500 facts: the Rickenbacker era 

The man who bought the track from the original four

click to enlarge 500facts_webheaders10.jpg

234. Eddie Rickenbacker bought the track in 1927.

The original partners, spooked in part by the State Legislature's moves to ban commercial sporting events on Memorial Day, managed to find a buyer who could drum up the funds two years before the Great Crash. Rickenbacker, an honest-to-goodness World War I flying ace — he set the first record for "aerial combat victories" with 26 — had the bona fides to convince investors to cough up $700,000 for the purchase. Before taking over, he'd started his own car company, the first to use a braking system for all four wheels. During his tenure as Speedway President, Rickenbacker engaged in a long-running feud with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, since Rickenbacker felt FDR's policies were far too socialistic for the country's greater good. In the depths of the Depression, Rickenbacker kept the track running, eventually cancelling the '42 race after the U.S. entered World War II in December of 1941. "Captain Eddie Rickenbacker" also had a writing credit on the syndicated Sunday comic strip "Ace Drummond" from 1935-1940. The good captain would eventually sell the track after the end of the war.

235. Methanol helped set a speed record in '28.

Earl Swift, writing for Popular Mechanics, said, "Driver Leon Duray experimented with methanol in Indy racers in or about 1927, midway through a career that saw him win the 500 pole twice and start six of his eight races in the top five. A methanol-fueled Miller set the longest-standing (for nine years) Indy lap record of 124.02 mph in 1928." "Alcohol" fuel would one day replace gasoline in Indy rides.

236. Driver Earl Devore didn't get to race in 1929 — because he was eaten by a shark.

As Nora Spitznogle wrote for NUVO:

Devore raced in three Indianapolis 500s, 1925, 1927, and 1928. He finished second in 1927, a full eight laps behind winner, George Souders.

Earl met a gruesome demise in November of 1928. He was eaten by a shark following the sinking of the SS Vestris. 

Earl and fellow racer, Norm Batten, were travelling to Argentina to race during the winter season. They set sail from New York on November 10th taking along at least one race car with them. 

The Vestris was in very poor condition and heavily overloaded. The next day the ship ran into a severe storm and developed a starboard list and things got worse as the cargo and coal supplies shifted. An SOS was sent out on November 12 and the ship was abandoned.

The ship fell on her side and sank. Earl saved his son, Billy, and his wife while Norm supported his wife until help was almost at hand. Sadly, Norm drowned. His wife survived. Earl was eaten by a shark, after his cries of help were ignored by seamen in a nearby lifeboat.

Of the 325 people on board the ship, 112 died. 

His son, Billy Devore, would take up a career in racing, qualifying for seven Indy 500s and finishing in the top ten three times. 

237. Bill Spence died during the 1929 500, a race being shot for a Hollywood film.

Memorial Day (at that time, always marked on May 30) 1929, saw Spence crash on lap ten. After being thrown from the car, Spence sustained fatal head injuries. The film Speedway captured the crash.

238. Billy Arnold was the first driver to win the race in less than five hours without a relief driver.

As Nora Spitznogle wrote for NUVO: "His winning speed of 100.448 was almost 2.5 mph faster than Shorty Cantlon, second place finisher. Billy beat Shorty to the finish line by over seven minutes."

click to enlarge Eddie Rickenbacker - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Eddie Rickenbacker
  • Wikimedia Commons

239. Rickenbacker changed the rules prior to the 1930 500 to attract more makes of vehicle.

Two "supercharger" models, the Duesenberg and the Miller, dominated the race in the '20s with carburetion that compressed the air coming into the engine, making the motor more efficient and powerful. To get more names in the game, the sanctioning body (the AAA) disallowed superchargers and allowed vastly larger engines so that stock manufacturers would have a better shot at Victory Lane. The new rule book pulled in entries from "Stutz, Studebaker, Oakland, Buick, Fronty-Ford, Chrysler [and] du Pont," according to the Indy Star's archives.

240. But the notion that the rules were changed as a result of the Wall Street Crash is a myth.

Donald Davidson calls that idea "baloney." Davidson: "A set of specs was drawn up by [Rickenbacker] months and months before that — he drew up those specs in the summer of '28. They were perfected during the fall and adopted by the AAA board in January of '29 — ten months before the Wall Street crash."

241. The Wall St. crash, though, created the "backyard specials."

Rickenbacker didn't see as many passenger-car builders as he expected, but indie-Indy entries (see what we did there?) began tinkering with vehicles all around Speedway. The cars designed purely for racing, like the Millers, were de-tuned to fit the specs.

