Alvis at Brooklands that year in the 200 Mile Race, of 93.29 mph. Milton drove the whole distance except for a brief spell when Wilcox took over while Milton went to the track hospital to have his blistered hands bandaged. Wilcox had to stop when the fuel tank lost its filler-cap, the filler being stuffed with rag until a spare could be taken from the other HCS. The Durants of Hartz and Murphy were second and third, both drivers driving the entire race without relief — the latter had won in 1922 in a Miller-engined Duesenberg and the strain showed on his face at the finish. He wore a big “D” for Durant on his overalls; but the HCS and the Durants were really straight-eight twin-cam Millers.
The Duesenberg tourer for the rolling-start (another innovation for us) had recently done a 3100-mile non-stop run. It was nudging 70 mph before it pulled off and was sold to someone who drove it home to Chicago after the race.
Germany was still banned from European races but sent three four-cylinder Mercedes and a spare to Indy. Sailer was eighth, Werner 11th but of the team of five privately entered T30 Bugattis, only de Cystria’s finished, ninth. Lautenschlager’s Mercedes hit the retaining wall, badly injuring his mechanic (only the Mercedes were two-seaters) and three boys were injured when Alley’s Durant went through the fence. The final placings were HCS, Durant, Durant, Durant, Art Chevrolet’s Barber-Warnock (Model-T Special), Durant, Durant, Mercedes, Bugatti, Duesenberg, Mercedes. Werner had worried the Americans for a time, until he fell back from third place at half distance. The Press got “nice lunch boxes sent up by the Haynes Company,” which makes me jolly jealous!
So much for the first 2-litre Indy. At the time, the future of the track was in doubt. Carl Fisher, James Allison and Arthur Newby were not keen to continue with it, especially as repairs that would cost some £500,000 were necessary, the track having been built in 1909. It is interesting that it was emphasised that the course was intended as a “testing laboratory” (as was Brooklands) rather than a race track, and assurance was sought as to whether American car manufacturers wanted this facility to continue, at the valuable 420-acre plot (Brooklands was 360 acres). Fortunately a solution was found and Indianapolis Speedway continues to this day, unlike Brooklands Motor Course (a subtle distinction) which was sold off to the developers in 1946.
Thus it was, in those now far-distant 1920s. By 1924 another thing not met with in Europe had arrived, in the form of Duesenberg’s centrifugal blower, running at many times engine speed. Corum and Boyer won in a straight-eight Duesenberg Special, at 98.24 mph, netting 20,000 dollars in prize money. Cooper’s Studebaker-Miller was second, Murphy’s Miller third.
No European cars entered and 14 out of the 21 starters had Miller engines. As at Brooklands there were complaints about the bumpy track, which split fuel tanks and gave drivers a tough ride. Pit stops, which averaged 6-1/2 minutes a car, probably decided the results. Many such stops took around 1-1/2 minutes for a tyre change and refuelling and the winning car was stationary for only 40 sec. One pit crew changed a wheel in 9 seconds and a driver change was done in 12 seconds. Earl Cooper was delayed by tyre trouble (4 stops to change 3 wheels), whereas the winning Duesenberg, which Boyer took over after his car had sheared its blower-drive key, made only one pit stop, when three tyres were changed. Alfred Moss, Stirling’s father, drove a Barber-Warnock Ford but had four stops. It was a ping-pong race, keeping the 140,000 spectators entertained.
In 1924 the pace-car was a vee-eight Cole and Ford fed the Press. Henry Ford also rode in the pace-car, was a referee, and insured the drivers for 10,000 dollars.
In 1925 another proven innovation featured at Indy, namely front-wheel drive, which Alvis had begun experimenting with here. Pete de Paolo’s Duesenberg won at the record speed of 101.13 mph. Second place was taken by the FWD Junior-8 (Miller) of Dave Lewis and Benny Hill, a mere 53.68 sec in arrears; after 500 miles! Another Duesenberg Special was third, followed by four Millers, another Duesenberg, a Miller, and — Europe again represented at this once-a-year only racing, at the Hoosier Bowl — Bordino’s Fiat, with supercharger blowing through its carburettor. Hill had disliked the new FWD Miller and opted for a rear-drive Miller, but adapted well when his car retired and he co-drove Lewis’s Miller. After ten had finished (20 minutes) the rest were flagged off, but shared a 10,000 dollar prize fund. Tyres were changed 37 times, against 88 in the 1913 Sweepstake.
