Impressed by the excellent handling characteristics of European cars in another Vanderbilt Cup race on the road course at Roosevelt Raceway in July 1937, Shaw talked Mike Boyle into ordering an Italian Maserati for his use at Indianapolis the following spring. Due to a misunderstanding, however, the car delivered to the Speedway was powered by an engine of only 91.5 cubic inches with supercharger. It lacked enough horses under the hood to be regarded as a potential winner. With Boyle's consent, Wilbur withdrew from the agreement and placed his reliance again on his own two-year-old creation.
Installation of a larger oil tank solved his only major problem. With this change he was confident he could average at least two miles an hour better than his winning speed of the previous year, and he had good reason to believe such a performance would result in another victory.
His strategy appeared to be sound as two of the early frontrunners, Snyder and Mays, developed mechanical trouble while battling with Floyd Roberts for first place. At the halfway mark, with no one but Roberts ahead of him, Shaw was right on schedule. He made his only pit stop as planned on the 114th lap. But the unexpected necessity of replenishing the water in his radiator prolonged the stop from the usual 65 or 70 seconds, to 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Four cars moved ahead of him before he was rolling again.
Undaunted, he picked off three of them without a great deal of difficulty and closed in on the second-place Chet Miller by increasing his speed to regain the 115.5-mile-an-hour average he had set as his goal. Wilbur told himself Roberts couldn't continue the 117-plus pace he had maintained from the start without encountering mechanical trouble; but he had underestimated the painstaking precision with which Lou Moore, destined to become one of the Speedway's most successful owners and mechanics, had assembled the Roberts car. It thundered ahead without faltering to set a new "500" record of 117.200. Shaw's average of 115.580 was good for only a distant second place. Miller was third and the consistent Ted Horn fourth.
Wilbur's confidence in his ability to win the Indianapolis race with one of the better-handling European cars, however, was unshaken. Immediately after the 1938 victory banquet he sought out Boyle again.
"If you'll buy one of the 183-inch Maseratis direct from the factory and send Cotton [Chief Mechanic "Cotton" Henning] to Italy so we can be sure we're getting exactly what we want," said Shaw, "I'll guarantee to win the race for you."
"What do you mean?" asked Mike. "How can anyone possibly guarantee to win the 500-mile race?"
"If I don't lead the field home you won't owe me a cent," said Shaw.
"It's no deal. You might hang the car on the wall trying to win when conditions indicate you should settle for second or third, and then neither of us would collect anything. But the car's yours if you're willing to drive for 40 per cent, win-lose-or-draw."
The big Maserati was everything Wilbur expected it to be. With its torsion bar suspension, it negotiated the turns as if on rails.
Other drivers and car owners, however, had similar ideas.
Two more Maseratis and a pair of Alfa Romeos were among the entries; and American designers developed both six-cylinder and eight-cylinder engines of even greater horsepower.
Harry Miller's new six, mounted behind the cockpit in a four-wheel-drive chassis, proved to be a disappointment. But the Sparks six assigned to Jimmy Snyder and the new straight-eight Bowes Special, built for Lou Meyer to use in quest of an unprecedented fourth victory, definitely were possible winners.
From the start, it was a three-car battle with Snyder, Shaw, and Meyer all collecting lap prize money.
Snyder, leading at the halfway mark, made his only scheduled pit stop four laps later. Meyer moved to the fore for the second time with Shaw right on his heels at 120 miles an hour.
As Shaw prepared to make his own bid to regain first place, Bob Swanson, driving relief for Hepburn, suddenly lost control on the No. 2 corner. He did a three-quarter spin directly in front of Roberts, who was six laps back because of an early oil leak. The 1938 winner swerved to the right at full throttle, hoping to get between Swanson's car and the outside wall. But the gap closed too quickly. Collision was unavoidable.
The impact sent Swanson's car into a barrel roll on the track. The Roberts car did a spectacular cartwheel over the outer barrier. It crashed at the foot of the embankment with Roberts pinned in the wreckage. He was the first "500" winner to lose his life on the track which had been the scene of his greatest triumph.
Swanson, thrown from the cockpit of his car like a rag doll, lay dazed in the very center of the grove. And Chet Miller's Boyle Special came thundering toward him.
With no thought for his own safety, Chet cut the wheel sharply to the left. The tires squealed in protest but gained sufficient bite on the smooth pavement to change course. The car missed the prone figure of Swanson by inches. Then, completely out of control, it careened across the safety apron, splintered the heavy wooden guard rail on the inside of the course, and flipped upside down.
Quick display of the yellow light enabled other drivers to reduce speed before reaching the scene of the accident. Swanson escaped without serious injury, but Miller was hospitalized for six months.
