MAY 2017

MAY  2017
The Billionaires Playground - 1890 - The Last Time the National Wealth was this Unbalanced

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

GOING IN CIRCLES

I doubt any critics will be surprised that on Thursday, 27 August, 1909 - opening day for the industrial test tack called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -  two men were killed. The day began with Barney Oldfield setting a closed track speed record, covering a measured mile on the crushed stone and tar and water soaked  surface in 43 1/5 seconds – 84 miles per hour. And then Louis Chevrolet ran 4 laps (10 miles) around the 2 ½ mile oval in 8 minutes and 56 seconds – 67 miles per hour - another world speed record. But the centerpiece of the opening day was sponsored by a company that made natural gas lamps for automobiles, the “Prest-O-Lite 250 mile, $1,500 Trophy” race.
Even though there were only nine cars entered, the track surface quickly began to come apart. Arthur Chevrolet, driving a Buick, was lapping the field when, on lap 52, a stone kicked up by a slower car hit his goggles, driving glass fragments into his eye. Somehow he safely pulled off the track. Six laps later driver Wilfrid “Billy” Bourque, was warned by his riding mechanic Harry Holcombe of a car coming up from behind. While barreling down the main stretch at over 75 miles an hour, Wildrid looked over his shoulder, thus not seeing a deep rut torn in the surface just in front of the start/finish line.
The big steering wheel was jerked to the left, sending the car careening through a fence and slamming into the embankment of a drainage ditch. Following the laws of the conservation of energy, the back end of the car kept trying to continue at speed, lifting up to overcome the obstacle,  flipping the car upside down and catapulting the unrestrained passengers out of the cockpit. Harry Holcomb was hurled into a fence post, breaking both his arms, several of his ribs and smashing his skull. He died instantly. With a death grip on the over sized steering wheel Wilfrid "William" Bourque, stayed with the  2,300 pound car longer, slamming into the earth closer to the upended car.  Doctors found both of his legs were broken, one lung was punctured by broken ribs and his skull also fractured. He died without ever regaining consciousness. The Marion County coroner John J. Blackwell blamed the condition of the race track for the deaths.
But principle owner/promoter Carl Fisher (above), who was also an Indianapolis auto maker, insisted the track was safe. And Friday's races were held without incident. Then, on Saturday, 29 August, in front of more then 35,000 fans, the crushed stone track came apart again. This time a racer went off the track and plowed into the crowd. Again a riding mechanic was killed, this time along with two spectators, Homer Joliff, and James West. When another race car smashed into supports for a pedestrian bridge over the main stretch, the race was halted 65 laps short. Critics started calling the speedway “Fisher's Folly”.
But Carl was no fool. He canceled races set for October, and instead replaced the entire surface with 3,200,000 ten pound paving bricks. Guardrails were also installed on all four turns. “The Brickyard” was thus born, as was the myth that tragedies at the track immediately inspired new safety improvements. The first “Memorial Day 500 mile Sweepstakes” was held on Saturday, 27 May, 1911, and was won by Ray Harroun with his riding mechanic replaced by a rear view mirror, so Harroun would not have to turn his head to look for overtaking traffic. But in fact, Harroun's innovation inspired a rule requiring all cars to carry riding mechanics, which was not lifted until 1936, after another unlucky 13 riding mechanics had been killed at the track
Between the first tragic event in 1909 and 1950, 36 drivers and riding mechanics, two track workers and five spectators were killed at the Indianapolis Speedway, including 12 year old Wilbur Brink (above), who died while sitting in his own front yard at 2316 Georgetown Road . On Memorial Day, 1931 a rear wheel broke off a race car and came careening across the street, crushing the boy. It would be 1999 before wheel tethers would be required on all Indy cars to prevent that from happening again, or at lest make it less likely.
But who were these men who risked their lives to drive in circles in 1950?  Over half of the drivers who started the 1950 Indy 500 would die in racing accidents. The risks seem obvious today, because they still drove without seat belts (not required until 1956) roll bars (1959) or minimum standards for helmets (1960).  But to that generation of drivers, the dangers were accepted.  Almost without exception, they raced not because they loved speed, although they might. They raced because they were good at it, because if you won it paid better than an hourly wage, and even if you lost, it did not involve a much greater risk than construction or farming in the days before work place safety regulations.
