The Race at Indianapolis

The 500-mile Memorial Day race on the Indianapolis Speedway is run each year at ever higher speeds. But in comparison with European road racing, KEN PURDY contends, track contests have contributed little to the advancement of design in production cars. Mr. Purdy is Editor of True and widely known for his writings on motor racing and high-performance automobiles. He is the author of the book The Kings of the Road, which will be published May 26 under the Atlantic-Little. Brown imprint.



T HE phenomenon of the annual Memorial Day pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Speedway would baffle an anthropologist. As a matter of policy, the officials do not release attendance figures or gate receipts, but skilled estimators consider 150,000 an average Indianapolis crowd. The people come from the ends of the country to visit a brick and pavement-surfaced 2 1/2-mile track that is unique among the world’s automobile racing circuits. Here is a privately owned track that is open to the public for only one day of the 365. The rest of the year it lies fallow.

In 1909 when the Speedway was started, it was dedicated to the proposition that upon it the infant motorcar would mature, grow great and strong. It was to function as a kind of giant laboratory. Here all manner of inventions, innovations, developments, could be assayed for use in ordinary passenger cars. Such was the pious credo of the founders. But American manufacturers of today are largely indifferent to this function of the Speedway. The major producers have their own elaborate proving grounds, better suited to the purpose than Indianapolis. Two years ago Austin of England sent a crew over and ran one of its cars around the oval day and night for a week, breaking dozens of U.S. stock-car records. The feat made a great stir abroad, but Austin was baffled to find that it created not a ripple of interest in America, and the model concerned, the A90 convertible coupé, was a total failure on the U.S. market.

Austin had been deceived into thinking that the tremendous annual attendance at Indianapolis reflected an informed enthusiasm on the part of the American public. It reflects nothing of the kind. Most of those attending have no basic understanding of automobile racing as such. They do not know what kinds of automobiles are running. They

do not know that Indianapolis regulations as to engine size prevent some of the contemporary fast European cars from competing; so they believe that only American automobiles are good enough to run successfully. Unlike French, German, British, or Italian crowds, they have no technical understanding of driving skill, and anything but flatout speed is lost on them. Very many of them do not actually see the race, since there are few good vantage points for general-admission ticket holders. Why, then, do they bother to come?

The hard kernel of the crowd is of course composed of men — and women — who follow the fortunes of racing automobiles the year around. They know the difference between the “ big cars,” the championship cars, and the little midgets. They know the drivers. They know who is good on dirt tracks and who is not. They know the men who made the successful transition from midget driving, when it lost favor, to the maniacal, tin-bashing stock-car contests. However, even these few are rarely well-informed in technical matters. They may not even know the number of cylinders in the engine of any given car circling the track, or whether it is supercharged or not. But they do come to watch motor racing.

Why do the others come? The quick and easy answer is that they come in the hope of seeing someone killed, that they come for blood. I do not believe it. Most veteran race promoters do not believe it. They may come for the vicarious thrill inherent in watching close brushes with death, but they do not hope to see death itself. A fatal accident always has a depressant effect on a crowd, and is often followed by the immediate departure of notable numbers of people.

It is probably closest to the truth to say that the attendance at Indianapolis reflects, most of all, the skill with which the legend of the track has been nurtured down the years. The Kentucky Derby offers a fair analogy. To go to Churchill Downs on Derby Day and get drunk on mint juleps identifies one with a great tradition and offers a soothing poultice to the ego. The love of horseflesh and the “improvement of the breed” have nothing to do with it. So it is with Indianapolis. Automobile racing is a manly sport. Few endeavors are more dangerous. The spectator’s virility is vicariously attested. And automobile racing at Indianapolis, the Speedway shrewdly assures its patrons, is more than mere sport: it is a contribution to the Automobile, the wheeled base upon which this nation lives and has its being.


THE opening of the Speedway in May of 1909 was inauspicious. The main event was a race run over 250 miles and won by Bob Burman, a noted Buick driver of the day, but the driver and “mechanician” of one of the Knox entries were killed, and in subsequent racing three more men lost their lives, one a mechanic and two spectators. The final race, scheduled for 300 miles, was called off after 235 miles had been covered. Subsequently the track was repaved with brick laid over gravel, tar, and sand. The resulting surface was, for its day, a good one, but the bricks offered poor adhesion for rubber tires and produced a rough ride. Most of the present surface is asphalt, although a section of the original brick has been left on the finishing straightaway for tradition’s sake. It is not beloved by the drivers, and some of them have said that in the course of a 500-mile ride it will take the seat out of the best pair of trousers money can buy. The original brick paving was finished in December, 1909, the final stone being gold-plated and 52 pounds in weight. It was not left in the track.