It took 30 minutes' work by emergency crews to permit the resumption of racing speed. The two leaders made pit stops almost simultaneously in preparation for their final surge toward the checkered flag.
Shaw's hopes of winning faded almost to the vanishing point when his refueling equipment failed to perform properly. Instead of being right on Meyer's heels, he trailed by 68 seconds with only 73 laps to go.
To close the gap, he would have to run almost two miles an hour faster than the capable three-time winner with whom he had dueled on so many occasions. The situation was similar to that of 1933. But this time it was Shaw who enjoyed the feeling of confidence which a superior car always gives its driver.
Calling on the skill gained in 11 previous 500-Mile Classics, combined with the courage and determination which had characterized his climb from the smaller dirt tracks 16 years earlier, Shaw settled to his task. Driving a little deeper into each turn, the Maserati responding perfectly to his slightest pressure on throttle and steering wheel, he whittled away at Meyer's steadily diminishing advantage.
With 17 laps to go he pulled abreast of Lou at the head of the main straightaway and beat him into the No. 1 turn. Halfway through the turn, trailing by no more than 10 feet, Meyer swung to the outside in an effort to regain first place and suddenly found himself broadside on the course. Most of the tread was torn from his right front tire before he could get the car under control again. An immediate pit stop was an absolute necessity. It gave Shaw a lead of more than a full lap.
But at almost the same instant, the Maserati engine coughed a message that it was running out of fuel. Wilbur switched to his emergency tank, signaling his pit crew to prepare for refueling on his next trip around. Henning did the job smoothly in 75 seconds.
Shaw was able to regain racing speed before Meyer could close the gap entirely. But Lou still had an outside chance of winning the "500" for the fourth time.
Refusing to accept second place without making one last desperate effort, Meyer barreled into the No. 2 turn at maximum speed and lost control. The car did a complete spin and glanced off the outer wall. Lou pressed the "kill" button to minimize the danger of fire, skidded to a halt on the backstretch, and climbed from behind the wheel, uninjured. Slowly he removed his helmet and goggles, tossing them into the cockpit while watching Snyder and Cliff Bergere follow Shaw toward the checkered flag.
"I'm getting too old for this business," Lou told his friends. "It's time for me to find a safer way to earn my living."
For the 1940 race, Mays took Meyer's seat in the powerful Bowes Seal Fast Special. The field included several Italian cars imported by entrants hopeful of duplicating Shaw's victory. Challenging the Americans were such international favorites as Rene Dreyfus, Rene Lebegue and the Argentine, Raul Riganti. The two Frenchmen were assigned to Maseratis similar to the Shaw car; Riganti had a later model of slightly greater horsepower.
All three of the invaders found the track more difficult to master than they had anticipated, and the two drivers from France also experienced mechanical difficulty during the pre-race period. When Lebegue's car broke a connecting rod after earning a starting position, the engine from the Dreyfus entry was installed in it and the two teammates agreed on a share-the-ride arrangement.
Riganti spun into the wall on the southwest turn before the race had been under way thirty minutes.
Shaw, intent upon becoming the first driver to win two straight Indianapolis events, started the race according to plan at 121 miles an hour so that he could make two pit stops and still average slightly better than 119 miles an hour. Most of his chief rivals were using gasoline, which would allow them to go the distance with only one stop for fuel. Shaw preferred methanol: it kept engine temperature down—even though it cut his mileage to four miles per gallon.
When Mays grabbed an early lead, Wilbur recalled his 1938 loss to Roberts and increased his speed to better than 122 miles an hour to remain in contention. Not until after he had passed Mays on the 34th lap did Shaw ease his pressure on the throttle and settle down to his 121 mile-an-hour pace.
By the time he was due to refuel and change tires after 74 laps, he enjoyed a 40-second margin. The work was completed quickly, but the engine died as he started to pull away from the pit. Henning cranked it five or six times without success. As he walked to the side of the cockpit to check the ignition switch, Harry Bosey used the crank. Suddenly the car roared into life again.
Impatiently Wilbur let the clutch out, expecting Henning to jump clear; but the rotund mechanic didn't move quite fast enough. The rear wheel knocked him to the ground and ran over his foot. Shaw was so intent on getting back into action that he didn't realize what had happened.
Mays, Rose, Ted Horn, and Joe Thorne now were ahead of him. All four made their scheduled pit stops almost simultaneously after passing the 100-lap halfway mark, and Shaw again was in front.
