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The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903

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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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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

AIR HEADS Part Nine

I guess you could say that Charlie Taylor (above) was the first member of the “Final Destination Club”. On 17September, 1908,  Charlie was set to take his first flight with Orville Wright when an Army Officer asked if an Army observer could go up next, instead. It was in Charlie’s character to defer to the request and he gave up his seat.
So Lt. Thomas Selfridge was the passenger when the Wright biplane crashed to earth (above). Selfridge was killed on impact. Charlie was the first to reach the crash. He pulled the injured Orville out of the wreckage and then, after the doctors had taken his friend and boss away, it was Charlie who broke down sobbing. But it was also in Charlie’s character that he tore the wreckage apart until he found out exactly what had caused the crash. He was a painfully shy mechanical genius, the man who maintained the “Vin Fiz Flyer” most of the way across the continent. Without Charlie Taylor there would have been no transcontinental flight, and no Wright Brothers either - and they all knew it.
Charlie went to work for the brothers in 1901 at $18 for a sixty hour week in their bicycle shop (above), and he stayed because their personalities fit so well together. Explained Charlie, “The Wrights didn’t drink or smoke, but they never objected too much to my cigar smoking….Both the boys had tempers, but no matter how angry they ever got I never heard them use a profane word…(and) I never let go with anything stronger than heckety-hoo.”
Charlie and the brothers sketched out the world’s first wind tunnel on scrap pieces of paper, and then Charlie built it (above). Without that testing device, powered flight would have had to wait for accidental discovery. What the Wright Brothers and Charlie achieved was not just powered flight, but the scientific approach to powered flight, prediction and experimentation, proving powered flight.   And that made improvements possible and predictable. After letters to automobile manufactures failed to find a suitable engine, Charlie built the first aircraft motor (and only the second gasoline engine he had ever built) from scratch, in just six weeks, using only a drill press, a metal lathe and some hand tools. At every step of the Wright Brothers innovations, Charlie Taylor was vital to the process.
In 1911 Cal Rogers approached Charlie and offered him $70 a week - plus expenses - to travel with the “Vin Fiz Flyer” across country and keep it in the air (above, Charlie and Cal, repairing the Flyer.). “At the time my wages were $25 a week," explained Charley. "I told him I'd go; then I told ‘Orv ‘about it. He asked me not to quit. I told him I had already given my word to Rodgers and couldn't very well back out. He told me to make it a sort of leave of absence, and to be sure and come back.” And that was how Charlie began what he later called “…my adventures”.
Charlie never had any doubt Cal would make it. He sent his wife and three children ahead to California to await his arrival. But Charlie was no diarist. He left behind no impressions of what it was like to be cooped up with Mable Rogers and Maria (Rogers) Swietzer for all those days and nights. But I am not surprised that Charlie quit not long before matters came to a head between Lucy Belevedere and Mable. I imagine the drama and the emotion made Charlie very uncomfortable. He jumped the train in Texas and hurried on to meet his family in Los Angles because his wife had become ill.. He took his wages from the trip and bought several hundred acres along the Salton Sea. But it was almost a year before his wife was feeling well enough to return to his job in Ohio.
But things had changed. While he had been away Wilbur had died of typhoid fever, in May of 1912. Orville made sure Charlie had a job, but, according to Charlie, “I found it wasn’t like old times….the pioneering days seemed over for me.”  Finally, in 1919, Charlie left the Wright Company and returned to California. He opened his own machine shop on his property on the Salton Sea. “I waited for something to happen there,” Charlie said later, “and nothing did.” Except that his wife died and the depression of the 1930's drove him out of business, and he lost his land.
Charlie moved to Los Angeles and found a job working for North American Aviation for 37 cents an hour. He told no one about his past. He was just another production line mechanic. None of his fellow workers knew that he had helped to invent the entire industry. And that was where Henry Ford found him.
Ford was rebuilding the Wright Brothers workshop in Dayton as a memorial, and had hired detectives to track Charlie down. Ford brought Charlie back to reconstruct the wind tunnel and put the original 1903 Flyer back together. In 1941, his work for Ford finished, Charlie quietly went back to California and returned to work in a Defense plant. Then in 1945, Charlie suffered a heart attack. He was never able to work again. When Orville Wright died in 1948 he left Charlie an annuity in his will of $800 a year. By 1955 inflation had reduced that to a pittance, and when a newspaper reporter found Charlie, he was surviving in the charity ward of a Los Angles hospital. Immediately the aviation community raised funds, and Charlie was able to spend his last months in a private hospital, under far better care.
He died at the age of 88 in 1956. He is buried in the Folded Wings Mausoleum, in Valhalla Memorial Park (above), directly under the approach to Burbank Airport runway 15-33.
Charlie Taylor lived for 48 years after he gave up his seat to a young Army Lieutenant. And he never did learn to fly. And that too was typical for Charlie Taylor, the unsung hero of powered flight.
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Sunday, May 17, 2015