There were various meetings run at the Speedway in 1909 and 1910, but the first of the 500mile Memorial Day events was scheduled for 1911, and the life of the track is commonly held to have begun then. Harroun’s six-cylinder Marmon took 6 hours and 42 minutes to win it, and 80,000 persons were present to cheer him on. The victory was worth $10,000 to Harroun. He had earned it. He had driven steadily, carefully, and as fast as he could. Incidentally, the first recorded appearance of the rear-view mirror was on Ray Harroun’s Marmon.

The steady upward march of winning speeds and prize monies that has characterized Indianapolis began the next year when Joe Dawson won in a National at a speed of 78.72 miles per hour, something over 4 miles per hour better than Harroun’s mark, and was rewarded with $15,000 more than Harroun had taken. The 1912 running furnished a notable example of the bitter determination that is so important a factor in the make-up of all successful competitors. Ralph de Palma, driving a German Mercedes, had led the race for much of the distance, and at the 197th lap he was 10 miles in front of Dawson when his engine began to miss. The car slowed, and was barely a third of the way into the 198th lap — 200 make the race — when it stopped altogether. De Palma and his riding mechanic got out and pushed it all the rest of the way around the track. To finish the race, de Palma would have had to push the car another 5 miles, twice more around, and of course this was out of the question.

The third running of the 500-mile race roused the interest of the Europeans. The amount of money to be won seemed to them formidable, as indeed it was. No other race in the world has consistently been worth so much to its winners. The star-struck American pressmen were quick to urge on the native favorites. Motor Age sounded the tocsin: —

America will be called upon to defend its speed laurels on Friday, ominous Friday, but America is ready, as America ever is.

On the rim of a colossal brick saucer are perched the mute cars of four nations, foreboding monsters that sound a menacing challenge when gasoline and oil course through their hardened veins. In the chaotic camps, where grimy men sweat and toil under the lash of Ambition, the champions of four nations are waiting to put the strength, stamina and strategy of America to the crucial test.

As in the misty centuries of romance when plumed knights from all over Christendom entered the lists at the tournaments and proved their skill at feats of arms, at riding and at tilting, so foreign invader and American defender will match courage and cunning Memorial Day on the Indianapolis motor speedway. Chivalry will be born again when the starting bomb sounds at 10 o’clock in the morning . . . the gods of speed will have reason to rejoice when the checkered flag of victory drops and a new speedway champion is crowned.

But the urging was all in vain: Jules Goux, driving a Peugeot, took the glory — and the money — back to France with him. Only about 76 miles an hour was required to win, and by refreshing himself with seven pints of vintage champagne during the 6 hours and 35 minutes of the race he was able to achieve it easily.

Goux had beaten some good men: Ralph de Palma; Ralph Mulford, winner of both a Vanderbilt Cup and an Elgin Trophy race; Harry Grant, winner of two Vanderbilts; Teddy Tetzlaff, then holder of the world’s over-the-road speed record of 78 mph; Bob Burman, holder of the land-speed record at 142 mph. Goux himself was no novice: he held the world’s hour record, having put 106 miles into 60 minutes at Brooklands, the big English track.

The 1913 race was technically important because the winning Peugeot, with its small, fast-turning engine, put an end to the supremacy of the huge, slow-running power plants of the day. In this, as in most other developments of the automobile, the Americans turned quickly to adapt to their own uses the foreign innovation. They were not quick enough, however. The 1914 race was a runaway for the French. Delage, Peugeot, Delage, Peugeot, finished in the first four places in that order. They split $58,925 in prize money. Barney Oldfield’s Stutz was fifth, the first American car across the line.