In 1950 what may have been the most naturally talented driver who would ever race in Indianapolis  arrived at the track from California. His name was William “Bill” Vukovich; or to the press “The Mad Russian” or more accurately "The Silent Serb". His few friends just called him "Vuky". He was by all the accounts of those who saw him and who raced against him, the greatest natural driver they had ever seen. His father had been a carpenter who, on 13 December, 1923, had shot himself - on Bill’s 14th birthday. Vuky had to drop out of school to support his mother and his five brothers and six sisters. He began racing hot rods on the weekends, because he earned up to $15 for winning a race.
It was a cut throat competition. If Vuky didn’t win, his family might not eat. Vuky warned his older brother, when he took up the sport, “Don’t tangle with me. On the track you are just another driver.” By his 18th birthday Vuky was winning races regularly. And despite burns on his hands, broken shoulders, cracked ribs and a broken collar bone, all suffered in accidents, he was now earning up to $50 a week, at a time when the highest paid union workers (typesetters) were making $75 a week. 
To the local press, he became “The Fresno Flash”. Vuky didn’t smoke or drink and he stayed in shape by running daily.  All he cared bout was winning races. He was, in the words of one competitor, “…the epitome of excellence in motion”. And daring.  In one race Vuky so frightened his riding mechanic, the man could not stop screaming.  Finally, while the car was airborne yet again, Vuky took his hands off the wheel and told his complaining companion, “Okay, you drive it.” After the race the mechanic retired. But Vuky won that race. It was the age of “iron men in steel cars”, when trauma and fear were things to be endured but not talked about because nothing could be done to mitigate them. And the shy, quiet Yugoslavian with the lead foot seemed to fit that image.
Vuky couldn't get a ride on his first trip to Indianapolis in 1950, despite being the National midget car champion. But in the 1951 race, Vuky started in the 20th position and 15 laps later he was running 10th. Fifteen laps after that he was out of race with a broken oil tank. But for his 29th place finish, Vuky earned $750. And he earned respect. The next year he was hired to replace three time 500 winner Mauri Rose, who was retiring. With a competitive car under his hands, Vuky was leading the 1952 race when a steering pin broke with just 8 laps to go, sending him into a wall. He finished 17th.
In 1953, Vuky led 195 out of 200 laps and survived scorching temperatures (130 degrees Fahrenheit on the track, which caused one driver to die of heat prostration). And he won his first Indy 500 by 3 ½ minutes over the second place car of Art Cross .
 Vuky's purse was $89,496.00 (the equivalent of $760,000 today). And there can be no doubt, he won the race because of his skill. his physical conditioning, and because of his determination. 
But neither can there be any doubt, the victory and the effort were draining his body and mind. He was still running, still trying to prove himself worthy to a father who left.
The next year, 1954, Vuky won again, becoming only the third driver in history to win back-to-back 500’s. Roger Ward, who would go on to win two 500s himself, said that “Bill Vukovich was probably the greatest actual driver we have ever known…”. Vuky’s formula for success remained simple. "The only way to win here is to keep your foot on the throttle and turn left." The money was important, because Vuky had two growing children to support.
At the start of the 1955 race Vuky (above, left) and Jack McGrath (above, right) dueled through gusty winds for the lead. But Vuky took first place on lap 26 and never gave it up. By lap 48 he was leading McGrath by 10 seconds and had a full lap lead over 26 of the 33 other cars in the field. Then on lap 54 Jack McGrath dropped out with mechanical problems. Vuky seemed to be well on his way to an historic three straight Indy 500 wins.
