Eddie Rickenbacher

Full Name:
Edward Vernon Rickenbacher
Born:
8th October 1890
Columbus, Ohio
Died:
23rd July 1973 (Aged 82)
Zurich (CH)
Nationality:
American
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

In the legend that is Capt Eddie Rickenbacker it is almost easy to forget that he used to race cars. He was a truly remarkable man in business, conflict and sport.

Background in the motor trade

The son of a Swiss émigré of modest means, Rickenbacher (he changed the spelling of his name on the outbreak of World War I) dropped out of school in 1905 to work in a local garage. He was obviously applied and gained a degree in mechanical engineering by correspondence course.

He soon joined the Frayer-Miller concern and was due to be Lee Frayer’s riding mechanic at the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup but the car did not qualify. When Frayer moved to the Columbus Buggy Company, the youngster followed him and was soon learning about all aspects of the motor trade.

Racing career

His own racing career began in 1910 with a road car that he had modified in his spare time. The immaculate white machine started to win local events with Rickenbacher also dressed all in white. Frayer entered his Firestone-Columbus in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 and Rickenbacher drove as his relief as they finished in 11th position.

They retired at Indy a year later after running fourth and Rickenbacher decided a new challenge was required. He joined Fred Duesenberg’s company in the summer of 1912. He was 10th in the 1914 Indianapolis 500 and scored his maiden victory on the two-mile dirt oval at Sioux City on Independence Day 1914 – winning in front of a healthy 42,000 crowd.

He joined Maxwell for 1915 and repeated his Sioux City victory although the race was not without incident. While lapping Charles Cox’s Duesenberg, the cars touched and Cox was injured in the subsequent crash. Rickenbacher was able to continue on to victory but Cox died a day later.

Rickenbacher won the next two races he started and was a pre-race favourite for Indianapolis in 1916 after qualifying second. He led the opening nine laps of the race before retiring early. He then took over Pete Henderson’s sister car after 52 laps and climbed through the field to finish sixth. He was driving a Duesenberg once more by the end of 1916 and won the Ascot Derby – his third victory of the season in what was his last race.

World War I

He was planning to represent Sunbeam in 1917 but with America entering the war in Europe, Rickenbacker chose to serve his country. He was two years older than was permissible for a trainee pilot but he was determined to fly. He joined the United States Air Force in March 1918 and claimed his first “kill” within the month. Promoted to Captain, he led the famous “Hat in the Ring” squadron by example – credited with shooting down 26 German planes in that most dangerous of arenas.

His exploits brought Rickenbacker national fame – the 6ft tall hero feted as the “Ace of Aces” in the press. He did not return to racing after the war but formed the Rickenbacker Motor Company in 1922. Based in Detroit, they made quality cars for the mass market. Rickenbacker drove one as the pace car for the 1925 Indianapolis 500 but the company was a victim of the economic recession of 1927.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Rickenbacker had a new venture that year however. He raised approximately $700,000 to buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he ran the facility from 1927 to 1945. Not content to rest on the famous Speedway’s former glories, he set about modernising the facility – opening a golf course in 1929 and repaving over the famous bricks.

He also worked for General Motors at the time before joining Eastern Airlines in 1934 which he bought four years later for $3.5million. He was on a business trip in February 1941 when the Eastern Airlines Douglas DC3 he was aboard crashed on landing in Atlanta. Gravely injured, he was still hospitalised the following May and addressed the Indianapolis crowd via radio broadcast.

World War II and subsequent career

An aviation advisor to the American government during World War II, he was a civilian passenger in a B17 “Flying Fortress” when it ran out of fuel and crash landed into the Pacific Ocean on October 21 1942. Cast adrift in a raft for 24 days, he and the surviving crew were eventually rescued near Samoa suffering from starvation and dehydration.

He sold the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Tony Hulman in 1945 but continued as President of Eastern Airlines. When he had acquired the company it had 400 employees. By the time he retired that had swelled to some 35,000.

His was an exciting and dangerous life and he later remarked that “I’ve cheated the old Grim Reaper seven times that I know of.” However, his number came up in 1973 while visiting Zürich. A week after being admitted to Neumünster Hospital, he suffered a heart attack and died with his wife of over 50 years by his bedside.

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
1916 AAA National Championship
William Weightman
Prest-O-Lite Racing Team
15 1 6 3
20% win rate
3rd 2910
1915 AAA National Championship
United States Motor Co
12 0 5 3
25% win rate
1765
1914 AAA National Championship
Duesenberg Bros
Mason Automobile Co
9 0 3 1
12% win rate
715
1913 AAA National Championship
Mason Automobile Co
5 0 0 0
0% win rate
90
1912 AAA National Championship
Columbus Buggy Co
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1911 AAA National Championship
Columbus Buggy Co
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0