7. DePalma Loses a Heartbreaker

With the first "500" a success in every respect, Fisher increased the prize money to $50,000 and predicted an even larger field of cars the following year. He saw no reason to alter the general plan and was quite perturbed by action taken at a mid-summer meeting of the AAA.

Riding mechanics were made mandatory for all races of 50 miles or more—thus prohibiting any attempt to duplicate Harroun's 1911 solo victory—and the number of starting positions for any race on a closed course was limited to one car for every 400 feet of track: 13 on a mile course and multiples of that number for tracks of greater length. That placed the maximum number for the "500" at 33.

"We've got to do something to protect the interests of the smaller companies or they'll be crowded out of the picture entirely," Fisher told his associates. "If the larger companies all enter three or four cars, we may wind up with only nine or ten teams in the race. I think we ought to limit the entry list to not more than two cars of the same make."

"I don't believe we have anything to worry about along that line," said Newby. "A lot of companies are just beginning to find out how much it costs to maintain a racing team. Several of them probably will concentrate on one good car, and some won't even be back next year because they know they haven't got a chance of winning.

"If we place a two-car limit on entries," he continued, "we might wind up with only twenty-four or twenty-five cars, and we don't want that to happen."

"It won't," said Fisher. "The fellows who are talking about dropping out of racing will get the fever again next spring."

"That may be true as far as the drivers are concerned," warned Newby. "But some of the men who make the decisions are company officials and bankers who never have been bitten by the racing bug."

"Still, we must give every company a fair chance to participate if it wants to do so," said Fisher. "We built the track as a proving ground for the entire industry and we'll be making a big mistake if we allow a few of the larger companies to dominate it."

Allison suggested a compromise: "Why don't we announce a two-car limit on entries and reserve the right to accept additional entries before the deadline next spring in case it looks as if we won't get at least thirty-three?"

"That suits me," said Newby. "It won't allow very much time to get additional cars ready, but it should bring in enough for a full field if we need them."

As it turned out, only 25 entries were on file by mid-April. National, Stutz, Mercedes, Case, and Lozier were represented by two cars each; and fifteen other companies had single entries in the field. Only Stutz and National took advantage of the opportunity to enter additional cars, each increasing its team to three.

Marmon was out of racing entirely because it already had more orders than it could fill during the next twelve months and did not want to risk losing the prestige gained in 1911. Buick officials, unhappy with the showing made by its team the previous year, also refrained from entering. Other prominent companies among the missing included Jackson, Amplex, Apperson, and Cole.

Although disappointing in numbers, the field was high in quality, and interest in the race was stimulated by the many changes in driver assignments.

The first Stutz had been completed barely in time to participate in the first "500." Gil Anderson, although never a serious contender in that event, had driven it to 11th place, and the rapidly expanding company had based its advertising campaign on that accomplishment, calling it "the car that made good in a day."

In preparation for the 1912 racing season, Harry C. Stutz lured Charley Merz and relief driver Len Zengel from the National stable as Anderson's teammates.

Johnny Aitken, named director of racing for National by Newby after announcing his intention of retiring as a driver, persuaded David Bruce-Brown and Joe Dawson to join Howdy Wilcox on the big blue cars.

Hughie Hughes remained with Mercer and Spencer Wishart with Mercedes. But Ralph Mulford shifted to Knox, Louis Disbrow and Eddie Hearne to Case, Teddy Tetzlaff to Fiat, Ralph DePalma to Mercedes, and Harry Knight to Lexington. Bob Burman had a new Cutting, built to his own specifications.

Aside from the problems encountered by the drivers while tuning their cars, their only major worry during the practice period was the steady accumulation of oil on the turns. Each car lost quarts of lubricant during every hundred miles of practice, and the bricks were becoming slicker every day.

Acting as a spokesman for the drivers, DePalma complained about this situation to AAA representative C. A. Sedwick and also wrote a letter to Wagner, the veteran starter who was to serve in the same capacity again. In describing the condition, DePalma said it looked as if several barrels of oil had been dumped on the track at each turn.

