For the first time since the purchase of ground for the Speedway almost six years earlier, the 1914 receipts warranted payment of a cash dividend. Fisher credited the steadily mounting interest in the event to the influx of European contestants and made plans early in June to visit the Continent with his wife in an effort to persuade an even greater number of international stars to enter the 1915 race. Hardly had they reached Paris, however, before the advance rumbling of World War I made a quick return to the United States advisable.
By midsummer, all of the European participants in the 1914 Indianapolis Classic were in uniform except René Thomas, who had to be content with a civilian task—repairing French army vehicles—after being rejected for military service.
The outlook for another strong field was far from bright, and the Speedway's earlier announcement of a cut in engine size from 450 to 300 cubic inches—a concession to the trend on the Continent—proved to be a definite hardship on some American companies.
When entries closed the following April, the official list consisted of 31 American products and 10 from Europe—including a Peugeot which Burman had purchased and entered as a Burman Special after modifying it to some degree. Three factory Peugeots, three Sunbeams, one Bugatti, a privately owned Mercedes (the property of E. C. Patterson) assigned to Ralph DePalma, and Thomas's 1914 Delage formed the European contingent. The Delage was not regarded as a serious threat, however, because its original piston displacement had been cut almost 20 per cent in order to make it eligible under the new specifications. Although John DePalma, Ralph's younger brother, did manage to qualify it for a starting position, it was one of the first cars out of the race.
Harry Grant, Jean Porporato, and Noel Van Raalte formed the Sunbeam team. The Peugeot factory cars were handled by Jack Le Cain, G. C. Babcock, and the intrepid Dario Resta—fresh from his victory in the Vanderbilt Cup race. Oldfield, who had agreed to drive the Bugatti, experienced so much mechanical trouble he relinquished the car to J. R. Hill; and he was a spectator on race day after failing in his efforts to negotiate a last-minute contract with Maxwell and Sunbeam.
The month of May was one of repeated disappointments for most of the American entries. All three of the new Mercers finally were withdrawn after a series of connecting rod failures. Willie Haupt's Bergdoll Specials and at least half a dozen other privately owned cars failed to attain qualifying speed.
Only the Stutz, Duesenberg and Maxwell teams appeared capable of repelling the European invasion; and the time trials demonstrated clearly that the Stutz team of Howdy Wilcox, Gil Anderson, and Earl Cooper constituted America's principal threat. Eddie Rickenbacker, shifting his allegiance from Duesenberg to Maxwell, had Willie Carlson and Tom Orr as his teammates. Ralph Mulford, Tom Alley, and Eddie O'Donnell formed the Duesenberg trio.
For the first time, starting positions on race day were to be determined by the speed shown on the official one-lap qualification attempts, and the popular DePalma apparently clinched the No. 1 spot "on the pole" early with a 98.6 mph average. In view of the reduced piston displacement, this was regarded as a remarkable accomplishment, not likely to be surpassed, and that belief was strengthened when Resta's best effort was 98.5 mph. But Wilcox, who came by his nickname of "Cocky" honestly, wasn't willing to concede a thing.
Eying the $200 diamond tiepin Mr. Stutz was wearing, Wilcox leaned far out of the cockpit and asked, "Is it worth that diamond pin for me to put this car on the pole?"
"And the best steak dinner in town to boot," answered the car owner.
Without another word, Wilcox threw the car into gear and was off. Slithering around the turns faster than he had ever negotiated them in practice, he roared across the finish line at 98.9 miles an hour. When Howdy braked the car to a stop in front of his pit, Mr. Stutz greeted him with stickpin in hand. Jabbing it through the pocket of his driver's shirt, he shouted, "That's the best deal I ever made in my life."
Four days of almost steady rain followed Sunday's program of time trials. The track was dry enough to permit practice for only brief intervals, and the southwest corner of the grounds was flooded Friday morning as the result of another heavy downpour Thursday night.
