500 facts: the Hulman/George era with Wilbur Shaw 

Through '55

click to enlarge 500facts_webheaders11.jpg

264. Anthony Hulman, Jr. bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for $750,000.

Hulman closed the deal on Nov. 14, 1945 and brought in Wilbur Shaw as President and General Manger.

265. Hulman owned more than Clabber Girl at the time.

The Hulman family also owned two papers and a TV station in Terre Haute. They'd later purchase Indy's Coca-Cola bottling interests, including the plant on Mass Ave.

266. And Hulman's bottling business gave birth to "the Coke Lot."

The family owned the land on which the present Coca-Cola building sits, naturally.

267. Joie Chitwood was reportedly the first man to wear a seat belt at Indy.

In 1947, Chitwood strapped himself into his seat — but not so much for safety reasons. "I needed it to help control the car," said Chitwood, as reported by the Reading (PA) Eagle. "It was rough riding over those bricks. I was getting bounced around pretty good. By wearing the belt, I was able to stay firm in the seat, giving me more control of the car."

268. But the whole seatbelt business is cloudy.

"There's been a couple of claims," notes IMS historian Donald Davidson. "They weren't routinely installed until the early 1950s, and it wasn't mandatory to wear them. Some people may have put a rope in — was that a seat belt? There was a strong move to get them put in from 1950 on."

269. There was a reason that seatbelts weren't, in fact, mandatory until the early '60s.

Davidson: "[The old] front-engine cars were solidly built, and if you rode it out, you could get hurt. If you jumped out or were thrown out, there was the possibility that you could be hurt less. Some people preferred the opportunity to be thrown clear."

270. In 1947, the Offenhauser engine began a run that would last until 1965.

Cars with "Offy" power plants won 18 straight 500s during that period. Offy motors had been under the hood for wins in the '30s and '40s and would tally wins in the 1970s as well for a grand total of 27 victories.

271. Pat Clancy's 1948 entry had six wheels.

Clancy had a ride with two wheels up front and a tandem-axle setup in the rear of the car in an attempt to gain more traction. Billy Devore drove Clancy's No. 19 to a 12th place finish in '48, and rookie Jackie Holmes finished in 22nd with the car in 1949. The car's performance clearly didn't justify the extra chances for problems in the pits. Can you imagine changing six tires?

272. Ted Horn raced his last 500 in 1948.

Eylard Theodore "Ted" Horn set a record for consistency that is not likely to be broken. Between 1936 and 1948 he never finished worse than fourth place in the Indianapolis 500 — nine top four finishes in a row! Even more amazing is that he never finished first. He completed an astonishing 1944 laps of 2000 possible in 10 years. For the last nine, he finished 1799 out of 1800. He was flagged on lap 199 because of rain in 1940.

— Nora Spitznogle

Horn died later in 1948 as a result of injuries he sustained in a crash on the second lap of a race in Illinois.

273. The 1940s were much safer than the '30s.

Shorty Cantlon was killed in the '47 race, and Ralph Hepburn (1948) and George Metzler (1949) died during practice. George Bailey was killed in a wreck in 1940 during a practice lap.

274. Rex Mays took his fourth pole in 1948 — but never won.

Mays never took top honors though he had the prime position in the starting grid in 1935, '36, '40 and '48. He finished second in 1940.

275. Mauri Rose became a three-time winner in 1948.

Rose won back-to-back 500s in '47 and '48 after notching "co-winner" honors with Floyd Davis (only one of two times that had happened) in 1941.

276. Leland "Lee" Wallace became the first winner to finish the 500 in under four hours.

His 1951 speed was 126.244 mph, which translated to a race time of 3:57:23.

277. 1952 saw a diesel engine capture the pole.

The Cummins website relates that:

Freddie Agabashian took [the] No. 28 out on the brickyard and tore the tread off of his front right tire while capturing the pole with the fastest one-lap time (139.104 mph) and four-lap time (138.010 mph) in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. The Cummins Diesel Special was retired midway through the race as the turbocharger inlet became clogged with rubber debris from the track — but it had established turbocharging as a viable technology on the track.

278. The '52 pole-sitter was also the first tested in a wind tunnel.

The No. 28 Cummins Diesel Special was the first Indy car ever tested in a tunnel for aerodynamic efficiency.

279. The '53 month of May claimed another driver in addition to Carl Scarborough.

Chet Miller was killed in a turn one crash in practice on May 15.

280. Bill Vukovich won his first 500 in 1953.

The Fresno-born driver of Serbian descent was considered by his colleagues to be one of the greatest of his era — maybe of all time. Rodger Ward told ESPN "Bill Vukovich was probably the greatest actual driver we have ever known in terms of his skill and his determination." "Vuky" took the pole position and the checkered flag in '53 and won again in 1954, dominating both races. In 1955, as he was leading on lap 57, a three-car crash ahead of Vukovich proved disastrous — as he tried to avoid the wreck, Vuckovich was collected by a chain reaction and the impact propelled his car up and over the wall. The car tumbled and eventually burst into flames. Footage of the race shows another driver who wasn't involved, Ed Elisian, pulling over and dashing across the track, dodging other cars to try and help his friend, but Vukovich had been killed instantly.

click to enlarge The ride Bill Vukovich drove to victory in '53. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • The ride Bill Vukovich drove to victory in '53.
  • Wikimedia Commons

281. An "Offy" engine cracked the maker's first of many qualification speed barriers in 1954.

Jack McGrath was the man to break 140 mph.

282. Wilbur Shaw died in a crash — an airplane crash.

Shaw died when a small plane he was in went down in Decatur, Indiana in 1954. The plane's pilot and another man were also killed.

283. The AAA withdrew from auto racing after the death of Vukovich and a 1955 disaster at LeMans.

The worst accident in motorsports occurred during the 24 Hours of Lemans when a Mercedes piloted by Pierre Levegh clipped another car and was launched into the air — and into the crowd. Safety measures being what they were in the '50s, nothing prevented the debris from tearing through the assembled fans as the car broke apart. What's worse, the car was constructed from magnesium, which caught fire and then exploded when crews attempt to douse the rig with water. By the time the carnage ended, Levegh and somewhere between 80 and 130 spectators — spectators — died (the official toll has never been released). France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland all banned auto racing in their countries for a time (the ban remains in place in Switzerland) and the AAA "Contest Board" decided the organization wanted nothing to do with auto racing after the Le Mans disaster and the death of Vukovich that same year.

284. Another man perished from a crash in practice for the 500 in '55.

Manny Ayulo wrecked on May 16 and died the following day.


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Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.

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