Wagner apparently jumped at the erroneous conclusion that the Speedway management actually had done this to get rid of the dust which collected in the crevices between the bricks. When he reached Indianapolis on May 24, he didn't know Sedwick had handled the problem promptly, making arrangements to have the track scrubbed with a strong lye solution. The job had been completed two days before Wagner arrived, and the drivers already were showing their complete satisfaction with the results by turning in several laps at almost 90 miles an hour.

Bristling with indignation, Wagner stormed into Fisher's office without going to the Speedway to make a personal inspection.

"I want you to know right now," said Wagner, "that if you don't get every drop of oil off the track by next Thursday, there isn't going to be any race."

"What!" exclaimed the amazed Fisher.

"You heard me. And I don't care how much it costs you to get the job done."

"You don't know what you're talking about," said Fisher. "The track is in better shape now than—"

"Maybe you can fool others into thinking so," interrupted Wagner, "but you can't fool me or the drivers. According to DePalma it's sheer suicide to try to run faster than sixty miles an hour."

"Get out of here until you know what you're talking about," ordered Fisher.

"You can't talk to me like that," screamed Wagner.

"The hell I can't!" shouted Fisher. "As far as you're concerned, the only thing I can't do is fire you. You're on the list of approved AAA officials and it's too late for me to keep you from flagging the race next Thursday. But, by God, it's your last race at Indianapolis. Now get out of here before I throw you out."

Wagner slammed the door behind him and headed for the track. The breach might have been healed if Wagner had apologized after learning conditions were not as he had assumed. But the insult of being ordered from Fisher's office was more than he could swallow. In retaliation, he attempted to sabotage Fisher's plans to pace the race with a Stutz passenger car.

Time trials were held on Monday, May 27, with several hundred spectators paying 25 cents each for the privilege of watching their favorite drivers qualify for the race. As in 1911, the Speedway had assigned car numbers and starting positions as entries were received, but all cars had to average at least 75 miles for a full lap in order to clinch a place in the starting line-up. Twenty-four passed the test easily, Brown's National topping the list by showing a speed of 88.45 miles an hour. Lee Oldfield's underpowered 243-inch Mason was the only one to fail, although two other entries were withdrawn because they were not in condition to run.

Wagner called a meeting of the 24 successful drivers at the Claypool Hotel the same night. After reviewing the meaning of the various signal flags and discussing other details of race-day procedure, he announced that the race would be started without a pace car.

"I want you to select someone in the front row to act as your pacemaker," he told them. The balloting resulted in a tie between Anderson and DePalma with Tetzlaff also getting a few votes. Because some drivers already had left the room before the result was announced, it was impossible to ballot again.

The following morning, when Fisher was informed of what had taken place, he didn't even give Wagner the satisfaction of showing his concern. Instead, he talked with Wagner's AAA superiors. The matter was dropped immediately, and the Stutz pace car was the first in position on the track the morning of the race.

All 24 drivers in the starting field were veterans. Sixteen of them had been behind a wheel at the beginning of the 1911 event. Two others, Len Zengel and Eddie Rickenbacker, had participated in that race as relief drivers. Bert Dingley, with no commitments to keep him in California this time, was one of the favorites.

The usual traffic congestion prevailed on the overhead bridges as starting time neared. But late arrivals among the crowd of 90,000 managed to reach the spacious infield parking area without delay by using a new tunnel built under the track at the south end of Grandstand C.

With all other cars in starting position, Disbrow's Case still was missing from the outside spot of the front row because of a late decision to change gear ratios. Cars assigned to positions behind the Case were ordered to advance one notch to fill the vacancy, with the understanding that Disbrow could start in last place if the work was completed in time. He made it with less than a minute to spare.

At the completion of the pace lap, Tetzlaff sent his red Fiat into the lead with DePalma, Wishart, Dingley, Dawson, and Wilcox close behind. Brown, Hughes, and Mulford worked their way up through the field to join this advance contingent before the end of the second lap.

Running at 85 miles an hour, DePalma and Wishart both passed Tetzlaff on lap No. 4. Brown also overtook the Fiat two laps later and the three leaders engaged in a thrilling hub-to-hub battle for the next 20 miles as they pulled away from their rivals.

Members of the pit crews, wondering how long the tires and engines could stand such a terrific strain, soon had the answer: Wishart was forced to stop for new rubber after completing only 35 miles, and Brown's National developed piston trouble a few minutes later.