Ralph de Palma had a well-deserved triumph in 1915. He drove a German Mercedes and pushed the course record to 89.94 mph. A Peugeot was second, Stutzes third and fourth. The Duesenbergs, ultimately to dominate the track, placed sixth and ninth. A Duesenberg was second to the winning Peugeot in 1916, the only American car in the first five. Eddie Rickenbacker, driving a Maxwell, no joke then, was half a mile ahead of the entire field in the ninth lap, but a broken steering knuckle put the car out of the race. He took over another Maxwell and placed it sixth. The improvement of the automobiles in reliability and staying power in the five years since 1911 was clear. Pit stops were comparatively few. Dario Resta, the winner, came in only once during the entire 500 miles, and that for a mere minute and 4 seconds. Many contemporary competitors would be happy to do as well.


THERE were no Memorial Day meetings at Indianapolis during World War I, and when Howard Wilcox’s Peugeot, won the first post-war meeting, in 1919, at 87.95 mph, the Speedway authorities decided that the pace was becoming too fast. The race was dangerous, and accordingly the regulations were changed for 1920. Engines were to he smaller. Instead of 300 cubic inches of engine capacity, they were to have only 183 — the equivalent of the 3 liters allowed in Europe.

The change had no effect on speed. Gaston Chevrolet, won in 1920 driving an American Monroe at 88 miles per hour. Chevrolet’s engine was of standard high-efficiency design: overhead valves worked by twin camshafts, hemispherical combustion chambers, spark plugs in the center. Engines running at Indianapolis now differ from it only in detail. When Chrysler announced an overheadvalve, hemispherical-combusticion-ebamber engine in 1950, it was hailed as a discovery perhaps second in importance only to atomic fission, but the hard fact is that it has been known for decades that a high-efficiency engine can be built in no other way.

The Americans got control of things in 1921, when Frontenacs and Ducsenbergs split the first four places among them. There were four Duesenbergs in the first eight places, and public acceptance of the passenger Duesenberg, the most luxurious automobile America has ever seen, began to climb. The Frontenac, created by the great Louis Chevrolet, was not made in a commercial version. Tommy Milton, one of the great drivers of the day, earned $36,000 in the 5 1/2 hours he was on the track.

Jimmy Murphy, famous as the only American ever to win a European Grand Prix race, ran a Duesenberg to victory and a new record in 1922. He averaged about 95 miles an hour, and the magic 100 figure seemed possible of attainment. There were seven Duesenbergs in the first ten places.

The next year the cars were single-seaters, carrying no riding mechanics, and an American H.C.S. won, followed by three Durants. All the new cars the engine size had been reduced again, to 122 inches — handled so brutally that only three of the twenty-four starting drivers ran the entire distance without relief. Even Tommy Milton had to come in to have his blistered hands bandaged. By 1924 a speed of 98.24 mph was required of the winning Duesenberg, and the first ten cars were American. All the cars were termed “Specials” now, the beginning of the curse that was ultimately to make it almost impossible to tell what kinds of cars were running. Harry Miller, one of the most gifted of American engine designers, had fourteen cars entered, and the supercharger, a genuine American contribution which had first appeared on the Chadwick (1905-1912), was in general use.

In 1925 Duesenbergs and Millers divided the first nine places, a lonely Fiat tagging along tenth. The second-place Miller was a front-wheel-drive car, and front-wheel drives have ever since been considered an advantage at Indianapolis because of their ability to corner a bit faster than the conventional type. For the first time, the winner’s speed was over 100 miles an hour: 101.13.

For the 1926 running, engine size was again reduced, this time to 91 1/2 inches. The race was stopped at 400 miles because of rain. This is a practice peculiar to American racing. In Europe, a race will not be stopped for rain unless the course is completely flooded. During the 24-Hour Race at Le Mans, France, in 1951, the leading cars were doing 145 miles an hour in pouring rain, at night, running on ordinary headlights.

A Duesenberg won again in 1927, a Miller in 1928, a Miller in 1929. For 1930 the allowable engine size was raised to 366 inches, exactly four times the previous limit, and four-wheel brakes became mandatory. They had appeared at the track at least as far back as 1921, but they were standard equipment on the Italian Isotta-Fraschini cars in 1911. The riding mechanic was back, too. Billy Arnold won in a front-wheel-drive Miller.

