APRIL 2015

APRIL  2015
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Sunday, May 24, 2015

THE GREATEST SPECTACLE

I know you think that 200 laps after the clinking, clanking cacophony of 40 iron behemoths, 5 to a row, roared under the red start flag of the first Indianapolis 500, Ray Harroun flew across the finish line first (above), collected his $12,000 check and became the most famous race car driver of all time, the wellspring from whom three quarters of a billion tourist dollars flow into Indiana every year. But the real winner of that first race was the promotional manic-depressive who had designed and built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However Carl Fisher was held in such disapproval by the straight laced devout denizens of Indiana, that more than a century later they still hold their noses when speaking of him.
Carl Fisher's first wife, Jane, (he lost most Hoosier Catholics, right there) described living with Carl as “a circus. There was something going on,” she said, “something exciting going on, every minute of the day. Sometimes it was very good. Sometimes it was very bad.” His friends called him “Crip”, short for cripple because the 6th grade drop out kept falling off his bicycle. 
Carl owned the best bicycle shop in Indiana, and was half owner of the “Prest-O-Lite” company, making headlamps for those huge, loud, clumsy, leaky, foul smelling cloud generating contraptions that had a tendency to break down, fall over, catch fire, or just turn into a one ton paper weight in the middle of the road.
As the first 500 began a huge cheer rose from the 40,000 spectators when “Happy” Johnny Aitken, drove his dark blue “National” into the lead at the first turn. Both driver and car were local productions. 
But one lap later Aitkens was passed by “Richie Rich” racer, silk shirt wearing 21 year old Spencer Wishart (above).
Spencer was driving his personal $62,000 “Silver Arrow” Mercedes (it was actually gray. Above). It would be a triple play newspaper year for the “charismatic” Spencer. In January his millionaire father George would be on the front page, indicted for stock fraud in Canada. All spring and summer Spencer was in the sports pages as a contender in auto races. And just after the Indy 500, he would announce his engagement on the society pages.
The 41 year old Carl Fisher and his four partners had spent $250,000 building the 2 ½ mile dirt oval Speedway. The first weekend of racing in August of 1909, produced a “Roman holiday of destruction” that killed five people, two of them paying customers. Rail birds labeled the track “Fisher's Folly”, and the Detroit News observed, “The blood of the Indianapolis Speedway has probably rung the death knell on track racing in the United States.” “No good”, an Ohio paper sermonized, “can come from making a mile in 40 seconds.” 
 But auto maker and Fisher friend Howard Marmon (above) argued in a letter to the newspapers, “It was not the track or the drivers who were not ready, but the majority of the cars.” 
 With that moral support, Carl and his partners spent another $180,000 resurfacing the track with 3,200,000 bricks. The dozen races held during 1910 at the Speedway were safer, but ticket sales plummeted as the track's novelty wore off. Carl decided to gamble everything on a single 500 mile race on Tuesday, 30 May, 1911 - Memorial Day.
Thirteen laps into the firs race, as 27 year old millionaire “man about town” driver Arthur Greiner and his 24 year old riding mechanic Sam Dickson (above), were approaching turn three at the north end of the backstretch, a balloon tire blew on their Number 44 “Amplex” car. The wooden rim skidded on the bricks, throwing the big machine hard left, into the infield. Hitting a drainage ditch, the race car slammed to a stop and for a second stood vertically on its square radiator, the tail lifted high into the air. 
 
Since none of the drivers or mechanics were restrained in any way, Greiner flew out of the cockpit “like a shucked oyster”, taking the steering wheel with him. He claimed later, “I was perfectly conscious when we whirled through the air,” except he was the only one flying. According to the Indianapolis News, Greiner landed 25 feet away, with a fractured skull and a broken arm. Mechanic Sam Dickson (above) stayed in the car, uninjured...until, after teetering for a second or two, the car fell forward, driving Sam into the ground head first, “like a tent peg”. He died instantly
The $50,000 prize money attracted auto makers from all over. There were two cars in the field built by the Case Threshing Machine Company of Racine, Wisconsin. Springfield, Massachusetts sent one car from Harry Knox's factory, and two “Pope-Hartford” cars driven to the Speedway from Colonel Pope's factory. Indianapolis sent a 2 car team from the “National Motor Company” and 2  “Marmon Wasp”s, 1 a single seater the other a standard two seat version,  and a “Stutz” from the Ideal Motor Company.
