4. Disaster Mars First Program

Several drivers exceeded 70 miles an hour during Monday's first official practice session. The 15-car Buick team, with William Pickens in charge of the 40 drivers and mechanics, reached the track shortly after the noon hour. Edgar Apperson of Kokomo, Indiana, only car builder to list himself as driver, arrived later in the day, and all of the 65 cars entered were on hand before the end of Tuesday's busy practice period.

Among the "railbirds" was Betty Blythe, hailed as the most daring feminine automobile driver of that time. Moross, acting as her escort during a tour of the garages, was quick to realize the publicity to be gained by taking her on a fast ride around the track with one of the better-known pilots.

"How would you like to do sixty or seventy miles an hour in one of these Buicks?" he asked, knowing that Pickens would go for the idea in order to get newspaper space for his company.

"You should say 'on' instead of 'in,'" she laughed, looking at the two bucket seats bolted to the frame of the car. "There isn't much to hold on to, either."

"You'll be all right if you'll get a good grip on the edge of your seat with your left hand and brace yourself against the driver's seat5 with your right hand when you go through the turns. I'll get Bob Burman as your chauffeur, and I'll guarantee he won't drive any faster than you want him to."

"I'm ready whenever he is," said Betty.

Burman's car was rolled to the pit area. Betty climbed into the mechanic's seat, tied a scarf tightly around her head and waved aside a pair of goggles offered her by one of the other members of the Buick team.

After a warm-up lap at 50 miles an hour, Burman increased his speed to 60 before taking a quick glance at his passenger and noticing that the wind already had brought tears to her unprotected eyes, with no chance for her to relax her grip long enough to brush them away.

"Had enough?" he shouted above the roar of the engine.

"Not yet!"

As they swung into the backstretch, Burman opened the throttle wide. At the end of another 200 yards, Betty hunched her shoulders, tucked her chin tight against her neck and leaned forward as far as possible so that the crown of her head, rather than her face, would get the full force of the wind. Burman eased the pressure on the throttle and coasted back to the starting line.

"That's the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life," exclaimed Betty as she dabbed at her eyes with her scarf. "But I don't see how anyone can keep from being thrown off, even the drivers, with a steering wheel to hold on to. I'm sure I'd have lost my grip on the seat after a few more miles."

Her vivid description of the ride in the Indianapolis Star on the following morning brought a new rush for tickets, and Oldfield generated even more interest in the coming speed program by becoming the first to break two minutes. His 1:58 lap at the start of practice on Wednesday was a new track record of 76.27 miles an hour.

Constant use of the course for practice, however, coupled with the hot August sun, worked the oil deep into the crushed stone. The surface began to show signs of breaking up in several spots. Each succeeding hour produced more reports of ruts and shallow chuckholes—particularly on the turns. Drivers following close on the tail of one or more other contestants found themselves suddenly peppered by sharp pieces of the crushed stone churned up by the wheels of the cars ahead.

Only the most fearless continued to practice. One of these was Johnny Aitken of Indianapolis, who had driven his National to victory in a 50-mile dirt-track race ten days earlier at Lexington, Kentucky. At 2 o'clock he had started a run to find out how many miles he could get out of a set of tires at a steady pace of 65 miles an hour, and he was determined to finish the test.

Thirty minutes later he headed for his pit, tearing off his goggles as his car rolled to a stop. Specks of blood dotted his left eyebrow and his cheek beneath the eye. Tiny particles of glass had nicked the skin when one lens had been shattered by a flying stone, but the eye itself had escaped injury. There was a big grin on his face as he tossed the damaged goggles to one of his mechanics.

"One of the Buicks flipped a rock in my face and smashed one of my lamps," he shouted, his engine still running. "Give me another pair so I can get going before they decide it isn't safe for us to run out here any more."

By 3 o'clock, however, Fisher realized drastic steps were necessary if the course was to be in suitable condition for the inaugural races on the following day. He conferred with AAA officials and announced that the track was closed for the remainder of the afternoon.