"Only a miracle will permit us to run as scheduled tomorrow14 and the forecast is for still more rain," Fisher told his associates at a hurriedly called conference. "Some of the roads leading into the city are under water. People planning to drive to the race may not be able to get through. Those who do will be mad as hell if they have to remain here until Monday—and the chances are a thousand to one that conditions will be worse tomorrow than they are today.
"I'm in favor of announcing a postponement immediately. I've already checked with the railroads and learned that most of the special trains, including those from Detroit and Chicago, can be held up for forty-eight hours. How about it?"
There was no dissenting voice. Announcement of the postponement was made at 10 o'clock on Friday morning, 24 hours ahead of the scheduled starting time. But many fans already were en route, leaving their homes before having a chance to read of the decision in their evening papers. By late afternoon, on Saturday, downtown Indianapolis was a mass of humanity seeking a place to sleep. With the realization that every hotel bed already was assigned, hundreds of visitors went from door to door in the residential areas of the city until they found a sympathetic homeowner willing to give them shelter.
Sunday brought with it an acute food shortage. With their reserve supplies exhausted, many restaurants closed their doors. The few grocery stores open on Sundays soon sold out of cheese and crackers and lunch meat and cookies.
But as the skies began to clear about noon, the crowd's interest again shifted to the Speedway. Fisher arranged an airground race between aviator DeLloyd Thompson in a tiny biplane and Oldfield at the wheel of Anderson's Stutz. Thompson also gave a thrilling aerial acrobatic show. DePalma and some of the other favorites demonstrated quick tire changes. Many spectators visited the new building, which provided garage space for 30 of the entrants; others inspected the new grandstand (G) on the southeast turn.
A gala atmosphere prevailed throughout the afternoon and still was evident on Monday morning, despite a chilly dampness in the air and threatening clouds overhead as starting time approached.
The expected dual between DePalma and Resta was slow to develop. Wilcox and Anderson, driving the sturdy Stutz cars, dominated the first 80 miles of the race before the results of excessive tire wear became apparent. When Resta surged to the front at the start of the next lap, however, DePalma was right on his tail.
From that moment, it was a two-car race. Five stops for tires, compared with two each for Resta and DePalma, ruined Anderson's chances. Wilcox lost ground steadily because of a broken valve spring. Ignition trouble eliminated Rickenbacker. Cooper made a strong showing late in the race, but had lost too much time with a broken wheel (his Stutz had been crowded against the new concrete wall on the inside of the turns); he never was a serious contender for first place.
The two leaders performed as if they were playing tag with each other until Resta experienced steering trouble with 165 miles to go. He abandoned hope of catching DePalma in order to concentrate on protecting second place.
The driver of the Mercedes, however, almost experienced the same heartbreaking disappointment which had been his lot in 1912. Again, this time with three laps to go, a connecting rod broke. The jagged end punched a hole in the crankcase, draining the engine of its oil. But the other three cylinders continued to function long enough for DePalma to get the checkered flag by a margin of 3 minutes and 29 seconds over Resta. Anderson was five minutes farther back. Next in order came Cooper, Eddie O'Donnell in a Duesenberg, Burman, and Wilcox.
DePalma drove the crippled Mercedes straight to his garage and locked the doors. But he emerged almost immediately with his arm around the shoulders of his mechanic to receive the congratulations of jubilant admirers. His record-breaking victory came at an average speed of 89.84 miles an hour. After four straight years of team victories, a single privately owned entry had succeeded in winning without direct factory support.
Four weeks later, while DePalma rested on his laurels, Resta outclassed all rivals to win the inaugural 500-mile race on Chicago's new two-mile board track and set the stage for a resumption of their rapidly developing feud in the 1916 Indianapolis Classic. It failed to materialize only because Fisher had the courage to call DePalma's bluff at a crucial period in the history of automobile racing.
