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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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