"It's too late to put more oil on the turns," he said. "They'd become so slick someone probably would get hurt. But we can patch the holes with a mixture of regular tar and crushed stone."

"You're absolutely right," said Fred Wagner of New York, who had accepted Fisher's invitation to serve as official starter and handle the signal flags. "But the track's becoming too dusty. You better put another coat of oil on the straightaways if you want to keep the spectators happy and make it possible for me to see more than one car at a time as they approach the starting line."

Workmen toiled all through the night to get the job finished. Two tank wagons, each pulled by four horses, still were applying oil in front of the main grandstand when the gates were thrown open to the public at 9 o'clock in the morning—three hours before the first scheduled event.

Free parking facilities included 3,000 hitching posts in a special area for horses and carriages, in addition to marked spaces for 10,000 cars. General admission tickets priced at 50 cents and purchased at the east gate were good for admission to the balloon bleachers at no extra charge. General admission tickets priced at $1 and purchased at the main gate were good for admission to a large portion of the main grandstand, where several thousand box seats also were available for an additional $1.50.

Since late afternoon of the previous day, motor caravans from most of the principal cities in the Midwest had been steadily rolling into the Hoosier capital. One of the largest came from Chicago, where Charles P. Root and Frank Trego6 had organized a 100-car "fox chase." Driving a big National touring car, they had left the Chicago lake front at 4 A.M. on Wednesday and created a trail of pink and white confetti through Hammond, Crown Point, Rensselaer, Lafayette, Frankfort and Kirklin on the 200-mile eight-hour trip to Indianapolis.

Included in the caravan were four young race fans from Minneapolis, taking turns at the wheel of a 1908 Oldsmobile. Fifteen-year-old Tommy Milton, destined to become the first two-time winner of the Indianapolis "500," although the annual International Classic at that distance then wasn't even a dream in the minds of the Speedway founders, was the spark plug of the foursome. He and his brother Homer had persuaded their father to let them use the family car for the long trip. Clifford Carling and Clarence Magnus were their companions. They had driven all night in order to join the Root-Trego horseless cavalcade in Chicago, and they were among the first to enter the Speedway grounds the following morning.

With trains and interurbans bringing spectators right to the track gate, both big grandstands were jammed to their 15,000 capacity long before noon. Late arrivals were directed to the infield via pedestrian bridges which spanned the track 200 yards north of the starting line on the main straightaway and immediately west of the southeast turn, near the balloon bleachers.

As the race cars in the first event were being pushed into position for a flying start, hundreds of fans crowded onto the main straightaway bridge to get a better view of the proceedings. Despite the "Keep moving please" command of state militiamen, it was 12:10 before order was restored.

The five entrants in the first event, a five-mile dash for cars of not more than 230-cubic-inch displacement, lined up in a single row under the bridge with engines running and clouds of smoke belching from their exhausts. Wagner waved them forward and prepared to give them the red flag7 indicating the race was on as they crossed the starting line. But the formation was so ragged he halted them with the yellow flag and then sent them on their way from a standing start. Louis Schwitzer of Indianapolis, driving a Stoddard-Dayton, took the lead halfway through the first lap and won the event by a margin of 150 feet with an average speed of 57.43 miles an hour.

The field of eight cars in the second event also approached the starting line in unsatisfactory formation and was flagged to a standstill before being given the "go" signal. Lewis Strang, a red ribbon streaming from the top of his helmet, led the way into the first turn. Two of his Buick teammates, Burman and Art Chevrolet, were close behind. This trio outdistanced the other contestants rapidly, with Chevrolet finally taking the lead and setting a new 10-mile world's record of 66.93 miles an hour for engines of not more than 300-cubic-inch displacement. Another false start on event No. 3 caused Wagner to rule that all events remaining on the program would be started from a standstill. Aitken won it easily, and Ray Harroun won the last of the preliminary attractions, another 10-miler, with a four-cylinder Marmon.

