12. Rickenbacker Succeeds Fisher

In an effort to curb the trend toward increased speed, race officials ordered a further reduction in piston displacement for 1926, stipulating that engines for the next four Indianapolis classics would be limited to not more than 91-1/2 cubic inches.

The Duesenberg brothers, now concentrating on the production of custom-built passenger cars, immediately entered a five-car team but waited too long to start work on the project. Only two were finished in time—for Pete DePaolo and Ben Jones.

Miller accepted the Speedway's challenge by expanding his staff and going into the racing equipment business on an even larger scale than before. He offered to build complete new front-drive race cars for $15,000, and complete new rear-drive cars for $10,000. He also made his new 91-1/2-inch engines available at a price of $6,000 to any owner who couldn't afford a complete new car; and at the same time designed a new crankshaft which would shorten the stroke of 122-inch engines so that they could be used again if desired.

It was a period of changing times for cars and drivers alike. Even Milton hung up his goggles and joined the earlier pioneers of the sport on the side lines. When he announced his retirement in Florida, however, on the eve of the inaugural race at a new board track near Miami Beach,21 he received a summons from Fisher.

"If you are sure you're through with racing as a driver, why don't you buy the Speedway?" asked Carl. "Jim and I haven't had any fun out of operating the track since our fight with the legislature.

"So far, our only offer has come from a group which wants to use the land for a real estate development. Because we believe the 500-mile race should be continued, we'd rather sell the track to you for $100,000 less than they offered and I'm sure you can get more than enough financial backing to swing the deal. It's a foolproof investment, because the property is increasing in value every year. How about it?"

Although taken by surprise, Milton gave his reply instantly. "I don't know a single thing about the responsibilities of a promoter," he said. "But if the Speedway is no longer fun for you, I'm sure it will be an even bigger headache for me. I'd rather put what money I've been able to save into your Montauk Beach project."

It was 18 months before Fisher extended a similar offer to another individual highly regarded in racing circles, but the "500" continued to grow in stature.

Among the newcomers to the Speedway for the 1926 event was a comparatively unknown youngster named Frank Lockhart, whose experience as a driver had been limited to California tracks. Unable to "get a ride" for the Indianapolis Classic, he had made a deal to help prepare Bennett Hill's Special for the race in exchange for round-trip transportation and the possibility of relieving Hill at the wheel. An unexpected break came on the first day of time trials when Pete Kreis took ill. Lockhart climbed into the cockpit for the 10-mile test and completed the first two laps at approximately 115 miles an hour. He kept the car off the wall when a tire failed and was given a second chance with new rubber. This time mechanical trouble ended his qualifying attempt, but he still had one more chance and was willing to heed Hill's advice.

"It's a wonderful feeling to qualify for a front-row starting position," said Hill. "But no one ever won this race on a time trial day. In this business it's three strikes and you're out. The only smart thing for you to do is run a comfortable ninety miles an hour to be sure of making the field, because there aren't thirty-three cars here in shape to qualify. You can do your racing on race day."

On his final effort, the young Californian averaged 95.78 miles an hour for a starting berth in the seventh row and devoted the remaining days before May 30 to making sure his car was in perfect condition.

Race fans ignored the threat of rain and poured through the gates in record numbers. Among them was "One-Eyed" Connelly, famous gate crasher, whose first act after entering the grounds without a ticket was to reveal his identity by peeling off his raincoat. Fancy stitching on the front of his green flannel shirt disclosed his name in big letters. On his back was this sign:

All gates I've crashed, I'm here to tell.
I'll crash St. Pete and then crash H...

A light shower at 9 A.M. caused referee Arthur Brisbane, who authored the widely read "Today" column, and other race officials to huddle for a discussion of procedure in case of a wet track at starting time. But 45 minutes of bright sunshine and a brisk wind enabled the race to get under way as scheduled.

While Hartz, Shafer, Lewis, and Duray battled for the early lead, Lockhart moved relentlessly toward the head of the pack. At the end of 20 laps, his determined surge had carried him into fifth place and 10 laps later he was running second to Lewis.

When Lewis stopped for tires after 59 laps, Lockhart took command. Twelve laps later a stray thundercloud dropped enough water on the track to make it too slippery for competition and all contestants were flagged to their respective pits to await developments, with a warning that automatic disqualification would be the penalty for any entrant whose crew so much as touched its car prior to the official continuation of the race.

Action finally was resumed an hour and 15 minutes later with the cars getting under way in single file order at intervals corresponding to their relative positions at the time of the interruption. Lockhart continued in front until the need for fuel and new tires brought him to his pit after 93 laps.

Hartz inherited the No. 1 position for the next five laps before making his own pit stop. Despite fast work on the Hartz car, Lockhart again moved to the head of the pack by a margin of more than 30 seconds and maintained that advantage until a light drizzle made the caution flag necessary at 380 miles. The drizzle quickly became a shower and then a deluge, which caused race officials to flag all cars off the track at 400 miles22 for safety reasons. Except for DePaolo's Duesenberg, in fifth place, all of the first ten finishers were Millers.

