15. Hulman Buys the Speedway

Captain Rickenbacker's immediate offer of the Speedway's facilities to the federal government, for any purpose which would aid the war effort, was declined. The Speedway couldn't accommodate the big powerful aircraft developed since the days of World War I; and none of its buildings was suitable for the production or storage of material which might hasten the day of victory.

Pop Myers closed the Speedway's downtown office and locked the gates to the grounds. Not a wheel turned on the famous track until the winter of 1944—45, when it was used again—by a single car, for a part of one day. It stood unattended, in silent deterioration, at the whim of the winds and the weather.

The rationing of tires and fuel had not yet been relaxed. But Wilbur Shaw drove that one car, at the request of the Firestone Company and with government approval, to test the durability of a new type of automobile tire made from synthetic rubber. The feeling of eagerness and excitement which he had felt when asked to make the run gave way to despair and dejection the instant he drove into the grounds.

The dilapidated wooden stands, almost stripped of paint, appeared ready to collapse with the first gusty March winds. Thickets of tall weeds blocked the approach to every grandstand entrance. Grass had grown between the bricks on the main straightaway and hundreds of crevices marred the track surface on all four turns.

Despite his exhaustion after the lonely but successful 500-mile test run,38 Shaw couldn't sleep that night for worrying about the future of "his" beloved Speedway. As soon as possible he visited Rickenbacker in the New York office of Eastern Air Lines and learned that Rick preferred to sell the plant rather than attempt the expensive task of restoring it to usable condition.

"How much money will it take to buy the Speedway?" asked Wilbur.

"I'll sell it for exactly what I've put into it," said Rickenbacker, "and I'll also let you examine the books, so you'll be able to present an accurate picture of the financial possibilities to any prospective investors."

With this vital information, Wilbur talked with officers of the Indiana National Bank to learn how much money could be borrowed on the property. He also made detailed estimates of the cost of all necessary repairs. Then he prepared a formal prospectus, setting $750,000 in actual cash as the figure necessary to swing the deal, and sent copies to more than 30 firms and individuals who might be willing to risk $25,000 or more on the project.

Eighteen favorable replies were received promptly.

But the response was alarming, rather than gratifying. Some of the firms interested in investing the largest sums also indicated they expected to have a prominent voice in dictating a new Speedway policy. Their vision of the Speedway as a means of promoting and advertising their own particular products—to the exclusion of all competition—jeopardized the track's future. Such commercial restrictions would be in direct conflict with the Speedway's original precepts, which had made the 500-Mile Race the world's greatest sports spectacle as well as a proving grounds for the entire automotive industry.

The only alternative was to obtain the financial support of one sports-minded individual to purchase a controlling interest. So for several weeks, while continuing to handle his Firestone responsibilities, Shaw searched in vain for such a person. Peace had come to the battlefields of Europe and VJ Day was only hours away when Homer Cochrane, an Indianapolis investment broker, urged Wilbur to present his ideas to Anton Hulman, Jr.

"Tony is the head of Hulman & Co., at Terre Haute," said Cochrane. "He's a sportsman as well as one of Indiana's most able businessmen. He's becoming increasingly active in civic affairs and he has the financial background to swing the deal if you can interest him."

Tire tests for Firestone on the Utah salt flats and the Tonapah Highway in Nevada occupied Wilbur's time for almost a month. But a meeting with Hulman and several of his associates, including Joe Cloutier, was finally arranged late in September.

None of the group appeared to be familiar with the Speedway's operation, and a general discussion of it lasted more than two hours. The first indication of favorable action came in an unexpected manner, after Shaw had succeeded in bringing the conversation back to the generous return that might be expected on funds invested in the Speedway's future.

"I don't care whether or not I make any money out of it," said Hulman. "The Speedway always has been as much a part of Indiana as the Derby is a part of Kentucky, and the 500-Mile Race should be resumed. But I don't want to get into something requiring additional capital each year to keep it going. I'd like to be sure of sufficient income to make improvements each year and build the Speedway into something everyone could really be proud of. We'll drive over to Indianapolis soon to take a good look at it, and then let you know what we think of the idea."

Ten days later, after inspecting every square foot of the rambling plant, Tony stood on the main straightaway in front of the picturesque pagoda and looked southward toward the No. 1 turn.

With the same vision that had brought Fisher to the construction of the Speedway 36 years earlier, he pictured the inadequate, unsightly, decaying wooden grandstands transformed into towering double-decked structures of steel and concrete.

Challenging situations were not new to him. He had faced them repeatedly—not only in business, but as an outstanding athlete at Yale and as an enthusiastic deep sea fisherman and big-game hunter. The Speedway promised to be more interesting and exciting than any other project he had ever attempted.

Cloutier was assigned the responsibility of handling all preliminary negotiations with Rickenbacker. Definite commitments for mortgage loans were obtained from bank officials; and the transaction was consummated in a private room at the Indianapolis Athletic Club on November 14, 1945. Paul Davis, an Indianapolis attorney who had served as secretary of the Speedway for many years, represented Rickenbacker at this final session with Hulman, Cloutier, and Shaw. Joe Copps was also on hand, at Rick's specific request to handle all arrangements for press coverage of the developments.

Tony, never one to thrust himself into the spotlight, remained in the background as chairman of the board. To Shaw went the dual role of president and general manager. Leonard Marshall was named secretary with Cloutier as treasurer and Joe Quinn as safety director.

The two links with the previous Speedway organization were Pop Myers, who stayed on as vice-president, and his private secretary Eloise (Dolly) Dallenbach, who also served as auditor. Don Burge and Miss Frances Derr were placed in charge of the ticket department, and the writer of this Speedway history became the new publicity director. Miss Dallenbach retired in 1947 and was succeeded by Miss Frances Welker.

The biggest task was to get the grounds and grandstands in condition to accommodate the spectators on race day. The Paddock and Grandstand G were beyond salvage. But Superintendent Jack Fortner quickly recruited an army of carpenters to repair the other seven wooden stands and the Pagoda. After other contractors had declined to bid on the two new steel-and-concrete stands because of priority restriction on the required material, Harry Tousley solved that problem.

"You can't possibly get the steel you need to build the type of stands you want," said Harry. "But we can design the new stands around the kind of steel that is available. If you are willing to do that, I think we can get the job done for you by race day."

There were more than a few doubtful moments before that 1946 race day dawned, but Tousley's performance was as good as his word.

Aided by the service engineers of many leading accessory firms—particularly Firestone, Champion, and Perfect Circle, which had used the Speedway for so many years to prove the quality of their products—the mechanics also triumphed over the difficulties of preparing their pre-war cars and equipment for high-speed competition again.

The Speedway was a battleground for accessory companies immediately after the war, and it was several years before the products of such firms as Mobil Oil, Monroe, Raybestos, and Bowes also were established with the racing fraternity.

The Speedway had stood idle for almost five years. Replacement parts were scarce, and a shortage of experienced drivers made the situation even more critical for the 56 entrants. Reorganization of the staff of officials was necessary to supervise activity on the track, and inclement weather interfered repeatedly with the drivers' tests arranged for 28 ambitious youngsters. But 15 met the established requirements, and a full field of 33 cars was obtained during official time trials.

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