Those "backyard specials" gave rise to the terms "junk formula" and "junk era." Terms, by the way, that Davidson calls unfair, "especially when it's capital J, capital E."

242. Riding mechanics were also brought back in 1930, with tragic results.

The return to the "stock car" nature of the machines brought with it the second man in the cockpit, which proved fatal for mechanic Paul Marshall. Marshall was riding with his brother Cy when a wreck in the third turn claimed his life.

243. The mechanics returned because Rickenbacker apparently wanted the cars to look more like passenger vehicles — hence the two-man cockpit.

"The Society of Automotive Engineers were up in arms over the safety aspect," notes Davidson.

244. Drivers who'd come in during the '20s weren't fond of the two-man cars, either.

Some of the racers who'd run thinner, nimble cars disliked the cumbersome machines built for two.

245. The rest of the 1930s was a dangerous time to race for drivers and mechanics.

In addition to Marshall, five others died during the race (those mentioned together are driver/mechanic teams who were killed in the same incident): Mark Billman (1933), Lester Spangler and G.L "Monk" Jordan (also in 1933), Clay Weatherly (1935) and Floyd Roberts (1939).

246. Time trials, practice and testing were deadly in the '30's for drivers and their partners as well.

A total of five divers and mechanics were killed during quals in the '30's: Bill Denver and Bob Hurst (1933), Stubby Stubblefield and Leo Whitaker (1935) and Albert Opalko (1937). Testing and practice was equally rough, as eight men perished: Joe Caccia and Clarence Grove (1931), Harry Cox (1932), M.C. Jones (also in 1932), Peter Kreis and Robert Hahn (1934), Johnny Hannon (1935) and Lawson Harris (1939). Seven of those mentioned were killed in the month of May, Harris died during a tire test in Sept '39. The wreck was cause by mechanical failure — but not from a faulty tire.

247. A boy outside the track was killed by a wreck in 1931.

Billy Arnold, who'd won the race the year before, was leading in lap 162 when the rear axle of his ride snapped in turn four. The ensuing wreck propelled a wheel over the wall and into the street, where it flew into the yard of a home that stood at 2316 Georgetown Road. An 11-year-old boy named Wilbur C. Brink had the misfortune of playing in his yard at the moment the tire assembly came barreling out of the Speedway, and Wilbur was hit by the debris. Brink would die from his injuries a few hours later and is buried at Crown Hill. Arnold was badly injured but survived.

248. Cummins ran a diesel for the entire '31 race on $1.40 worth of "furnace oil."

Cumminsengines.com has this incredible tidbit:

The Great Depression was hitting hard during the race's 20th year. Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker was having a tough time finding cars to fill out the field, but letting a diesel-powered car into the race was unheard of. There were not any rules governing diesels, and the AAA's contest board had to allow the diesel car to race as a special engineering entry because the car was too heavy and the engine displacement too large to qualify under existing rules.

Cummins didn't expect to win, but he and his crew had a different achievement in mind – he just wanted a chance to show the world the fuel efficiency and durability of the diesel engine. The No. 8 Cummins Special qualified with an average speed of 97 mph.  Two days later, with Dave Evans behind the wheel, it became the first entry ever to run the entire race nonstop, finishing 13th on just $1.40 worth of "furnace oil."

249. The field was limited to 33 for safety reasons.

In 1934, the field (with two exceptions) was set at the number of cars that still run today, eleven rows of three. The '33 race (ironically) set a record for entries — 42 — that the AAA determined was just too many.

250. The 33-car limit was based on track size.

Indianapolismotorspeedway.com has more deets on this particular bit of trivia:

After 40 cars started in the inaugural race in 1911, the Contest Board of the American Automobile Association (AAA), the sanctioning body at the time, mandated a formula for limiting the size of a starting field according to the size of the track. It was determined that the safe distance between each car spread equally around a course would be 400 feet, thereby limiting the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway to 33 cars. Speedway President Carl Fisher, however, placed a limit of only 30 cars for the "500" between 1912 and 1914 and did not adopt AAA's 33 maximum until 1915. Although there had been numerous occasions between 1912 and 1928 when the field was not filled, the allowed number was increased during the Depression years to 40 cars between 1930 and 1932 (only 38 made it in 1930) and further to 42 in 1933. The maximum has been at 33 ever since 1934, although extenuating circumstances expanded the field to 35 starters in 1979 and 1997.