The featured 250-mile Prest-O-Lite trophy race began at 2 o'clock. Chevrolet grabbed the early lead with Burman in close pursuit at a speed better than 65 miles an hour. It wasn't long until they started lapping the stragglers, riding through a blinding storm of oil and dust and sharp-edged stones as they overtook each rival. The track was showing signs of breaking up so rapidly that while the leaders were completing their 30th lap, some officials were wondering if any of the contenders would be able to go the full distance.

Strang pulled into the pits on the 37th lap with his car on fire as the result of a broken fuel line. Members of other crews helped smother the flames. But as Strang prepared to resume the race, Referee F. B. Stevens of Rome, N.Y., informed him he had been disqualified automatically because individuals other than his own crew had worked on his car.

"How in the hell could I keep 'em from it?" he shouted. "All they did was help put out the fire. Not a damn one of them did anything to my car mechanically."

Strang tried to appeal to Wagner for support, but the starter was too busy with his flag duties to listen. Finally Strang stormed into the judges stand to carry his case to the official group which consisted of F. H. Elliott of New York, C. H. Hecker of Detroit, and Frank Remy of Anderson, Indiana. They were joined immediately by Fisher and the three umpires for the race—Henry Ford of Detroit and two Indianapolis men, Herman Deupree and C. M. Wainwright.

"I think he should be allowed to continue," said Fisher.

"I'm of the same opinion," said Remy. "But I can't understand why anyone would want to go back on that track when he has a good reason for staying on the side lines."

"If Chevrolet and Burman can take it, I can too," exclaimed Strang.

Stevens was persuaded to reverse his earlier decision, and Strang took off quickly in an effort to regain the five full laps he had lost while the argument was raging.

Track conditions grew steadily worse. Chevrolet, still leading at the completion of 52 laps, attempted to pass Tom Kincaid's National for the second time on the backstretch and was hit by a flying piece of stone which shattered his goggles. With splinters of glass in one eye—and the other full of dust—he coasted to a stop on the infield safety apron. Temporarily blinded and suffering terrific pain, he permitted his riding mechanic to lead him on foot to the emergency hospital tent almost a half mile away.

Spectators on the main straightaway still were wondering what had forced the Swiss-born driver to abandon the race when William Bourque's Knox swung out of the No. 4 turn and into the home stretch on lap 58, followed by a Stoddard-Dayton with Clemens at the wheel. Railbirds could see Bourque's mechanic shouting at the driver and making a thumb-over-shoulder motion to indicate the approach of a car.

As Bourque took a quick glance to the rear, his car veered slightly to the right. Its front wheels hit one of the chuckholes, which had become deeper with each lap since the start of the day's program. The car swerved into a ditch, made a half somersault, and landed upside down. Harry Holcomb, the mechanic, was thrown against a fence post at almost the identical spot of De Rosier's motorcycle accident. Bourque was pinned under the car. Special Patrolman John Weaver and three spectators pulled Bourque from the wreckage. But driver and mechanic were both beyond medical aid.

With Chevrolet finished for the day, Burman became the leader and he remained in front until forced to make a pit stop for a new right rear tire on his 84th lap. Fred Ellis, driving a Jackson, took over the No. 1 position before Burman was rolling again; he appeared to be headed for certain victory until he started to lap Merz in a National for the fifth time. But then his goggles also were cracked by a stone flipped into the air by the Merz car. His eye miraculously spared injury, Ellis managed to continue around the course to his pit. The engine of his car died, however, while he was adjusting the new pair of goggles. His mechanic, A. J. House, used the crank for almost five minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to get the power plant started again.

Ellis, growing more impatient each moment, leaped from his seat to handle the crank himself, with no better luck. Pausing an instant to take a deep breath, he made one more desperate effort with all of his strength, then keeled over on the track, a victim of heat exhaustion.