It rained in 1926 and the race was stopped at 400 miles. The 1-1/2-litre (91-1/2 cubic inch) rule now applied. An innovation — all the cars ran on Firestone balloon tyres. Frank Lockhart, new to the Speedway from the dirt tracks, and to be killed in a LSR attempt in 1928, won in a s/c rwd Miller at 94.68 mph with a two lap lead on Harry Hartz’s Miller, dirt-track driver Cliff Woodbury in a Boyle Valve Special (Miller) third. Millers were also 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th, Duff’s Elcar was 10th, but the two British Eldridge Specials retired, with a broken steering gear and what was described as a frozen camshaft. The pace car, driven by Louis Chevrolet, was a Chrysler Imperial 80; this time Marmon fed the Press.
The 1927 Indy Sweepstake was won by young George Souders, fresh from the West Coast cinder-circuits, whose Duesenberg averaged 97.54 mph. Three Millers were next home, in the order Earl Devore, Tony Gulotta and Wilbur Shaw, the last disguised as a Jynx Special. Indeed, odd names like Boyle Valve, Perfect Circle, Elgin Piston-Pin and Thompson Valve Special disguised other Millers and Duesenbergs, which suffered much engine and transmission trouble. The quickest tyre-change was done in 20 sec, on Al Melcher’s Miller. Three serious accidents occurred, including Batten having to jump from his burning Miller. By 1928 superchargers were the rage, aided by elaborate intercoolers. The 1-1/2-litre race record was bettered by Lou Meyer whose slim rwd Miller averaged 99.482 mph, winning by 76.1 seconds from Louis Miller’s Miller, Souders’ SA1 third. Leon Duray (fwd Miller) (see Motor Sport June 1991) had led the opening stages of the race at high-speed. By 1929 European drivers were having a look at the Indy grind, Chiron finishing 7th at 87.7 mph, in a GP Delage, but Moriceau crashing his Amilcar Six. The victor was Ray Keech, driving a Simplex Piston Ring rwd Miller, at 97.585 mph. Meyer’s Miller was second, the Duesenberg of Gleason third. Woodbury’s Miller knocked a chunk out of the retaining wall but he was uninjured and soon driving another car. Spence was killed when his Duesenberg hit the wall, overturned and threw him out, the first fatality since 1919. The winning car had been prepared by Lockhart and looked after by mechanic Marcenac.
The following year saw the admission of large stock-car engines and the cars reverted to two-seaters, so something of a Brooklands flavour returned to the famous Indy 500. And before WW2 stopped play European cars began to win there, like Wilbur Shaw’s 8CTF Maserati in 1939 and 1940. When racing stopped in America after 1941 the track was about to be sold for industrial development, as was Brooklands, when Wilbur Shaw, three times winner and second three times, persuaded Tony Hulman to buy it. The track was refurbished for 750,000 dollars with 260,000 spectator seats and the “500” was able to resume in 1946 and it continues to this day. Shaw was the Speedway’s President until he died in a private aeroplane crash in 1954. It wasn’t too long after the war had ended that British drivers became the equal of the Indy experts, Jimmy Clark’s Lotus-Ford running second in 1963 and winning in 1965, at 150.686 mph, introducing the American Speedway to rear-engined racing cars. (Ironically, one racing innovation no longer of value to production car designers). Graham Hill’s Lola-Ford followed this winning form in 1966. By 1957 BOAC had started its trans Atlantic service with Bristol Britannia 312 prop-jets, followed by the DH Comets in 1958, and America was no longer remote from Great Britain, as it had been in the 1920s.– WB
(Drivers drawings by courtesy of Alabama’s Motor Sports Hall of Fame).