Johnny Aitken has won more races at Indianapolis than any other driver in history. He recorded a total of 15 victories at the Speedway in minor dashes and feature events from 1909 to 1916 but never in the 500 itself. Success in that race was confined to team management.
He finished third in the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup just 90 seconds behind the winner. His riding mechanic was clipped by a spectator’s empty wine bottle as they passed by during the race and Aitken slowed to make sure he was fit to continue.
Managing success at Indianapolis
A year later, Aitken led the first four laps of the inaugural Indy 500 but retired early. He swapped driving for team management in 1912 with the National Car Company for whom he driven exclusively to date. He directed Joe Dawson’s 1912 Indy 500 triumph from the pits although that success prompted National to withdraw from the sport.
Fluent in French, Aitken was then hired to manage Peugeot’s 1913 Indy campaign. Jules Goux became the first foreign winner of the race for the marque despite some locals complaining that he had drunk four bottles of champagne during the pitstops!
Successful return to racing
Aitken raced in AAA-sanctioned events himself again in 1915 and he qualified a Speedway-owned Peugeot EX3 on pole position a year later for his second and final Indy 500. He retired that day but 1916 was to be his most successful season as a driver.
What is now the IndyCar Series was organised properly for the first time in 1916 with a prize of $14,000 to the winner. A run of four victories meant Aitken arrived in Santa Monica for the American Grand Prize trailing just Dario Resta. Both rivals retired from that deciding race but Aitken took over team-mate Howdy Wilcox’s Peugeot EX5 and completed victory by some six minutes. However, only Wilcox was awarded points so Resta was confirmed as champion.
That was Aitken’s final race as he enlisted in the United States forces. However, he died in Indianapolis during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. His widow Bessie lived to the grand old age of 102.