251. Over a third of the field were using helmets by '34.

After Shaw donned his polo helmet in 1932, the notion spread to "approximately a dozen of the 33, and they were all top guys," according to Davidson.

252. The next year, you had to have one.

Helmets became mandatory in 1935.

253. Louis Meyer was the first three-time winner.

Meyer, who'd won in 1928 and 1933, also picked up top honors in 1936 — and famously asked for a glass of buttermilk to celebrate. (See "Milk and other Eats and Drinks")

click to enlarge "This is from Floyd's first Indy 500 in 1937. (He is seated in the car in the dark helmet). Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the mechanic sitting next to him in the car. (The gentleman in the white shirt and striped tie standing by the car is his brother—also my uncle—Herb Davis.)" — Russ Maloney, Floyd Davis' nephew - COURTESY OF RUSS MALONEY
  • "This is from Floyd's first Indy 500 in 1937. (He is seated in the car in the dark helmet). Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the mechanic sitting next to him in the car. (The gentleman in the white shirt and striped tie standing by the car is his brother—also my uncle—Herb Davis.)" — Russ Maloney, Floyd Davis' nephew
  • Courtesy of Russ Maloney

254. After the "Junk Formula" (sorry, Donald) became the rule of thumb, it took a decade to crack 130 in qualifications.

Jim Snyder finally took that step in 1937.

255. The first rear-engine car appeared in 1937.

"Lee Oldfield was the builder and driver, and it didn't qualify," says Donald Davidson.

256. The future President of the Speedway won his first race in 1937.

Wilbur Shaw, who'd take over as Speedway president in 1945, picked up the first of his three victories that year.

257. The race claimed the life of a crew member for the first time in '37.

Otto Rhode died five days after being injured when Overton Phillips crashed his ride during quals. A spectator in the pits where Phillips wrecked, George Warford, was killed instantly. Rhode was a crewman for Champion Spark Plugs.

258. In 1938, riding mechanics became "optional" again.

It was an option no one exercised.

259. Floyd Roberts was the first Indy Champion to perish during another indy 500.

Roberts died in a wreck after being collected by Bob Swanson in 1939.

260. George Bailey became the first driver to pilot a rear-engined car in the 500.

This prophetic event happened in 1939.

261 Wilbur Shaw became the second man to win the 500 three times and the first to win back-to-back races in the same year.

Shaw notched win number two in 1939 and rounded out the trifecta in 1940.

click to enlarge "This is Floyd in the car he co-won with in 1941. He started the race in this car and was replaced after 72 laps when Mauri Rose's car broke down. Rose went on to win the race, and both are officially listed as co-winners. The picture is signed to my dad, "Ralph Jr."—Floyd was my dad's uncle (and my great uncle). There's even a photo credit on the bottom right." — Russ Maloney - COURTESY OF RUSS MALONEY
  • "This is Floyd in the car he co-won with in 1941. He started the race in this car and was replaced after 72 laps when Mauri Rose's car broke down. Rose went on to win the race, and both are officially listed as co-winners. The picture is signed to my dad, "Ralph Jr."—Floyd was my dad's uncle (and my great uncle). There's even a photo credit on the bottom right." — Russ Maloney
  • Courtesy of Russ Maloney

262. The U.S banned auto racing on July 15, 1942.

Every drop of oil and gasoline was needed for the war effort.

263. Wilbur Shaw returned to the track in 1944 for tire testing — and was horrified by the Speedway's condition.

After leading the 1941 500 (and crashing on lap 152, ruining his shot to become Indy's only three-in-a-row winner), Shaw didn't see the Speedway again until November of 1944, when he was invited by employer — Firestone — to test new synthetic rubber tires at IMS. As ESPN's John Oreovicz wrote in 2011, Shaw and company "found the old Brickyard was a weed-infested eyesore, and word on the street suggested that the track would be torn down and the land redeveloped." (There had even been chatter that the Speedway would become a subdivision for returning GIs at war's end or an industrial park.)

Oreovicz continues:

After the tire test was completed, Shaw immediately arranged a meeting with track owner Eddie Rickenbacker. He didn't have the financial means to purchase the track, but he didn't want to see the historic track fade into oblivion. Finally, after a year of networking, he was introduced to the man who would become the unlikely savior of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

That man was Tony Hulman.

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About The Author

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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