Before turning his attention to plans for the following year, the Speedway president grudgingly complied with Mrs. Fisher's urgings to take a more active part in the social life of Indianapolis. Together they attended several special events at the Hawthorn Tennis Club on Central Avenue, north of Fall Creek. On one of these occasions, a determined schoolboy in knee pants attracted Carl's attention with the skill and tenacity he exhibited in defeating the able and experienced George Denney.
When Fisher inquired as to the lad's identity, Jack Eagelsfield and Charlie Trask informed him he was watching young Johnny Hennessey, who had all of the potential requisites of a future national champion if he could devote sufficient time to improving his game. "But he'll probably never make the grade," added Jack. "His father has been dead for several years and, even if it wasn't necessary for him to work at odd jobs each summer to earn part of his own spending money, we don't have enough good tennis weather in this part of the country."
Within two weeks, Johnny had a job at Prest-O-Lite for the remainder of the summer and Gus Boland was hard at work on the task of building a glass-enclosed tennis court adjacent to Fisher's attractive home on Cold Springs Road at the west edge of Riverside park. Hennessey, destined to play on America's Davis Cup team for three straight years, beginning in 1927, soon was matching strokes regularly during the winter months with the top talent available—and winning with increasing frequency.
Fisher often participated in such contests, particularly in doubles play. Before going on the court, he always emptied his pockets and the contents invariably included a sizable roll of "folding money." At the end of the match, he never failed to ask Johnny how he was "fixed" for spending money and Hennessey always "could use a little."
"Help yourself," Fisher would reply. Johnny would remove the rubber band from Fisher's "roll," which never included anything less than a five-dollar bill, and detach a single "five-spot."
"Okay, Mr. Fisher?" he'd ask, holding it in plain view. Carl would nod his consent and Johnny would pocket the one banknote, rolling up the remainder of the money and replacing it on the table in its original position to complete the "ritual" which never varied in a single detail.
The construction of other major tracks throughout the United States made it imperative for the Indianapolis promoters to establish some type of working agreement to avoid 1916 schedule conflicts. Formation of a universal policy governing promoter-participant relations also was desirable. Fisher himself was interested financially in the new track being built at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., and had accepted the presidency of that corporation.15 Wheeler was involved to an even greater extent in the new Twin Cities Speedway at Minneapolis, Minnesota. At Fisher's instigation, the representatives of these three tracks—and those at Chicago, Omaha, Sioux City and Tacoma—formed the Speedway Association of America with Sedwick as president.
Taking this action by the promoters as their own cue, most of the prominent drivers of that day organized the Automotive Drivers' Protective Association for the purpose of obtaining adequate insurance and instituting additional safety measures. Four veterans—Oldfield, Cooper, Grant, and Burman—served on the first board of directors with Louis Erbs.
Fearful that increased racing activity might result in reduced prize money per race, the drivers indicated a desire to negotiate that matter with the Speedway Association. Before any formal request of that kind was made, however, the AAA Contest Board conferred with promoters and announced that minimum purses for all championship events on tracks of more than one mile in length would be on the basis of $100 per mile.
The scheduling of major attractions for 1916 was accomplished with complete harmony. But one gigantic question mark remained: As the conflict on the battlefields of Europe continued with increased intensity, and as American automobile manufacturers continued to display diminishing interest in competitive events, what did the future hold in store for the sport of automobile racing? Other promoters worried. Fisher alone had the foresight and aggressiveness to act.
"If the war in Europe doesn't end soon," Fisher told his associates, "we'll be lucky to have fifteen cars here next May unless we do something about it now. We can buy 'em or we can build 'em; and I'm in favor of buying five or six of the best cars in Europe. The fans are interested in international competition."
"It would be a lot cheaper to buy them," said Allison. "After bringing them across the Atlantic, we might be able to get our money out of them by selling them to our American friends."