 There was also a pair of “Interstate” cars, manufactured in Muncie, a pair of smoke emitting 2 stroke “Amplex” cars from Mishawaka, Indiana, and a Westcott built in Richmond, Indiana. Detroit sent 2 “Buick” racers - one driven by Arthur Chevrolet – and 2 cars from Harry “Loizer”'s new factory. Columbus, Ohio provided a “Firestone”,  driven by Eddie Rickenbacker.  Germany backed a “Benz” team and a “Mercedes” team. 
And Italy sent “The Beast of Turn”, a Fiat s76 (above). All cars carried a riding mechanic for safety, to watch the oil gauge, tire wear and overtaking traffic. However one team was an allowed an exception to the rules.
The flimsy balloon tires were blowing all over the place, now. It took anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes to change a tire, depending on the design and the skill of the pit crew. The skills of the scoring judges was even more dicey. Popular sports columnist Crittenden Marriot noted, “The workers at the great score boards...keep very bad tally on the laps.” At about lap 30 the timing wire across the front straight broke (above-right) . It was fixed but kept breaking. Said the New York Times, “It was acknowledged that the timing device was out of repair...for an hour during the race.” 
The positions of the remaining 39 cars was now determined by the 100 local nabobs named as judges. Most saw their appointments as free tickets, and showed little dedication. The manual chalk scoring boards around the track quickly diverged from each other and reality. “Motor Age” magazine was downright disgusted, saying, “There are too many cars on the track. The spectator could not follow the race.” They added the race had become a mere spectacle. Not to be outdone the IMS would later take to calling the 500 “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” .
About the only person who seemed to know what was going on was 29 year old Ray “The Little Professor” Harroun, designer, builder and driver of the number 32, “Marmon Wasp”. Ray was a mechanical engineer by trade and temperament, in fact the primary engineer for the Marmon Motor Company and perhaps the greatest innovator in the auto industry before Henry Ford. 
Enticed back into the driver's seat by a large paycheck and a hectoring Howard Marmon, his boss,  Ray recognized he did not have the fastest car, but determined to save time by saving his tires with a steady 75 miles per hour. He carried no riding mechanic, instead borrowing an innovation used in urban horse drawn wagons – a rear view mirror (above). Pit row denizens called it his “dumb mechanic”, but Carl Fisher allowed it over numerous protests. 
As the race approached the midway point, (100 laps, 250 miles, 3 ½ hours) Ray had climbed up to 7th place on some scoring boards, third on others and 10th on a few. Then at lap 150 (approximately) he handed the yellow Wasp to his 25 year old relief driver, Cyrus Patschke (above). And Patschke hit the throttle. Said the Wasp's chief mechanic, Harry "Billy" Goetz,  “Ray paced around the pit area muttering to himself, watching every move the Wasp made.” 
Some time around lap 170 a suspension member on the Number 8 Case car, driven by 28 year old Austrian immigrant Joe Jagersberger, snapped. Somehow Jagersberger kept the car under control, but at 80 miles an hour it violently wobbled down the main stretch. Mechanic Charlie Anderson either “fell or perhaps jumped in panic” to the pavement, where his own rear wheel ran over him. Charlie started to get up when he saw another car coming at him and did the smart thing – he stayed put. 
According to the Indianapolis News, “Harry Knight (above- the number 7 car)...to avoid striking the prostrate (mechanic) skidded sideways at great speed” Knight slammed broadside into two cars being serviced at the end of pit row. “That several people were not killed was a mystery to the great crowd in the grand stands” said the News.
The stands in this case were the judges' stands, and almost all 100 of the spectator/jurists dropped everything they were supposed to be doing (scoring) and raced to the wreck to gawk, rubberneck and get a better view, offer useless advice, or (a few) to actually help. By the most generous judgment of the New York Times, “no one was keeping track of the timing and running order for at least (another) ten minutes.”
There seems to be general agreement that Ralph Mulford (above) was first to take the green flag, indicating a finished race. The Loizer team signaled Mulford to take an extra “insurance” lap, just in case the judges had miscounted. They had. Probably. But just which way and by how much it is impossible to say. After his insurance lap, when Mulford's Lozier tried to pull into victory circle, they found it was occupied by the Number 32, Marmon Wasp, of Ray Harroun.