Then, on lap 57 Vuky swept out of Turn Two and started down the 5/8 of a mile long back stretch. Just in front of him were the slower cars of Roger Ward,  NASCAR driver Al Keller and rookie Johnny Boyd. Vuky was approaching a window for a pit stop and he took the opportunity to glance down at his rear tires (the drive wheels) to check for wear. That may have been a fatal mistake, because suddenly things began to happen with lightening speed. A guest of wind had hit Rodger Ward’s car just as it came off the 14 degree banking of the second turn. This shoved him into the outside wall (above, smoke). No one caused it. It was a racing accident. 
Ward's car bounced off the wall sideways. The edge of both left side tires caught on the bricks, and his car flipped twice (above, right).  Keller steered left, away from of Ward’s car (above left).
Roger Ward' car landed right side up in the middle of the track (above center). Meanwhile, Keller (above left), trying to avoid spinning out on the infield  grass, turned his steering wheel to the right, back onto the tack. But he over corrected.
Keller clipped Al Boyd’s car, sending it in front of Vuky 's number 14.  In that instant, and just for that instant, the track was completely blocked. Nobody was to blame. It was the classic “racing accident”. Vuky’s left front tire struck Boyd’s spinning right front tire. The moving surface catapulted Vuky's car into the air. (above, right) at over 130 miles an hour.
 Vuky's car just cleared the low outside wall, and then came down nose first, the heavy engine driving itself into the pavement of the service road (above, center). Again, conservation of momentum drove the rear of Vuky's car forward, sending it tail over head, flipping down the service road. On that first flip, Vuky's head clipped the bottom of the pedestrian bridge (above, background) stretching over the backstretch, almost decapitating him. 
Having passed under the bridge, Vuky's car was now cartwheeling down the service road outside the wall. 
The nose of the roadster slammed into the hood of a parked car, tore across the hood of a red pickup truck (above)....
...and then crashed onto the top of a jeep, occupied by two national Guardsmen. 
Vuky’s car then flipped once more, before slamming into the ground  upside down (above, center), 400 feet  (2 city blocks) from where it had sailed over the fence at 130 miles an hour. Fire broke out from the ruptured fuel tank within seconds.
A friend of Vuky’s from Fresno, Ed “Smokey” Elisian, came out of the number two turn just after Vuky went over the wall. Sensing what had happened, he slid to a halt on the infield grass and then ran across the track (above, in white, center) almost being struck by another racer, desperate to reach his friend. 
He and others tried to lift the car to pull Vuky out, but the flames drove the would-be rescuers back. Ed Elisian kept repeating, “I’ve got to get him out.” But it was twenty minutes before fire equipment arrived (there were no fire engines stationed on the outside the track) and the car was finally cool enough to be tipped over to pull Vuky’s lifeless body out of the wreckage.
Looking at the car after the crash (above), it is difficult to believe a man died in it. The car remained largely intact, except for the cutting made to allow removal of Vuky's body. All of the violence of the impact had been transferred directly to the driver.

The fear and horror was that Vuky had died in the fire, burning alive while trapped under his car, trying to claw his way out (above). But the autopsy showed he had died before the fire ever broke out, from a basal skull fracture suffered while flipping under the pedestrian bridge. That obstruction would be removed the next year, in 1956, and replaced by a tunnel.
Bill Vukovich has a record never equaled at the Indianapolis Speedway, and one that may never be matched.  Now only did he lead the most laps for three years in a row, but he led 72% of all the laps he ran in competition at the Indianapolis Speedway. Could he have won three in a row? When asked, Vuky was pragmatic: "I plan on driving a couple of more years here anyway. And a guy can keep on winning here. He's got to have luck, sure, and the right combination. But it's not impossible. Nothing is impossible."   There was no second place for Bill Vukovich. And that is still true. He is buried in his home town of Fresno, California.
Details of the crash have been exhaustively researched by Rex Dean, whose web site offers a comprehensive and well written forensic account of Vuky’s final accident. The death toll at the speedway now totals 66, the last car driver killed being Tony Renna, who died in October 2003, in a crash during tire testing. The attendance on race day now exceeds 300,000 people. The average speed for the 33 racers for the 2015 Indy field was 223 miles per hour, and the winner covered the 500 miles in 3 hours and 5 minutes. Safely
Impressive, for a track designed in 1908, for cars averaging 90 miles per hour, in which safety was less of a concern than pushing the car to the breaking point of its parts. The human spirit, its courage and traumas, has survived the test track called the Indianapolis Speedway  for over a century.  But the cost has been high.