But he still had his work cut out for him. Unless he could increase his lead enough to make his second pit stop without relinquishing the No. 1 spot, the yellow flag might yet rob him of the victory. Storm clouds were gathering overhead. It was only a question of time until they would drench the course, causing officials to order all cars to reduce speed and maintain their positions.
Running flat out for the next 40 laps, Shaw picked up almost two seconds a lap on the entire field. Then, as lightning flashed what seemed to be a final warning, he streaked into the pit area on his 144th lap for 50 gallons of precious fuel without losing the lead. Ten minutes later the rain began to fall, and Shaw cruised the remaining 48 laps (120 miles) to the checkered flag at 105 miles an hour. Mays came in second and Rose third.
It was Shaw against the field in pre-race speculation during the month of May 1941, and Wilbur was as cocky and confident as any of his many admirers when race day dawned. On his desk at Akron, Ohio, where he was devoting 11 months of the year32 to his new position with the aviation division of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, were contracts for product endorsements which required only his signature and an unprecedented fourth victory to be worth more than $100,000. With the dependable Maserati at his disposal again, he was looking forward with even greater anticipation than usual to another test of skill and courage against his most formidable rivals on the world's greatest race course. Most drivers respected Indianapolis—and some feared it. Wilbur loved it.
Thousands of fans without reserved seats waited in their cars outside the grounds through a night-long drizzle in order to lead the rush for points of vantage in the infield. The gates were thrown open at 6 A.M. as aerial bombs exploded overhead. The early surge had been in progress only a few minutes, when fans emerging from the tunnels under the track heard the muffled explosion of another "bomb" of greater magnitude.
Almost instantly, 50-foot flames shot skyward from a point in the infield behind the pit area and 200 yards south of the ornate pagoda. The disaster which Speedway officials had feared for many years suddenly had become a reality.
The garages were on fire!
Fumes from gasoline being used to wash parts in an adjoining stall had seeped through the cracks of a temporary partition and been ignited by the flame of a welder's torch. Some of the world's finest racing equipment, valued at more than a million dollars, was in danger of destruction.
The one fire truck on the grounds, stationed not more than 100 feet away, moved swiftly into action. Calls for additional help were made to nearby units of the regular Indianapolis Fire Department. They reached the gates quickly by a special route kept clear for emergency use only. But thousands of race fans, intent upon getting a close-up view of the fire, clogged every approach to the garage area. As the fire-fighting equipment struggled toward the conflagration the flames spread out of control.
Members of the racing fraternity worked frantically to push their own cars to safety. Grabbing hammers and wrenches, they also battered the locks from the doors of the garages and moved their rivals' cars out of the threatened area.
Metal 55-gallon drums of fuel exploded as the flames reached them. With each dull explosion the heavy top of the container would smash through the burning roof and sail through the air to crash against cars in the adjacent parking lot.
Still the car crews worked feverishly, almost to the point of exhaustion. Drenching themselves in the water from the fire hoses, they returned to the inferno time after time to salvage spare wheels, tires, tools and other accessories.
When the flames finally were extinguished, a quick survey by race officials disclosed that all but one car in the starting line-up had been saved. It was the four-wheel-drive Miller Special assigned to George Barringer. Two other cars, not eligible for the race, were total losses, and considerable racing equipment had also been destroyed. But firemen had succeeded in confining the blaze to the south wing; and the entrants housed in the northern half of the garage area quickly offered to share their paraphernalia.
Taking full advantage of a 60-minute postponement granted by Chief Steward Ted Doescher, the crews checked cars and equipment to the best of their ability before starting to push the 31 starters33 to their respective positions behind the pace car.
Shaw was one of the last to leave his pit because of an unsuccessful attempt to find and discard a "suspicious" wheel among the 12 spares on which new tires had been mounted for possible use during the race. While testing them for perfect balance, he had found one which didn't seem exactly right. He had marked it with chalk, but water from the fire hoses had washed away the marking, and all 12 wheels now appeared to be identical.
"Climb in," ordered Henning, "and we'll push you into position."
"We can save a lot of time and work if you'll just give the crank34 a half turn," said Wilbur. "I'll back it up to the starting line under its own power."
"Okay," replied Henning. "Flip the switch."
The engine started instantly, and Shaw maneuvered the car into its position on the outside of the front row. He pressed the "kill" button and borrowed a cigarette from a crew member for a last drag before the traditional command: "Gentlemen, start your engines."
But Shaw and Henning both had forgotten one of the powerful Maserati's most important idiosyncrasies. It could not be started by cranking with methanol as the fuel. Because of this fact, they had installed a tiny container under the hood. In it they kept a small supply of regular gasoline connected to the carburetor with a cutoff valve, so the engine could always be stopped and started on gasoline. After starting the engine in the pit, Henning had adjusted the valves as usual from gasoline to methanol, and the carburetor now was full of methanol.