The Speedway quashed all debate by immediately by declaring that Ray Harroun had won the first Indianapolis 500, while all other positions would be “under scrutiny” until morning. In the victory circle where speedway officials had directed him to park, the stoic "Little Professor" would say only “I’m tired—may I have some water, and perhaps a sandwich, please?” Then when reporters continued to shout questions at the engineer, he rasped, "It's too long a distance. It should not be repeated. This is my last race. It is too dangerous. That was the worst race I was ever in, see? Gimme something to eat.” Then he climbed out of his Wasp and wisely refused to discuss any details of the scoring until his death in 1968. His official time to cover the 500 miles was declared to be 6 hours and 46 minutes and 46 seconds. It was as good a number as any other.
Carl Fisher (above)  spent most of the 1920's promoting and building Miami Beach. He sold the Speedway to Eddie Rickenbacker in 1927. Then in October of 1929 Carl lost his fortune in the stock market crash. After decades of alcoholism, he died in Miami of a gastric hemorrhage, in July of 1939.
Ralph Mulford, was the national driving champion in 1911. He competed in the Indy 500 a total of 10 times, and never won. In fact, he never claimed to have won. At the age of 85, he eulogized the man who was awarded the race he likely won. "Mr. Harroun was a fine gentleman,”  said Ralph, “a champion driver and a very great development engineer, and I wouldn't want him to suffer any embarrassment.” Ralph pointed out that each year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, “...send me something as a remembrance and to let me know I have not been forgotten." Ralph died in 1973.
The forgotten man of the first 500 was Cyrus Patschke (above), who “put the sting in the Wasp”   It was Cyrus who put the Number 32 in the lead. But after 7 years as one of the best “relief” drivers in America, with 3 wins, 1 second place finish and 2 thirds, he retired in 1915, to open a auto repair shop at 10th and Cumberland streets in his home town of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, half way between Harrisburg and Reading. In 1948, a young driver stopped him coming out of a diner in Lebanon, and asked, “Say, didn't you used to be Cy Patschke?” Cy grinned and replied, “I used to be Cy Patschke, son. I used to be.” He died of a heart attack on 6 May, 1951.
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Friday, May 22, 2015

WHEEL MAN

I want to talk about revolutions on the small scale. Large revolutions  – the American, the French, the Industrial, the Electronics - are like storms that rent and destroy the fabric of all lives, and  grind up individual human beings like a butcher grinds hamburger. But small scales revolutions are like storms at sea, some drown, but most survive by riding them out. As a small example of the latter, consider the life and death of a grease monkey and a gear head, a man who had one big dream. He was a gentle funny man by the name of Eddie Sachs. And he loved to go very fast
For most of human history, traveling 500 miles in a single day was the stuff of fantasy, Aladdin and his magic carpet. With the invention of the internal combustion, it became a possibility. But in the first decades of its existence, distance remained the great challenge - distance and speed. In the laboratories of race tracks the limits of the technology and human reactions were pushed to the limit over and over again.
In 1946, nineteen year old college freshman Eddie Sachs lied his way into the garage area of a local race track. He fell in love with the sport and spent the next year following the circuit as an a mechanic's assistant for $15 a week. And just like thousands of other twenty year olds, he pestered the owners to give him a job behind the wheel. According to Eddie, the drivers warned him, “Eddie, when you climb into that race car and when you punch that gas pedal down, things are going to happen you never dreamed of before. Eddie, its going to scare you so bad your foot is going to come off the gas so fast you might break your foot And Eddie, when you get back into the pits and the guy who owns the car looks at you and asks, “What's wrong?” You just say, “Mister, this car isn't getting enough gas.” And that was what Eddie Sachs did. As he jokingly put it, “No guy, and I mean no guy, ever went further on less ability than I did.”
To compete at Indianapolis, each driver must first pass a ten lap test, increasing his speed by ten miles-an-hour every two laps. Eddie Sachs took his driver's test in 1953, and spun out. “In 1954, I returned to the track and... failed my driver's test. I became the first man in the history of the Indianapolis Speedway to fail his driver's test twice. In 1955...I failed my driver's test again. I made sure that nobody would ever break my records. In 1956, I passed my test and became the first man in the history of the track to run a 40-lap test.” Eddie declared himself to be “"beyond a shadow of a doubt, the greatest failure in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
But Eddie was also the man who would call sportswriters collect from across the country, identifying himself to the operator as "Hello, this is Eddie Sachs, the world's greatest race driver, calling." And then follow it with "a hearty laugh". He knew he needed an ego to drive at the speeds required in racing, and he knew it was a thin veneer to cover for the fear that ate at every driver.