DePalma discovered he could reduce his speed approximately three miles an hour and still increase his advantage over the field by a second or two each lap. It wasn't long until the crowd was figuring his lead in minutes rather than seconds, and he was two full laps in front at the 250-mile mark. Tetzlaff, Hughes, Dawson, Burman and Merz occupied the next five positions.

Following Harroun's example of the previous year, Dawson relinquished the wheel to relief driver Don Herr and relaxed in the National pit for almost an hour. Then, thoroughly refreshed, he resumed his pursuit of the leaders with instructions to forget about DePalma and concentrate on grabbing second place. That turned out to be less difficult than Dawson anticipated, due to pit stops by Tetzlaff and Hughes. The pressure from behind was eased when Burman flipped with a tire failure.

With only 100 miles to go Dawson found himself five full laps behind DePalma but firmly entrenched in second place with an advantage of a full lap or more on all rivals. Spectators began to lose interest in the race because they were so sure of the outcome. Some even left their seats and headed for the exits as DePalma completed his 190th lap with the confidence and ease of a certain winner.

But as his big Mercedes entered the home stretch on lap 195, it was moving at reduced speed. It left an unbroken trail of oil as it passed the grandstands, and the rhythmic roar of the engine had changed to a noisy clatter as if it were pounding itself to pieces.

Dawson's pit crew, snapping out of its lethargy with fresh hope of victory, grabbed its blackboard. Aitken made two quick strokes with the chalk and held the board high above his head: GO. In a matter of only seconds, Dawson was abreast of DePalma and could see for himself that the leader was in serious mechanical trouble.

Thankful for his big lead, and hoping against hope that the engine would provide power for four more laps, DePalma nursed the ailing Mercedes through the turns and down the straightaways. He knew from experience that a connecting rod had broken and had torn a hole in the crankcase. Emergency repairs were impossible. But three of the four cylinders still were functioning and probably would continue to provide power until loss of oil caused the engine to "freeze" from excessive friction heat. The speed of the Mercedes dropped to 60 and then to 50 and finally to 40 miles an hour as DePalma completed lap 198. Dawson, now only three laps behind and charging toward the front at full throttle—more than twice as fast—brought the remaining crowd to its feet with his daring performance on the turns.

A hub-to-hub finish after 500 torturing miles seemed inevitable. But the damaged and oil-starved Mercedes engine wasn't equal to the task. Like a huge beast with a bullet hole in its lung, it struggled onward for another three-quarters of a lap before gasping its final breath at the start of the northwest turn, less than a mile from the finish line.

For several seconds DePalma sat motionless, hands on the wheel, thinking of the $20,000 purse and the fame which had eluded him by such a narrow margin. Finally, with a shrug of his shoulders, he turned to his Australian riding mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins—relief driver for Howard Hall at Indianapolis the previous year—and said: "I guess it's time to start walking, and we might as well take the car with us."

As the jubilant Dawson roared by them on his 197th lap, they started to push the Mercedes through the turn and down the home stretch. Even before they came abreast of the first grandstand, the big National had completed the three remaining laps it was required to negotiate in order to win. DePalma, head down and eyes on the ground, a picture of complete dejection, could hear the victory cheers for the crowd's home-town favorite.

Nine other cars still were running in the race for subordinate honors, and DePalma kept the Mercedes close to the inside edge of the track as he trudged down the straightaway. Jeffkins was at the tail of the car, pushing with both hands. DePalma walked alongside the car, pushing with his right hand and steering with his left as they came into view of the spectators.

Only a few fans noticed him at first: most of the throng was intent on the Dawson celebration at the finish line. But a steadily increasing murmur of voices swept through the stands. It grew into a cheering roar with a thundering accompaniment of applause. With the instinct of a born showman, DePalma raised his head and acknowledged the ovation with a wave of his right hand. Then, body erect, chin out, and a smile on his face, he paced off the remaining 600 yards to win acclaim as one of the most famous losers of all time.

After posing for pictures and accepting the congratulations of his pit crew, Dawson was quick to take advantage of the attention showered on DePalma and the excitement caused by another flare-up of the Fisher-Wagner feud at the starting line. The twenty-two-year-old winner climbed into his personal car and drove straight to his home at 2828 North Illinois Street, where he knew his mother would be waiting. She had resisted all of his urging to be at the track to see him win.