Newby and Wheeler approved the idea, but the only cars obtainable were two Peugeots; these arrived in New York by freighter on September 3. Disappointed but still determined to ensure a representative field for the 1916 race, Fisher then commissioned the Premier company to build three almost identical cars.
He also moved quickly when the Maxwell company announced it was withdrawing its racing team from competition in order to concentrate on building military vehicles. Although Newby and Wheeler expressed the opinion that the two Peugeots and three Premiers were "adequate protection," Fisher and Allison formed a separate Prest-O-Lite racing team by purchasing the two Maxwells which still were in good running condition.
"I'd like to have you continue as team captain and take care of all the maintenance work on the cars," Fisher told Rickenbacker.
"What kind of a deal do you have in mind?" asked the veteran driver.
"I haven't given it much thought. I didn't buy 'em with the idea of making any money. The main thing I want to do is make sure they'll keep on running. Tell you what I'll do. I'll give you 50 per cent of the prize money and pay all expenses if you'll take care of Henderson [the other driver] out of your cut; or I'll give you 75 per cent, if you're willing to maintain them at your expense. How about it?"
"I'd rather gamble with you," said Rickenbacker. "I'll take the 75 per cent and guarantee to keep them in running condition." Only "Rick" knows how profitable this arrangement was, but his friends believe he cleared more than $50,000 in 12 months. He scored two major victories, at Sheepshead Bay and Tacoma, and placed well in four other big races. Henderson finished among the top 10 in seven AAA championship events.
Fisher's early analysis of wartime developments proved to be amazingly accurate as preparations for the 1916 Indianapolis Classic were launched under the direction of "Pop" Myers, who had been elevated to general manager because of the increasing amount of time Fisher devoted to the Miami Beach project. P. P. Willis, the track's new press chief, found it hard to sell the fans on the Speedway's decision to cut the race from 500 miles to 300. But that action had been taken for several reasons. The importance of the "500" figure as a drawing card had been dissipated by races of the same distance in the Midwest at Chicago and Twin Cities. For two years, a noisy minority of the cash customers at Indianapolis had been expressing a preference for shorter races: it was their contention that as much exciting action could be packed into a three-hour event. The same opinion had been expressed editorially by several automotive publications when the Twin Cities race failed due to poor attendance.
"If the spectators believe they'll enjoy a shorter race," Fisher told his associates, "I'm in favor of giving it to 'em. In the first place, we can't count on much in the way of new equipment except for the cars Louie and Art Chevrolet are building, one or two Duesenbergs, and our own Premiers. All of the foreign cars in this country are at least two years old. Even if the war ends tomorrow, there isn't time for the Europeans to build new ones. The equipment is likely to break up early, and I'll be surprised if we have as many as ten cars in the field capable of going 500 miles.
"Attendance may be down 15 or 20 per cent because of the war scare," he added, "but I doubt if anyone will stay away simply because we reduce the length of the race. And don't forget that we can save $20,000 in prize money and still comply with the $100-per-mile standard established by the Contest Board by deciding on 300 miles. If the customers don't like the 300, we can always go back to the full 500-mile distance the following year."
A corner of the Allison Engineering Company, which was building marine engines to be used in speedboat competition, was turned over to the Speedway cars and their crews. While Rick concentrated on the Maxwells, Aitken supervised the work on the Peugeots and Premiers. Without them, it probably would have been necessary for the management to call off the race, because only 19 other cars were entered, and some of them were of doubtful quality.
Fisher showed little concern over the shortage of entries as the deadline neared. "We'll have enough to put on a good show," he declared. But he blew his top when DePalma sent word he would not participate unless the Speedway paid him "appearance money." A close friend of DePalma's had brought the news to the Speedway office in early April.
"Ralph knows he's the greatest drawing card in racing today," said the intermediary. "He's worth at least an extra $20,000 at the gate on May 30, and he believes he should be paid at least 25 per cent of that amount in addition to whatever prize money he wins."