When racing returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the World War Two, the engine that dominated was the reliable, powerful four cylinder 4.2 liter motor developed by Fred Offenhauser. In the decade of the 1950's, Offys won 10 straight pole positions and often captured all the top finishing spots The Offys had no speedometers, no tachometers, not even an oil pressure gauge. The steering wheels were huge, to give the drivers leverage in the age before power steering. The cockpits were open, to give the drivers' more arm room. These cars had to be muscled around the track. The biggest technological improvement of the time was laying the engine on its side, and offsetting the driver's cockpit, thus allowing the drive shaft to pass to the right of the cockpit. This lowered the car a foot or more.
The greatest surviving American racer of our age, A.J. Foyt, described racing with Eddie Sachs on the thousands of small dirt and asphalt tracks (above) across America in the 1950's; “He could take the worst-handling pig...and just manhandle that thing into looking like a winner...Most drivers have a bad day now and then, but more often their cars have a bad day. With Sachs....it didn't make a damn if his car was having a bad day or not. He made it go.”
Eddie had a different perspective. A reporter once asked Eddie which track was his favorite, and Eddie replied, That's easy - Salem (Indiana) Speedway. Of all the tracks we race at, it's the closest to a hospital.” 
They called him the “Clown Prince of Racing”, but it was no joke. There were 11 deaths at the Speedway between 1947 and 1960. Of the 33 qualifiers for the 1955 500 mile race, 17 would die while racing. As Eddie put it, “In the long run, death is the odds-on favorite.” Thirteen times over his own career, Eddie Sachs left the track in an ambulance.
And the truth was, Eddie made no secret which was his favorite track. "I think of Indianapolis every day of the year, every hour of the day, and when I sleep, too. Everything I ever wanted in my life, I found inside the walls of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I love it all, from the first to the last day in May. On the morning of the race, if you told me my house had burned down, I'd say, "So what?" The moment that race starts is always the greatest moment of my life, and the day I win that race, it will be as if my life has ended. There is nothing more I could want out of life." Eddie always insisted that on the day he won the Indy 500, he would retire in victory lane.
In 1957 “rookie” Eddie Sachs finished this first Indy 500 in 23rd place. In 1958 he started second and managed to lead a lap before engine trouble put him out after 68 laps.  In 1959 Eddie started second again, and raced the entire 500 miles. He finished 17th.   In 1960 (above) Eddie captured The Pole, being the fastest qualifier, but he was forced to drop out on lap 132 with a bad magneto. Then came 1961 and one of the greatest finishes in 500 history.
Eddie Sachs and A.J. Foyt traded the lead, lap after lap, racing wheel to wheel. First Foyt was leading and then Eddie. Because of a refueling malfunction, Foyt was forced to make an emergency fuel stop at lap 184, surrendering a 3 second lead.  Eddie put his foot to the floor, determined to seal his victory. Then, leading by almost 30 seconds, he saw the flashing of the warning tread in his left rear tire.  “I looked down at that tire and saw fabric and kept on going. Then I looked down and it looked whiter and I slowed down. Then I looked at it and it looked like a white sidewall and I knew the next thing I would see would be air. So I didn't need to do anymore thinking.” Eddie was forced to pit, giving the race to Foyt, who won over Eddie by eight seconds. The difference between first and second place was $65,000 in prize money. Still, Eddie explained, “I wanted to win that race so bad I could taste it, but I wanted to live even more. That's why I stopped for that tire.”
But finishing eight places behind Foyt that year was a small revolution, a rear engine race car (above). It looked like a toy next to the the big powerful front engine roadsters. It's 2.5 liter engine was about half the size of the Offenhauser's.  But putting the engine in the rear did away with the need for a heavy drive shaft, which allowed the suspension to be lighter. The Cooper, driven by Jack Braham (above), was the only rear engine car at the Speedway that year. Finishing ninth was beating very long odds. Everything Eddie Sachs thought he knew about race cars was turned on its head. To run these lithe beasts required relearning how to design, how to maintain and how to drive a race car.
The next year, 1962,  rookie Parnelli Jones qualified in an Offy roadster at an average speed of 150 mph. On race day, driving another roadster, Eddie started far back in the field and finished third.