ENTREPRENEURS OF DOOM

I have always thought auto racing was analogous to economics. To the spectators a race is a chaotic
rush for victory, and for the racers first place is the only prize that matters. But hidden in the details is the regularity with which racers try to destroy racing. Consider events that began 120 miles southwest of Paris, on Saturday, 11 June, 1955. The 24 hours of Le Mans had been running for just two hours when Pierre Levegh, driving the number 20 Mercedes-Benz 300, “The greatest sports racing car ever built”, was clipped from behind by an Austin Healey, and catapulted into the air at 150 miles an hour by a 3 foot earthen embankment meant to keep the cars on the track.
The 1,900 pound aluminum and magnesium car then went flipping nose over tail down the embankment, and the dynamic physics ripped the engine from its mounts, shredded the fuel tank, spewing the crowd in gasoline and benzine. The wheels and axles, radiator and doors were ripped off the frame. Every loose piece of metal, every screw and bolt, fender and nut was instantly converted into a spinning scythe, killing outright and decapitating 120 spectators and maiming another 300. 
And leaving Pierre Levegh laying half naked, dead on the race course (above). Rescue crews than made matters worse by pouring water on the burning magnesium, intensifying the flames. The horrific death toll caused France, Spain, Switzerland and Germany to ban all racing for a time. And in the United States, the American Auto Club, which had regulated professional auto racing, decided to break all contact with the blood sport.
The only man who could save auto racing in America was Anton “Tony” Hulman (above), a Yale Business School graduate, and heir to a  Terre Haute dry goods fortune. 
Huleman had paid $750,000 for the dilapidated almost abandoned 320 acre Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) in November of 1945 (above). Recalled Clarence Cagle, long time Hulman Company employee, “We unlocked the gate, and it fell down. Everything was rotten, there were weeds everywhere. It was a terrible mess.” Hulman rebuilt the grandstands and staged the first post war race on Memorial Day 1946. The next year Hulman broke a driver's strike and made the Indianapolis 500, the only auto race most Americans ever saw or heard of.
A decade later Huleman dealt with the loss of triple A just as decisively. He formed a new regulating body, hiring technicians and inspectors, copy writers to coordinate advertising and raising purses for dozens of small private tracks and hundreds of midget and sprint car races across the country. Huleman called his new sanctioning body “The United States Auto Club”. At dozens of summer weekend quarter and half mile oval dirt tracks across the Midwest and West, originally built for harness racing, USAC supported a “minor league” for the Indy 500, where younger fans could first encounter the sport, and test their talents as mechanics, drivers and team owners. The vast majority of these USAC events “were not well attended”, but because the 500 was a national event, these tracks survived during the Huleman era. This was the business model for American open wheel, or Indy car, racing for almost forty years.
Indy cars remained tied to front engine roadsters through the 1950's, but beginning in the 1960's smaller rear engine designs and drivers from Europe came to dominate the Indy 500. 
 American auto racing became a business model divided against itself. The European teams were not interested in supporting the USAC feeder system. And as Tony Huleman aged, so did USAC. Like any bureaucracy, inertia came to dominate. This was understandable as racing was expensive, and innovation only made it more so. What held Indy car racing together through the 1970's was the experience and inertia of Tony Huleman and USAC.  Then in 1977, Tony Huleman died at the age of 76, and the following year, eight key managers and technicians for USAC were killed when their plane went down in an Indiana spring thunderstorm.
It was now that a new generation of entrepreneurs sought to remake American racing, led by the son of an Ohio corporate executive, Roger Penske (above). As a team owner he first competed at Indianapolis in 1968,  winning his first 500 in 1972, with driver Mark Donahue. 
And in 1978 Penske read the “White Letter” written by Formula 1 and USAC driver and All American Racing team owner Dan Gurney (above). Gurney wrote,“We as businessmen should be ashamed of ourselves for being involved in a prestigious sport...as weak and disorganized as it presently is”.  Gurney called for the owners to organize, as then, “USAC will work for us and support our cause and our policies.... Let's call it...Championship Auto Racing Teams.” Gurney closed by identifying CART's primary obstacle. “It appears that a 'show down' with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is or should be the first target. They are the ones who can afford it...”.
Penske liked what he read, and in 1978, he was bankrolled by an accountant turned oil wildcatter turned USAC team owner and entrepreneur, Ueal Eugene “Pat” Patrick (above)...
Together these three formed Championship Auto Racing Teams, governed by a CEO and a board of 8 owners, one driver and one mechanic, dividing between them 24 voting shares, with president Patrick and Penske and a few others receiving additional controlling votes. In March of 1979, CART launched their own league with an oval race at Phoenix, Arizona.