When "Pop" confirmed DePalma's attitude by telephone and reported to Fisher, the Speedway president's angry outburst turned the air blue. "Who in hell does he think he is?" Carl shouted. "Nobody has made more money out of the sport than he has. If he thinks he can get grabby because he has us over a barrel, he's got another guess coming. Tell him that if a $30,000 purse isn't enough to bring him here, we don't want him.
"No, don't tell him anything," Fisher reconsidered, getting a good grip on his temper. "Just ignore him and let him sweat it out for a while. He'll come in at the last minute. Where else can he run on May 30 for $30,000?"
When the other three Speedway stockholders learned of the situation, Wheeler urged acceptance of DePalma's terms: "We need every good car and driver we can get to stimulate interest," he declared. "Pop tells me ticket sales are off, and we might be headed toward another Twin Cities flop. I think he's worth every dollar of what he's asking."
"Do you have any idea of what will happen if we pay him as much as one nickel?" Fisher challenged. "We'll wind up paying through the nose from now on—not only to DePalma, but to every other prominent driver. It would wreck the Speedway and every track in the country. I'd rather lock the gates right now and call off the race. We don't need DePalma or anyone else that much."
"Racing is too big to be seriously damaged by the actions of one driver," declared Newby. "But we might be in for a lot of trouble if word gets around about Ralph's demands. The smart thing to do is let him sit and not say anything to anybody—particularly the newspapers."
Allison agreed, but the news already had started to leak out through a few of DePalma's friends. Oldfield, another veteran who had not yet entered, heard of the holdout tactics and brought his signed entry form to the Speedway office personally.
"I didn't mail this to you," he said, showing it to Fisher, "because there's a report making the rounds that DePalma is asking appearance money. If that's the case, I want some, too. But I'm ready to run for the regular purse if everybody else does."
"Nobody ever will get any appearance money at the Speedway as long as I'm running it," said Fisher. "We're putting on a contest, not a barnstorming show. But if it'll make you feel any better, I'll write a special clause on your entry stipulating that you will be paid appearance money equal to the amount paid DePalma or any other participant."
"Hell, Carl, that's not necessary," said Barney, tossing his entry on Fisher's desk. "Your word is good enough for me. Count me in."
Two days after entries had closed officially, Pop showed Fisher a telegram from DePalma asking permission to file a post-entry for his Mercedes.
"It wouldn't be fair to the other fellows to let him in now," growled the Speedway president. "He's acted like a jackass. As far as I'm concerned he can stay home and rot."
Of the 26 official entries, only 22 reached the Speedway in May, and one of those—Louis Chevrolet's Frontenac—cracked a cylinder during his qualifying run. He commandeered another Frontenac which had been qualified by Joe Boyer. But neither that car nor the one with Art Chevrolet as driver was regarded as a real threat: they hadn't had time to work out all the "bugs."
Two of the three Delages owned by Harry Harkness were wrecked at Sheepshead Bay, and D'Alene's year-old Duesenberg was the only one of that three-car stable ready for the race. Like the Frontenacs, Chandler's three new Crawfords and the Speedway's three Premiers experienced repeated mechanical difficulties in practice. Only Mulford's privately owned Peugeot, the Speedway's two Peugeots, two Maxwells, Oldfield's Delage, D'Alene's Duesenberg, and Christiaens's Sunbeam were conceded much of a chance of beating the heavily favored Resta.
Aitken managed to win the pole position in one of the Speedway cars with an average speed of 95.95 miles an hour, but Resta was only a fraction slower.
The race was all Resta's after the first 30 minutes. Rick led for the first 10 laps and Aitken for the next seven, to give the crowd of 85,000 some early excitement. Then Resta went to the front and never relinquished his lead. He was more than a lap ahead of all rivals at the 75-mile mark and enjoyed a lead of three full laps when he made his only pit stop after averaging 86.89 miles an hour for 175 miles. From that point, he coasted home at 80 miles an hour to win by two minutes over D'Alene.