Lockhart's victory encouraged several young "hot shot" drivers on the half-mile dirt tracks of the Midwest to seek cars for Indianapolis the following year; and use of the Speedway for stock car tests was stimulated by creation of the Stevens challenge trophy. Samuel B. Stevens, wealthy automotive enthusiast from Rome, N. Y., offered the trophy for the best 24-hour performance by a regulation stock passenger sedan at an average speed of more than 60 miles an hour.

Fred Moskovics, who had assumed the presidency of the Stutz company, notified the Speedway of his intentions to try for the big silver cup and a date in April was designated for the attempt. Rain, sleet and snow during the night almost caused the run to be abandoned, but Moskovics insisted that it be continued unless AAA officials ordered it stopped. Clearing skies accompanied the dawn and at the end of 24 hours the standard Stutz five-passenger sedan had covered 1,642.58 miles at an average speed of 68.44 miles an hour.23

Among the rookies converging on the Speedway early in May for the 1927 race were Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer, George Souders, Lou Schneider, and "Dutch" Bauman. Souders, Schneider, and Bauman already were assured of cars. Lou had made the trip from California as mechanic and relief driver for Frank Elliott. Shaw, in his search for a suitable mount, had obtained the financial backing of Fred Holliday. Elliott had been offered a ride in one of the new Millers and consequently wanted to sell his own car with its two-year-old engine cut from 122 to 91-1/2 inches by shortening the stroke. In case he couldn't find a buyer, he'd promised to let Meyer drive it on a percentage basis, but Shaw took a liking to the car instantly. Although disappointed, Meyer viewed the transaction philosophically.

"There goes the only good chance I had to get into this year's race," he said. "But I hope both of you will remember I'm available if you want relief."

"It's a deal," said Wilbur, "if you'll help Skinny Clemons in my pit on race day."

The new cars for 1927, Dusies and Millers alike, were markedly faster than the 91-1/2-inch creations of the previous year and the cut-down 122-inch units. Improved intercoolers and higher pressure superchargers made it possible to turn them at speeds up to 8,300 rpms for increased horsepower. Ralph Hepburn, Hartz, DePaolo, and Lockhart all set new records during the time trials, with Lockhart winning the pole at a speed of 120.100 miles an hour. The durability of the cars still remained to be proved, however, and one of the hottest race days in Speedway history increased the importance of this big question mark.

Early pressure on Lockhart, who grabbed the lead at the very start in quest of his second straight victory, was relieved quickly when DePaolo, Hartz, Hepburn, Lewis, Hill, and Duray abandoned the race because of mechanical trouble before the completion of the first 100 miles. Ellingboe hit the wall and Norman Batten was also side-lined after guiding his flaming car to a safe stop at the end of the pit area. Bauman led briefly while Lockhart stopped for new tires at 200 miles. Nine laps later Dutch was through for the day with a broken pinion gear, and Lockhart was back in the lead for 28 more laps before breaking a connecting rod on the backstretch. After climbing the infield fence to take a short cut to the garage area, Frank found himself surrounded by admirers anxious to shake his hand and comment on his ill luck.

"This just wasn't my day, I guess," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Where's the nearest hot dog stand? I'm hungry."

DePaolo, driving relief for McDonogh, earned the next 30 lap prize fund checks. But supercharger trouble cut his top speed to 80 miles an hour, and Souders passed him with 51 laps to go. Babe Stapp, in another Duesenberg, held second place by a comfortable margin—two laps back and three laps ahead of his nearest challenger.

As Souders received the checkered flag, however, the rear axle on Stapp's car broke, and he coasted to a stop a lap and a half short of the $10,000 second prize. Earl Devore grabbed runner-up honors with Tony Gulotta third and Shaw—relieved by Meyer for 41 laps midway through the race—a solid fourth.

Fisher's search for competent hands in which to place the Speedway's destiny ended abruptly later in the same year. Intrigued by Carl's determination to make sure the track would continue to be operated according to its original purpose, Eddie Rickenbacker obtained the necessary financial backing from friends in Detroit.

On August 15, 1927, he assumed control for an undisclosed amount of cash and 6-1/2 per cent first mortgage bonds totaling $700,000. Rick himself would serve as the new president, with Pop Myers and Steve Hannagan retaining the same positions they held under the old regime. Fisher and Allison would remain on the board of directors for at least one more year. Paul Y. Davis was named secretary and E. D. Moore treasurer. Omar Rains also accepted a position on the board.

Frank Wheeler, despondent over his diabetic condition, had shot himself in 1921, and the other three founders of the Speedway were nearing the end of the trail. Allison died of pneumonia during the summer of 1928 and the Allison Engineering Company, which had built Liberty engines during World War 1, became a division of General Motors. Death claimed Newby in the fall of 1933, after a long illness. And a gastric hemorrhage ended Fisher's life in a Florida hospital on July 15, 1939, while he was undergoing treatment for sclerosis of the liver.

Fisher had used much of his tremendous fortune in an unsuccessful effort to keep his Montauk Beach Development Corporation out of receivership following the 1929 market collapse. When it failed, he spent his remaining years on the site of the former mangrove swamp separating Biscayne Bay from the ocean, where he had carved a great city out of a strip of jungle.

Add a Comment