10. Track Reopens After World War I

A quick survey indicated that enough new cars—including a few from Europe—could be completed in time to assure a full 1919 field with the addition of all 1916 leftovers still in running condition. That was all the information Fisher needed to launch an all-out promotional campaign to regain the Memorial Day spotlight.

Homer McKee, Fred Wellman, Paul Richey, Henry Knippenberg II, and Bruce Daniels started the publicity rolling. But the first announcement of preparations for the 1919 event brought an unexpected development which caused Fisher to huddle with his associates immediately. A few politicians attacked the race as "unpatriotic" and "a desecration of the one day in the year which should be devoted exclusively to the memory of our war dead."

"I don't believe such tactics will keep anyone away from the Speedway next May 30," said Fisher. "But maybe we ought to change the date anyway. We're in a fortunate position because Memorial Day falls on a Friday next year. We probably can draw an even bigger crowd by holding the race on Saturday, May 31, and no one will have any reason to criticize us. Because 1920 will be leap year, Memorial Day will fall on Sunday, and we can race on Saturday or Monday."

Everyone favored the suggestion and also a return to the 500-mile distance with a purse of $50,000. It was necessary to comb the country for cars to make sure of a full field of 33, for the number of entries from across the Atlantic fell far below expectations. They consisted of two British Sunbeams, withdrawn in early May because they couldn't be completed in time, and four new four-cylinder French Ballots assigned to René Thomas, Albert Guyot, Louis Wagner, and Paul Bablot.

The Chevrolet brothers built four new four-cylinder Frontenacs; the Hudson factory entered five new six-cylinder cars; and the Duesenberg brothers completed two new eights, which were entered along with two of their 1916 four-cylinder cars to form another formidable team. DePalma entered a twelve-cylinder Packard.

Four cars owned by the Speedway—two Peugeots and two Premiers—were in good running condition when removed from storage; and capable replacements were found for Aitken and Rickenbacker. Johnny had died of influenza in 1918, and Rick, who had made the trip to France as a wartime chauffeur with General "Black Jack" Pershing's staff, now was Captain E. V. Rickenbacker, America's ace of aces. With Pershing's approval, he had joined the Air Force at the earliest possible opportunity, completed the three-month training in five weeks, and shot down 26 enemy aircraft during the remaining days of the war.

Because the Peugeots and Premiers were of similar design, Jules Goux accepted Fisher's attractive offer to visit America again and prepare all four cars with Howdy Wilcox. One of the Peugeot engines was damaged beyond repair during practice, but it was replaced with the power plant from one of the Premiers. So the Speedway was represented in the race by three of its own cars; George Buzane drove the third one.

Earl Cooper entered his 1915 Stutz, and Gil Anderson's "sister car," purchased by a wealthy young sportsman, Cliff Durant, was entered as a Durant Special with Eddie Hearne as the driver. Three other Peugeots of pre-war vintage and a number of privately owned cars of questionable performance, bearing names which meant nothing to the average race fan, completed the official list.

Because of numerous business opportunities offered him, Rick had no thought of resuming his career as a race driver, but he accepted Fisher's invitation to serve as referee of the Liberty Sweepstakes, which were shaping up even better than the Speedway management had anticipated. Thomas, winner of the "500" in 1914, drove one of the new Ballots to a track record of 104.780 miles an hour to win the pole position. Wagner, in another Ballot, was almost as fast. All four Frontenacs won positions near the head of the starting line-up with speeds of better than 100 miles an hour. DePalma and Tommy Milton, the new captain of the Duesenberg team by virtue of the ability and competitive urge he had displayed in his own Mercer on the dirt tracks, also were ranked among the pre-race favorites.

But the race itself developed into one of endurance rather than speed long before the 300-mile mark was reached. Tragic accidents claimed three lives—the first deaths recorded in competition at the Speedway since 1911—and members of the technical committee headed by Chester Ricker, who also served as director of timing and scoring, were kept busy checking on the specific causes of more than 60 pit stops due to mechanical ailments alone. Ignition trouble, oil leaks, ruptured fuel tanks, faulty radiator connections, broken steering knuckles and cracked hubs all began to take their total after a sizzling battle between DePalma and Louis Chevrolet for the early lead at speeds well in excess of 90 miles an hour.

The death toll was almost raised to four by one of the most unusual accidents in racing history, a mishap which probably was not seen in its entirety by a single spectator although it involved the leader of the race and occurred on the main straightaway in plain view of a large part of the huge throng in the grandstands.

Chevrolet's Frontenac lost one of its wire wheels when the right rear hub broke as he was completing his 74th lap. There was an audible sigh of relief from the crowd as he kept the car between the walls and headed for his pit. But a sharp edge of the broken hub, dragging on the track, snapped the thin electric timing wire stretched across the bricks at the start-and-finish line. The severed ends of the wire lashed through the air. One end caught Elmer Shannon under the chin as he swerved his own car to avoid hitting the crippled Frontenac. An artery in his neck was severed as if by a surgeon's knife.

Later, he said he had experienced a sensation which seemed no more serious than a bee sting. But the front of his uniform shirt suddenly was saturated with his own blood and he could feel the strength ebb from his hands and arms. With the help of his riding mechanic, he succeeded in completing the next lap before blacking out as he brought the car to a stop at his own pit. Only quick work by his crew saved him from bleeding to death before he could be rushed to the emergency hospital.

Chevrolet resumed the race after a 20-minute stop for repairs, but never was a contender for the lead again. DePalma's chances faded quickly after he had regained first place as the result of the accident: front wheel bearing failure forced him to make a 15-minute stop as he completed the 102nd lap (255 miles). Wilcox, driving steadily from the start, was in position to take command. The two four-year-old Stutz cars driven by Hearne and Cooper were next in order, but both lacked the speed to challenge the leader, and Cooper's chances of even finishing were jeopardized by valve trouble. He lost ground steadily and finally placed 12th as Wilcox breezed across the finish line in his Speedway-owned car with a lead of almost four minutes over Hearne. Goux finished third, five minutes farther back, in the Speedway's second Peugeot. Guyot was fourth at the wheel of the only Ballot destined to share in the prize money. The winner's average was a disappointing 88.050 miles an hour. DePalma's 1915 record of 89.840 still was unbroken.

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