Mulford was third, Christiaens fourth, Oldfield fifth and Rickenbacker sixth in Henderson's Maxwell. Only five other cars finished, and they trailed the winner by more than 20 minutes.
For the third straight year the Speedway's financial condition permitted payment of a dividend, and part of the profits from the race was used to purchase the Chenoweth farm adjoining the track on the east. At the annual meeting in June, Fisher proposed a series of races in September.
"If the war in Europe continues—and I can't see any possibility of it ending soon—our country is sure to be involved," he declared. "When that happens, we'll have no choice except to suspend operations for the duration. We might be able to pick up a profit of $20,000 or more to tide us over."
His associates opposed the idea on the grounds that the racing schedule already was too crowded. But as usual, Carl finally won their approval. The Harvest Auto Racing Classic was scheduled for September 9 with a program consisting of a 20-mile race for $1,000, a 50-mile race for $2,000 and a 100-mile feature for $9,000. As an added attraction, marching units from Hoosier communities were invited to compete in a band tournament for silver trophies. Twenty-one organizations accepted.
The tremendous speeds attained during the Labor Day event on Cincinnati's board track, however, resulted in so many disabled engines that Fisher was lucky to have enough cars on hand for any kind of speed program. Twenty-one of 28 entrants failed to finish the Queen City "300" and only 16 were in running condition the following Saturday.
Prominent among the missing was DePalma's Mercedes, which had thrown a connecting rod through the crankcase. He had been one of the early entrants for the September 9 program in an effort to atone for his holdout tactics of the previous May, and he showed his sincerity by offering to drive any car Fisher could obtain for him. One of the Speedway-owned Peugeots was placed at Ralph's disposal and the unpleasantness of the previous spring was quickly forgotten.
Aitken, Wilcox, Rickenbacker, Henderson, and Dave Lewis were assigned to the other Speedway cars with two Sunbeams and a four-man Duesenberg team regarded as their only serious competition. Four individual entries of questionable quality completed the field.
No more than 10,000 spectators turned out for the show as Aitken made a clean sweep of all three events. But the Speedway did realize a small profit on the day's activities, and $5,900 of the $12,000 prize money was won by Speedway-owned cars.
Seven months later the United States was at war, and Fisher acted with characteristic swiftness. First he announced that the Speedway would suspend all racing activities, including the campaigning of its own cars. Then he offered the Speedway's facilities to the federal government for any purpose which would further its military efforts.
Almost overnight the Speedway was transformed into an aviation repair depot and a landing field for planes flying between Dayton, Ohio, and Rantoul, Illinois. Speedway acreage not required for that purpose was used to grow 48 acres of oats, 40 acres of wheat and 28 acres of timothy. The recently acquired Chenoweth Farm also was operated profitably. The only cars which ran on the Speedway for more than two years were 2,998 Marmon passenger cars, which were given their final pre-delivery tests on the famous oval. The Marmon company paid $1.25 per car for this privilege.
Taxes and maintenance costs, however, amounted to several times the track's income, and additional funds were necessary to keep the corporation solvent. As a last resort, Fisher proposed a 60 per cent cash assessment on all stock held by the four partners. Allison and Newby agreed. Wheeler, already hit hard by the loss of his investment in Twin Cities Speedway, which had been forced into receivership the previous year, lacked the necessary cash and sold his interest to Allison. Jim had suggested to Carl that they each buy half of Wheeler's stock with some of the profits they realized from the sale of the Prest-O-Lite company, but Fisher preferred to concentrate his full financial strength on the development of Miami Beach.
Despite pouring additional cash into an expansion program for the Allison Engineering Company, Jim still had the funds to swing the Wheeler deal himself. He remained in Indianapolis during the war years to keep an eye on his interests.
Carl was in Miami when the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918. He hurried home to plan for the resumption of racing the following spring.