The attempt to interest manufacturers of standard automobiles met with some success in 1931. Eight of the fifteen finishing cars were of stock origin: two passenger-model Duesenbergs, Studebaker, Rio, Chrysler, Hudson, Buick, and Cummins Diesel. One of them, the Studebaker, was fifth to the winning Miller. In 1932 Millers ran first and second, a Studebaker third, a Hupmobile fifth. The 1933 running was won by Louis Meyer, for the second time, and while there were still a good many semi-stock cars on the track, the fundamental indifference of the great producers, now beginning to concentrate hard on the feminine side of the market, was much in evidence.

When “Wild Bill” Cummings won at 104.8 mph in 1934, the custom of giving competing cars any name that pleased their owners was in full effect. The first four cars were called: Boyle Products Special, Duray Special, Foreman Axle Special, Stokely Food Products Special. They were all Millers. In 1935 every car running at the end of the race had a Miller engine, even if one of them was named the Cocktail Hour Cigarette Special. The indomitable Louis Meyer won again in 1936, at 109 mph, and Wilbur Shaw pushed the record to 113.5 mph to win in 1937. His engine was an Offenhauser, derived from the Miller, and in its turn parent of the Meyer-Drake engines which, in Kurtis-Kraft chassis, completely dominate the track today. Shaw was second to Floyd Roberts in 1938 and won again in 1939, this time driving an Italian Maserati. He won again on the same car in 1940, and the last pre-war race was taken by Mauri Rose, sharing with Floyd Davis the wheel of something called a Noe-Out Hose Clamp Special.


SINCE the war’s end, everything about Indianapolis has grown bigger: the crowds are pushing 200,000, qualifying speeds are around 130 miles an hour, winner’s grosses count as substantial fortunes: 1950, $57,458.63; 1951, $63,612 Indianapolis is a typically American, busting-out-at-the-seams kind of institution. As automobile racing goes, it’s dull, but the customers don’t mind that because most of them have never seen any other kind of racing, do not know, in fact, that there is another kind — the classic European road race.

Indianapolis is a square oval track and it is a top-gear course. The four bends are tricky, but they are all curved and banked identically. It is not necessary to brake for them, the cars being slowed by their own compression when the driver eases his pressure on the accelerator.

A typical European Grand Prix course is 10 miles of ordinary two-lane road with twenty bends, curves, and corners that can be taken at speeds ranging from 30 miles an hour to 150. The distance of the race is usually 350 miles. The acceleration power of the cars must be prodigious, and brakes 3 inches wide and as big in diameter as the wheel itself are imperative. The driver must constantly change gears. As he approaches a hairpin corner at 190 miles per hour, he may shift through four gears, in addition to making tremendous brake applications, in order to slow the car enough to keep it on the road. He must use all the horsepower he has—perhaps 500 — to accelerate quickly out of the corner. The kind of driving skill called for is quite different from that required at Indianapolis, while the endurance demanded is, because of the steady gear-shifting and wheel-fighting, no less. European drivers have not been successful at Indianapolis, nor have Americans been successful on European courses. Even Wilbur Shaw, probably as good a driver as Indianapolis has produced — and certainly as tough as any — did not succeed on the European circuits. No one has a monopoly on skill and courage, and these are not the governing factors. Questions of technique, practice, and experience are paramount. And the cars themselves are different.

The International formula governing racing cars throughout the rest of the world — 1 1/2 liters supercharged, 4i liters unsupercharged — is not accepted at Indianapolis, where the governing formula provides for 3 liters supercharged, roughly 4 1/2 (4.4) liters unsupercharged. The smaller European cars would probably beat the U.S. 3-liters on a road circuit, where their superior acceleration and road-holding would count, bul they could not do so on a track where these factors do not come into play. The big Europeans might do well here, but the investment of time and money required would be great. At the least, four to six weeks of absence from the European circuits would be required — and that, might mean missing three profitable Grand Prix races. If identical rules obtained on both sides of the water, the big Indianapolis purses might make the risk an attractive one, but as things presently stand, we need not expect soon to see Tony Bettenhausen, the champion American driver, pitted against Juan Manuel Fangio, champion of the world, at Indianapolis. However, Bettenhausen may drive in Europe this summer. He has been offered a car by the makers of the Italian Ferrari, presently the fastest road ear extant. Incidentally, there are late reports that American backers will enter a team of Ferraris in the Memorial Day race at Indianapolis this year.