He ran up the steps, embraced her on the front porch and exclaimed: "Now are you convinced I'm really a good race driver?"

Laughing and crying simultaneously, she answered with a question of her own: "Joe, did you get any bumps or bruises?"

"I never felt better in my life," he answered. "But, gee, I'm hungry."

It was only a matter of minutes until she had a hearty dinner on the table. But friends and newspaper reporters began to arrive before they were finished eating, and Joe slipped out the back door.

He boarded a trolley and 20 minutes later was enjoying the quiet and refreshment of a steam bath at the Y.M.C.A., where he had done all of his pre-race conditioning. Then, savoring an expensive cigar, he strolled through the dusk to his home two miles away.

Race-day activities at the track finally were drawing to a close at about the same hour, after one of the most turbulent scenes in Speedway history. Fisher had posted prize money for the first 12 cars to finish the race and only nine still were running after Dawson had been given the checkered flag. Tetzlaff, Hughes, Merz, Bill Endicott, Zengel, Johnny Jenkins, Joe Horan, and Wilcox finished in that order at intervals ranging from two to ten minutes.

As Wilcox completed his 200th lap in ninth place, the only car still circling the track was Mulford's big Knox. Handicapped by serious clutch trouble, Mulford had made numerous pit stops—including two of more than 35 minutes each. He had more than 100 miles to go and Wagner suggested that he be flagged off the course.

"Why not bring him in and concede him tenth place?" he asked Fisher, "then we can call it a day."

"How would you like to have the job of telling DePalma he gets nothing for running 495 miles, while Mulford gets $1,200 for going only about three-quarters of that distance?" replied Fisher. "We've offered cash prizes for the first twelve cars to go the full 500 miles and if Mulford expects to collect for tenth place he'll have to earn it."

"You don't believe in giving away any more money than is absolutely necessary, do you?"

"Wait a minute," shouted Fisher, angrily grabbing Wagner's arm. "We offered $50,000 in prize money and we are going to pay $50,000 in prize money. But we don't intend to give it away just so we can go home early.

"Instead of saying things you may be sorry for later," added Fisher, "you can tell every entrant right now that all prize money not earned today will be pooled and prorated by the lap to all drivers who failed to go the full distance."

Mulford had stopped for fuel while the argument was in progress, and Carl walked over to the Knox pit to explain the Speedway's position in regard to the prize money. Mulford decided to continue and quickly resumed circling the big oval. For almost an hour and a half he cruised along in front of the almost-empty grandstands at speeds in the neighborhood of 60 miles an hour. Even Fisher and Wagner had left the grounds, going their separate ways.

Every muscle in Mulford's body began to protest—mildly at first, but with increasing intensity. The mental strain also began to tell on him. A few minutes after six o'clock, with the grandstands casting long shadows across the main straightaway, he decided he could stand it no longer. Coasting to his pit, he told his crew, "I've had enough. Push the car back to the garage."

"You can't quit now, Ralph," they urged. "You've only got seventeen laps to go and you'd be crazy not to grab off that $1,200."

"I don't care," he replied. "Let 'em keep it. I'm too tired to drive one more lap."

"Here, have some fried chicken," said one of the mechanics, producing part of a box lunch. "I saved it for you."

"Get out and stretch your legs," advised one of the minor officials. "We're not in any hurry."

"Okay, okay," said Mulford. "If that's the way you feel about it, I'll go the rest of the way. But change the shock absorbers to give me a softer ride."

Twenty minutes later he climbed back behind the wheel. Almost nine hours after the start of the race Mulford got the checkered flag that signified the official end of the longest "500" in Speedway history. Tenth prize of $1,200 was his.

Prize money for 11th and 12th positions, totaling $2,100, was distributed as consolation awards to the 14 drivers who failed to finish. They received $1.9213 for each lap completed. To Len Ormsby went the dubious honor of collecting the smallest cash prize ever paid by the Speedway management—$9.61 for his five trips around the course. DePalma's share was only $380.42. Unlike Ormsby, however, Ralph was destined to try again with much greater success.

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