 In 1963 Eddie was running fourth on lap 181 when he spun out in the oil laid down by Parnelli's leaking roadster. Parnelli won that race, but what people remember was Eddie strolling down pit lane, rolling his tire which had come off, and grinning like a winner and waving to the crowd. But the loss hurt. The next morning, Eddie and Parnelli had breakfast together. Eddie said something about the victory being tainted, and Parnelli punched Eddie in the face. The following morning, on the front page of an Indianapolis newspaper, was a still smiling Eddie Sachs, with a black eye and a small checkered flag stuck between his teeth.
In 1964, just two years after Parnelli's record setting 150 mph pole, Jimmy Clark won the pole  in a rear engine Lotus Ford, at 159 mph. The revolution had arrived.
 Twelve of the 33 starting field  were driving rear engine cars, including Eddie Sachs. People had begun referring to the roadsters as "dinosaurs".
Many of the new car designs were still  experimenting with suspensions, tires and body shapes, and on the second lap a rookie named Dave McDonald lost control of his unstable Sears Allstate Special  spun out coming off into the fourth turn,  skidded across the grass and slammed into an inside wall. That wall, for some reason, was angled to send a wrecking car right back onto the track. 
And when McDonald's car hit the wall, crushing his right side gas tank, it exploded into a yellow and black fireball. 
A shroud of ugly black smoke instantly loomed over the track, while. McDonald's car careened back across the racing line, spewing flaming gasoline. Drivers tried weaving around the wreak. Seven failed -  and one of those was Eddie Sachs.
Eddie hugged the outside wall, looking for a way to squeeze past McDonald's car. Instead he smashed right into it (above) at something over 120 miles an hour. Directly behind Eddie, veteran Johnny Rutherford (in the yellow roadster) had no choice. He turned his car to the right and jammed his foot onto the accelerator, hoping to bulldoze his own way through the disaster. His decision saved not only his own life, but the Bobby Unser (in the red roadster) who was following Rutherford..
The collision between Rutherford's car and the other cars, intensified the explosion. A flaming tire came over the catch fence, barely missing track workers. 
 As Johnny Rutherford's yellow roadster (above, right) powered through the wreck, followed by Bobby Unser (just visible through the flames of McDonald's car), spectators would remember seeing Eddie fighting to get out of his ca, or even standing up in the flames. But no such images have surfaced. And from the condition of his body, no such thing happened.
People in the grandstand remember the heat from the flames, and the time it seemed to take any one to reach the scene with a fire extinguisher.  In fact, it was less than 30 seconds.
In driving through the burning wreck, Rutherfod's yellow Offy roadster picked up burning gasoline. Johnny kept going down the main stretch, the slipstream blowing out the flames. Rutherford did not stop until he got to turn three. Fire crews examined his car for damage, and found the tread from one of  Eddie Sachs tires climbing the car's nose. Later, in the garage, a mechanic found a lemon in the engine compartment. Eddie Sachs combated thirst during races by sucking on a lemon he wore tied around his neck. It had to have been sucked into the air vents in the nose of Ruterford's scorched roadster as he passed over Eddie's burning car, and Eddie
For the first time in its history, the Indianapolis 500 was red flagged for an accident. It was an hour and forty minutes before it could be re-started. Dave McDonald had managed to climb out of his car, and an ambulance took him Methodist Hospital, where he died from having inhaled burning gasoline.  
Eddie remained in his car, covered with a sheet. A wrecker then lifted car and man and carried them back to the gasoline alley, where in privacy his body was removed from the car
Just before the green flag was dropped again, it was announced that Eddie Sachs had died. Announcer Sid Collins gave Eddie's obituary live, on the air, just minutes after learning of his death. “We are all speeding toward death at the rate of 60 minutes every hour. The only difference is we don’t know how to speed faster and Eddie Sachs did. So since death has a thousand or more doors, Eddie Sachs exits this earth in a race car. Knowing Eddie I assume that’s the way he would have wanted it. Byron said “who the God’s love die young.” Eddie was 37. To his widow Nancy we extend our extreme sympathy and regret. And to his two children.”
Nineteen Sixty-four would be the last year the 500 would be won by a front engine roadster. In 1965 only six of the cars qualifying for the race had front engines. That year Jimmy Clark won in a rear engine Lotus-Ford. The revolution was just beginning. And Eddie Sachs would be far from its last victim. But he would be one of the most fondly remembered.
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