Burman again was the leader, bouncing along over the rough course with Kincaid's National as his only serious challenger. Even that threat disappeared as the gas tank of Kincaid's car tore loose on a turn.

Burman's winning time was 4 hours, 38 minutes, 57.4 seconds—an average speed of 53.77 miles an hour. Clemens trailed in second place by almost eight minutes. Merz, another five laps behind Clemens, was given the checkered flag at 7:05 P.M. The only other cars still running at the time, with Miller and Strang the drivers, were yellow-flagged from the course to put an end to the first day's program.

While spectators headed homeward, worried officials huddled with Fisher to discuss the advisability of canceling Friday's entire program.

"Hell, no," growled Fisher. "By tomorrow noon we can have this track in much better shape than it was for the start of today's events. And the longest race on the program is only 100 miles. There isn't a damn thing wrong with the track that can't be fixed overnight. It's new and it needs seasoning. A lot of rough spots developed today. But 90 per cent of the surface held together in fine shape, and we can patch the holes without too much trouble. Another coat of oil on the straightaways will eliminate most of the danger of dust and rocks.

"Give us a chance," he demanded. "If we don't get the job done by tomorrow noon, you can cancel the program then."

"What about the ditch?" asked F. B. Hower of Buffalo, N.Y., Chairman of the AAA Contest Board.

"We'll cover it with good heavy planks, so that no car can possibly get into it."

Finally they agreed, although somewhat reluctantly, to go along with Fisher's views.

A crowd of approximately 25,000, even larger than on the first day, turned out for Friday's event, and the track surface lived up to Fisher's promises.

Strang won the 100-mile G and J trophy race with an average speed of 64.74 miles an hour, leading almost all the way and setting new American records for all of the 10-mile intermediate distances from the 20-mile mark to the finish for cars of not more than 300-cubic-inch displacement.

Burman passed up the entire program because of his terrific ordeal of the previous afternoon. Chevrolet and Ellis also withdrew; and all other contestants in Thursday's 250-miler except Strang confined their activities to the shorter preliminary events.

The only accident of the day involved Oldfield, who unveiled his new Old Glory National six in a 10-mile race for cars with piston displacement up to 600 cubic inches.

The engine of the Old Glory caught on fire as Oldfield zoomed through the No. 3 turn. He attempted to drive it back to the pits rather than abandon it on the course, but the flames burned through the leather straps that held the hood of the car in place, and the heavy sheet of metal was torn off by the wind. Oldfield managed to shield his face and head with his right arm in time to avoid being decapitated; and he escaped with nothing more serious than a deep cut halfway between his wrist and elbow.

Saturday's grand finale was a different story, with attendance climbing again to more than 35,000. All three preliminary attractions were completed without incident as Hearne, Oldfield, and DePalma scored popular victories. But the featured 300-mile Wheeler-Schebler Trophy Race, with 17 of the world's most powerful cars in the starting line-up, subjected the track to more punishment than it could withstand.

The huge seven-foot silver vase, created to Wheeler's minute specifications by Tiffany's of New York at a cost of $10,000, served as the incentive for an all-out attempt by almost every manufacturer building cars in the 450—600-cubic-inch-displacement class.

Aitken roared into an early lead at the wheel of his big National, with Burman's Buick second and DePalma's Fiat third. Rough spots in the track began to develop during the first 100 miles, and Lytle, challenging the front-runners, lost control of his Apperson when it hit a rut at the start of the southwest turn.

The car swerved up the bank toward the small private stands which lined the outer rim of the course at that point. Some spectators scrambled for safety, but most of them sat frozen with fright. A major catastrophe appeared inevitable as the car refused to respond when Lytle cut the wheels hard to the left. Only at the last split second did the front tires get enough bite on the track surface to change the car's direction. Then it darted almost straight across the track toward the infield and plowed into a huge pile of topsoil.