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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THERE IS A WAR ON!

I find it instructive that the citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia (above)  have never obsessed over how the disaster of 6 December, 1917 could have happened to them. They have asked the obvious questions, but have been willing to quickly accept that they would never know the whole truth. In part this was because so many of those responsible were already dead, and in part because it was a time and a place where obsessions could not be tolerated. There was a war on, as the saying goes, and that explained the unexplainable, as you would know if you have ever considered the full implications of that phrase; “There’s a war on.”
Halifax exists because it is one of the largest, best protected ice free harbors in the world, a gift of the Sackville River. The Sackville rises in the center of “New Scotland” near Mt. Unijacke and meanders its way for 25 miles south eastward, spilling from one lake to another until it reaches the head of The Bedford Basin.
Here the Slackville disappears into a drowned river valley, a protected anchorage four miles long by two miles wide. At its southern end is “The Narrows”, which closes to a little less than a mile wide channel. In 1917 the town of Halifax, home to 50,000, rose on the steep hills along the west side of the Narrows, while the suburb of Dartmouth, with a population of 6,500, occupied the east shore.And beyond the bottleneck of The Narrows was Halifax Harbor, which opened directly to the North Atlantic. The salt water here is warmed by the nearby Gulf Stream Current, and the Great Circle commercial route is just one hour sailing time out to sea. That combination, the harbor and the nearby Great Circle Route, made Halifax a convenient place to rest and load coal before challenging the North Atlantic, or to recover after a harrowing voyage to the new world. And during World War One the Bedford Basin was the logical place for allied convoys to form up in safety, far from prying enemy eyes.
Early on the morning of Thursday, 6 December, 1917 there were some fifteen cargo ships crowded into the Basin and several Royal Navy warships in Halifax harbor.
But atypical of all of these ships was the Steam Ship Monte Blanc; 3,121 tons, 320 feet long, and inbound for Bedford Basin. At any other time she would have been a pariah, and expected to unload her cargo outside the port, on the safety of McNab's Island. But there was a war on.
The SS Mont Blanc was just out of New York carrying 2,300 tons of the explosive trinitrophenol (TNP), 200 tons of trintritoluene (TNT), 10 tons of gun cotton and 300 rounds of small arms ammunition. In addition she had 36 tons of the high octane Bezol fuel piled about her decks in 50 gallon drums. In short the ship was a floating bomb. And as the Monte Blanc approached The Narrows she found herself head-on to the outbound 5,043 ton, 430 foot long Norwegian SS IMO, running ballast, outbound for New York to load humanitarian supplies for occupied Belgium.
As the two ships approached they each signaled by ship's horns their intention to maintain course and speed. Then without warning the Mount Blanc turned to the right, as if moving to dock at a pier on the Halifax shore. Seeing this, the Imo (below) desperately reversed her engines, intending to slow and give the Mount Blanc room. But the reverse spin on Imo’s propeller pulled her into the center of The Narrows, and directly into the path of the looming Monte Blanc.
It was 8:45 A.M., local time. The towns of Halifax and Dartmouth were just starting their work days. Large crowds stopped to watch as the two ships sounded their horns in alarm and drew inexorably together. Workers at the new rail yards up the harbor were drawn to the excitement. Everyone in town, it seemed, stopped what they were doing to witness the drama unfolding.
As if in slow motion the two ships struck. The Imo’s prow sliced into the starboard bow of the Monte Blanc. Benzol drums were thrown about Monte Blanc’s deck, spilling the corrosive fuel. Mont Blanc’s cargo hold was penetrated. For a long moment the two ships hung there in the middle of The Narrows. Then, as the Imo backed away, the scrapping of crumpled metal against torn metal, threw sparks. A fire quickly broke out aboard the Monte Blanc, ignited or fed by the Benzol, sending grey smoke skyward. Within 10 minutes the Mont Blanc’s forty man crew had been forced to take to  their life boats. Once there they shouted a warning for the Imo’s crew about their volatile cargo. But none of the Imo's crew spoke French. The drifting burning hulk now brushed past Halifax’s pier six, setting it afire as she passed.