When the starting command boomed out over the amplifiers of the public address system, Henning turned the crank in vain for more than 30 seconds before suddenly realizing what had happened. The rest of the field, already in motion and heading into the first turn, would be completing the pace lap and crossing the starting line at 90 miles an hour in a matter of a couple of minutes. There wasn't time to drain the carburetor of methanol and fill it with gasoline in the prescribed manner. But one chance of getting into the race still remained.
The rules provided that any car experiencing trouble could be pushed as far as the south end of the pit area in an effort to start the engine by putting it in gear while the car was in motion. If it failed to start within the prescribed distance, it was mandatory for the driver to abandon it on the safety apron. Wasting no time in explanations, Henning tossed the crank aside and ran to the tail of the car.
"Everybody push," he shouted, "and pray to God that if the engine does take hold it won't tear the clutch apart." Fortunately, the engine fired in time: Shaw was able to overtake the field and assume his front-row position on the north turn. But Lady Luck already had decided it wasn't to be his day.
For more than three hours of terrific dueling—first with Mays and Rose, then with Harry McQuinn—everything happened exactly as Wilbur had anticipated. He moved into first place on the 45th lap and added to his lead so steadily that he was able to make his first pit stop and still retain his No. 1 position by a margin of 12 seconds. He pulled away from the pack and was more than two minutes ahead when it became necessary for him to refuel and change tires for the last time with only 155 miles to go. He was rolling again with a lead of 80 seconds over his nearest rival. Free of a serious pressure from behind, he checked his instrument panel and settled to the routine task of maintaining his position.
Fifteen minutes later, on his 152nd lap, he swung into the southwest turn as if his car were on rails. But the spokes of the right rear wheel35 suddenly tore loose at the hub. In the flick of an eye, the car "traded ends" and crashed against the outer wall, tail first, with tremendous force. Fifty gallons of methanol poured from the ruptured fuel tank.
"Only God knows why it didn't catch on fire," said Wilbur from his hospital bed the next day. "If it had, it doesn't take much imagination for anyone to realize what my fate would have been—because I was paralyzed from the waist down." One of the heavy metal braces for the fuel tank had slammed against his spine with the impact of a sledge hammer and caused a compression fracture of three lumbar vertebrae.
While ambulance attendants lifted him from the wreckage with extreme care, taking every precaution to avoid further injury to his back, Cliff Bergere automatically moved into the No. 1 spot. Intent upon becoming the first driver to go the full distance without a pit stop in a car powered by a conventional internal-combustion engine, he had paced himself well and was running second at the time of the accident. But physical fatigue and nausea caused by gasoline fumes from the engine made it impossible for him to stand off an unexpected challenge from Rose.
Driving one of the two cars entered by Lou Moore, Rose had been eliminated by ignition trouble after running with the leaders for the first 60 laps. With helmet and goggles in hand, he told Lou he was going to take a stroll through the pit area and try to get back in the race as a relief driver.
"The hell you are!" exclaimed Moore. "If you're ready to go again, I'll call Floyd Davis in and you can finish the race in his car. He's more than two minutes behind the leaders and running in fourteenth position, but there's nothing wrong with the car that a little more pressure on the throttle won't cure."
"Okay," replied Mauri. "But when we make the change, let's be sure I'll have enough fuel to go the remaining distance without another pit stop."
After some rapid computations of fuel consumption, Moore waved Davis into the pits at the completion of the 72nd lap (180 miles) and Rose was charging up through the field again 49 seconds later. He climbed to ninth place at 225 miles, eighth at 250, fourth at 300, and was closing in on the second-place Bergere at the time of Shaw's crash. Horn, Hepburn, Mays, and Miller were among the capable veterans he passed on his way toward the fore; and he took the lead from Bergere as soon as the green light again indicated a clear track following the removal of the wrecked Maserati.
Mays, Horn, and Hepburn—making an exceptionally fine showing in a six-year-old front-drive chassis powered by a remarkable new V-8 supercharged engine36 designed by Bud and Ed Winfield—also passed the tiring Hollywood stunt man and followed Rose across the finish line in that order. Bergere succeeded in going the full distance without a stop, but he had nothing better than fifth place to show for his efforts.
Excellent medical care under the direction of Drs. Roger Smith,37 E. Vernon Hahn and Charles F. Thompson effected Shaw's release from the hospital 10 days later. During another week of convalescence at home, he mapped plans for a new attempt to become the first four-time Indianapolis winner. But when the Japs staged their surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, all thoughts of racing were tabled indefinitely.