USAC and Joe Cloutier, Tony Huleman's right hand man and replacement, struck back one month later, informing Penske, Partick, Gurney and three other CART teams that because their actions were “harmful to racing",  they would not be allowed to compete in the 1979 Indy 500. On opening day of 5 May, 1979, the federal court granted CART an injunction, forcing USAC to admit their entries.
CART, now led by Penske lawyer John Frasco, had won. USAC continued to support dirt tracks, but under the new CART points system, winning the Indy 500 was worth no more than the Ontario, California 500. The vaunted Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it's USAC creation, had been brought to its knees.
But during the 1980's cracks appeared in CART's veneer. The governing board consistently favored top teams of Penske and Patrick, who could afford innovations like new engines and “ground effects” body designs, while blocking carbon-fiber bodies until Penske designers could develop their own. The board was reconfigured, and almost immediately reconfigured again. Most of the teams, lured by the promise of a more responsive management and bigger purses, instead saw Penske drivers win most of the races and almost every seasonal championship. Also , despite CART's promise to cut costs,  fielding a CART racer was now topping $10 million year, leaving most owners condemned to poverty row and losing seasons
Then in 1989 Joe Clouter died, and was succeeded by 31 year old Tony George, grandson of Tony Huleman. That same year, the CART board voted to fire John Frasco, and replace him with John Caponigro, who promised the old dream of bigger purses and smaller costs. He tried squeezing more money out of of league sponsor PPG.  When PPG complained, the CART board fire Caponigro, and over the next six years CART had three bosses. None could keep the owners satisfied for long, as attendance and television ratings declined for both CART and Tony George's new Indy Racing League, which was fielding cheaper and slower/safer cars.
In March of 1998 CART went public, offering 4,500,000 shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Originally offered at $16 per share the price quickly rose to $35.63 per share. The offering also allowed the entrepreneurs (Penske, Patrick , et al) to convert their 22 voting shares into 400,000 common shares, worth about $100 million. A year later these same men sold most of their stock for less than $25.00 a share, before abandoning CART for the IRL. It smelled of a classic “pump and dump” Wall Street fraud. 
As Gordon Kirby, editor of “Motor Sport” magazine, put it, “Sadly, the influx of money served only to exacerbate the self-interest, egos and greed which had always been at the heart of CART's problems, and in the end most of the team owners wound up selling their shares at a handsome profit and jumping ship. It was an abysmal display of everything the organization theoretically had been founded to prevent. “
In 2004, Roger Penske admitted only, “We've probably lost some of the media, we've lost some of the fans, and we've lost some of the sponsors. Obviously, there's been some damage...” John Menard, another of the original CART entrepreneurs, was a little more honest. “CART has zero market share” he admitted in 2004, “and the IRL has a bit more, but when you combine the two...it kind of doesn't matter.” As usual, Robin Miller, the opinionated writer and gadfly who covered most of the racing civil war for the Indianapolis Star, was more direct. “The people who used to watch Indy-car racing either got pissed off and quit watching (or) quit going”
Most of the damage was out side of the Indianapolis Speedway. Writer Bob Zeller could tell “Car and Driver” magazine, “...more spectators attended the 29th running of the Long Beach Grand Prix than watched it on television” The paid attendance in 2004 was 95,000, while only 60,000 homes tuned in to watch the race on TV. But even the Indianapolis 500, the goose that each year laid a golden egg for open wheel racing, dropped from a 13 Nielson share in 1979, to a 3.8 share in 2014. There were still half a million people at the Speedway on race day, but the television audience was under 6 million  CART had decimated open wheel racing in America, from top to bottom, exactly as the entrepreneurs on Wall Street decimated the general economy in 2007. And CART had proved to be a preview.
By 2007, with the stock price below $0.25 a share, CART declared bankruptcy, and disappeared, leaving behind a few wealthy entrepreneurs who had grown even more wealthy, thousands of stock holders who had lost from a few hundred to a few thousands of dollars, millions of fans with a foul taste in their mouths, and open wheel racing all but dead on the track. Mike Tanier, racing author, has compared American open wheel racing after CART to “ a once-divorced couple (that) survives amidst the wreckage of a pair of shattered lives...It lurches from race to race and season to season, donning its Sunday best for Memorial Day weekend but grimly battling through most of the year.” Just another example of the dubious benefits of amoral capitalism, and the cost of supporting the lifestyles of the rich and greedy..
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