The Canadian Navy tug and mine sweeper "Stella Maris" (above) joined the Imo in attempting to throw water on the fires, and the "Stella Maris" also sent a boat crew to attempt to take the abandoned wreak under tow.
Meanwhile the Box 83 alarm at the Halifax Fire Department sent men and equipment racing toward the harbor and the burning dock. They arrived there just after 9:00 a.m., forcing their way through the growing crowd along the shore, all drawn there by the spectacular show.  Almost no one in the harbor knew what the cargo of  the Monte  Blanc was.
But even now a few sensed the impending disaster. Mr. P. Vince Coleman, a dispatcher for the Inter-Colonial Railway yards (above)  just a few hundred yards inshore from the piers, not only saw the accident, but knew of the Monte Blanc’s deadly cargo as well. He and other workers in the yards ran for their lives. But then Coleman remembered that a train loaded with 300 passengers from Saint John’s was due to arrive in a few moments. He ran back to his post and tapped out the following message on the telegraph key, “Stop trains. Munitions ship on fire. Approaching pier six. Goodbye.” Every operator up and down the line heard that message. Then, precisely at 9:04:35 the line went dead.
In that instant, in a single white hot flash, the 3,000 ton Mont Blanc was converted into shrapnel - jagged sections of iron weighing from slivers to half a ton. They were ripped from the hull and sent spinning away at supersonic speeds. Part of the Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two and a half miles away.
At the center of the blast the temperature exceeded 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, instantly converting the 40 degree sea water in The Narrows to steam. First a high pressure shock wave raced through the air at 500 feet a second, flattening everything within 4 square miles. Then a fireball took just 20 seconds to rise a mile into the air, where an enterprising photographer snapped a picture (above) from thirteen miles away.
Then a tidal wave 36 feet high swept back and forth across The Narrows, sweeping away everything onshore in its path and dragging it into the water. . An entire Innuit village of 22 families on the Dartmourth shore was drowned by the wave. Windows were shattered 10 miles away.  Buildings shook 78 miles distant. And the explosion was heard in Cape Breton, 225 miles to the east. Out of the tug Stella Maris’ crew of 24, only five survived. On board the Imo, the captain, the harbor pilot and five crew members were killed. The 430 foot long Imo was thrown against the Dartmouth shore like a toy in a bathtub (below), her bottom ripped out. Every other ship in Halifax harbor suffered causalities and damage.
Of the ten firemen who had just arrived at the dock, nine were killed, including the Fire Chief and Deputy Chief. The sole survivor, engine driver Billy Wells, wrote, “The first thing I recalled after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine…the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm.”
At least 2,000 people had been killed outright, and 9,000 wounded, not counting the Innuit dead. (Native peoples, quite simply, did not count., in 1917).  More than 1,000 of those who witnessed the explosion were blinded by flying glass and slivers of wood and steel. Nova Scotia lost more of her citizens in that one instant than were killed serving in her army and navy units in all four years of World War One.
Slowly rescuers began to move into the devastated square mile, removing the dead, comforting the wounded and searching for survivors in the rubble of their homes and businesses. Then, as darkness began to fall that night, “…almost as if Fate, unconvinced the exploding chemicals…had struck a death blow to Halifax, was now calling upon nature to administer the coup de grace…”. It began to snow.
The worst blizzard in ten years buried the shocked port in several feet of snow and condemned untold injured to death by freezing.
Every year, the city of Halifax donates a Christmas tree to the city Boston, as thanks for the assistance which was rushed to them in the weeks after the explosion. And every year, on December 6th, from 8:50 a.m. to 9:25 a.m., there is a memorial service held  in Halifax to remember the victims of the largest man made explosion on earth ... which was superseded only by the first atomic bomb test in 1945, when there was another world war going on.
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