Star of Indy and the silver screen

Indycar Racing News

Among the many delights at this weekend’s 19th Goodwood Festival of Speed will be the sights and sounds of 33 Indycars running up the hill. Some of the cars will be driven by retired stars like three-time Indy 500 winners Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford, two-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi and one-time winners Danny Sullivan and Arie Luyendyk. Lord March has had his excellent team of people recreate a slice of the original ‘Gasoline Alley’ garages where the Indycars will be displayed over the weekend.

Which gives me an excuse to write a few words about a great Indy 500 racer from the 1930s who few people today know much about. His name was Billy Arnold and he was a true American superstar in the early ’30s, winning the 500 in dominant style in 1930 and starring as himself in a 1931 Hollywood movie, The Crowd Roars, with Jimmy Cagney. Arnold clearly was the man to beat at Indianapolis in 1930-32 leading more than 400 laps in those three events.

Billy Arnold and riding mechanic Spider Matlock at Indy in 1930

Arnold made his first Indy start in 1928, finishing seventh, and was eighth the following year. In 1930 he got his big break when Harry Hartz chose him to be his relief driver. Hartz had won the 1926 AAA Indycar championship and compiled a formidable record at Indianapolis. He finished second in the 500 in 1922, his rookie start, and was second again in ‘23 and ‘26. Hartz also qualified on the front row in five successive 500s (1922-26) and finished fourth in 1924-25. But he suffered serious leg injuries in an accident at the Salem, New Hampshire board track in 1927 and was out of action for a couple of years.

Hartz tried a comeback in 1930 with a new front-drive Summer-Miller he had commissioned. But after attempting some fast laps which would have got him onto the front row, he decided he wasn’t up to the job. He handed his car over to Arnold who had run some practice laps and was ready to go. Sure enough, Arnold qualified on pole and after ceding the lead at the start to Louis Meyer he passed Meyer on lap three and ran away with the race, leading the rest of the way to win by more than seven minutes – five or six laps.

Arnold was the man to beat again in 1931 but he had to start 18th after he was disqualified from his first, pole-winning qualifying run, then turned the fastest four qualifying laps on the second day. But in only seven laps Arnold was through to the lead and again ran off on his own, only to crash on lap 162 while enjoying a five-lap lead. The following year he qualified second for the 500, took the lead on lap two and took off on his own again before crashing on lap 60 while trying to avoid another car.

Arnold after winning the 1930 race in Hartz’s Summer-Miller

The previous winter Arnold had got married and his new bride pleaded with him to retire, which he did, becoming a field man for the Chrysler Corporation and serving in the UK with the US military during WWII. At the height of his fame Arnold starred with in The Crowd Roars. He played himself opposite Cagney who played Joe Geer in one of Hollywood’s most successful racing movies from the early days of ‘The Talkies’.

Without doubt Arnold’s record of laps led at Indianapolis is pretty amazing. In the three 500s from 1930-32 he led 410 of the 421 laps he completed, a remarkable 97.4 per cent. That’s better than either Ralph de Palma’s powerful record from 1912-21 or Bill Vukovich’s period of dominance from 1952-55 or Parnelli Jones through the mid-’60s. Arnold passed away in 1976, aged 70.

Photos courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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