Joe Betts of Kokomo, Indiana, the riding mechanic, was thrown clear. Taking time only to make sure Betts was not hurt, Lytle grabbed a nearby shovel and dug the car out of the soft dirt. As he climbed back behind the steering wheel, Betts spun the crank and they were off again in pursuit of their rivals.

After setting the pace for 105 miles, Aitken was side-lined by a cracked cylinder head. "This is one race I'm glad to be out of," he told his crew members. "It's so rough out there it's almost impossible to keep from being tossed out on every turn. The dust is so bad you can't see ten feet ahead of yourself. If there's an accident on the course, the whole field will probably pile into the wreckage before they have a chance to realize it's there."

Aitken's description of track conditions was interrupted by another member of the National contingent who had been checking off the laps completed by Johnny's teammate, Charley Merz.

"Apparently our worries for the day are ended, anyway," he exclaimed. "Charley's car has stalled on the back stretch and it looks as if we can close up shop. He was just about to take first place away from Burman, too."

Merz, however, wasn't ready to admit defeat despite a dead battery. His riding mechanic already was running across the infield as fast as his legs would carry him to get the necessary replacement.

"Charley needs a new battery," he gasped, exhausted by his three-quarter-mile dash.

"I'll get it to him," said Claude Kellum, who had ridden with Aitken until that car had been side-lined. "It'll take you ten minutes to get your wind back."

Without waiting for any help from other members of the crew, he jerked the connections from Aitken's battery and headed across the infield in a lopsided gallop, using both hands to hold the heavy object in front of him. When he reached Merz, Charley made the installation quickly and resumed his desperate chase of Burman and the other leaders.

"This isn't our day and I almost wish he hadn't been able to get the damn car started again," said Aitken as Merz gave his crew a wave of his hand on the next trip by the pits. "Somebody's due to get hurt before this race is finished. Even the spectators aren't safe with the track in such terrible condition on the curves. Look at the damn fools down there on the outside of the first turn. As fast as the police clear them out of one danger spot, they sneak back to an even more dangerous position."

The inevitable finally happened: about 200 yards beyond the point where Lytle had encountered his trouble, the right front tire on the Merz car blew out. The big National spun out of control, up and over the top of the embankment. It soared through the air for almost 100 feet, plowed through a cluster of male spectators, hit first on all four wheels, bounced across the creek, and with Merz still clinging to the wheel, landed upside down in the soft mud of the creek bed. He crawled from the wreckage unaided. Kellum had been thrown from his seat and killed instantly. James West of Indianapolis and Homer Jolliff of Franklin, Indiana, two spectators, were dead and several others were injured.

First reports of the tragedy received by race officials were incomplete, and the nine cars still running were permitted to continue. Lee Lynch, driving a Jackson, took second place from DePalma and moved into the No. 1 spot when Burman became the victim of the same type of mechanical trouble which had side-lined Aitken.

As additional information on the accident was being delivered to the starting line, Bruce Keen's Marmon hit a chuckhole on the southeast turn and was thrown against one of the huge timbers supporting the pedestrian bridge. James Schiller, mechanic, was taken to the field hospital with painful scalp lacerations.

"This has gone far enough," declared starter Wagner, turning to Root and Stevens. "I'm going to stop it."

"It's the only thing to do," said Root, and Stevens nodded his agreement.

Twenty-six laps remained to be run. But Wagner grabbed the checkered flag in his right hand, the yellow flag in his left hand and waved them simultaneously to bring the day's tragic program to a close.

Lynch was awarded first place, with an official time of 4:13. 31.4 (an average speed of 55.61 miles an hour) for the 235 miles completed. Trailing in order were DePalma, Stillman in a Marmon, Harroun in another Marmon, Oldfield in a National, Stutz in a Marion, and DeHymel in a Stoddard-Dayton.

The morbid crowded around the wrecked cars of Merz and Keen. But most of the shocked spectators headed straight for the exits, talking in subdued voices.

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