16. The Novis and Blue Crowns

From the fans' standpoint, chief interest centered in two new cars of unusual design. One was Lou Fageol's twin-engine creation, which Paul Russo hung on the wall early in the race after qualifying it for a front-row starting position. The other was the first of the powerful Novi front-drive specials, which were destined to capture the admiration of more race fans than any other cars in Speedway history. It derived its unusual name from the fact that it was entered by Lew Welch of Novi, Michigan, a town built on the site of Toll Gate No. VI on the Grand River Plank Road out of Detroit.

Welch had provided financial assistance for the Winfields, who designed the V-8 supercharged 180-cubic-inch engine and worked with Fred Offenhauser and Leo Goosen to build the first unit for the 1941 race. On that occasion, with Hepburn driving, it had powered a six-year-old chassis to fourth place.

Now, with the resumption of racing after the war, it would be given an opportunity for maximum performance in a superb streamlined chassis constructed for Welch by Frank Kurtis. It failed to reach the Speedway in time for the first weekend of qualifications trials, when Cliff Bergere won the pole position with a creditable four-lap average speed of 126.471 miles an hour. But on May 26, as the winds subsided with the approach of dusk, it stood poised at the starting line with Hepburn again in the cockpit.

After two warm-up laps, it charged out of the No. 4 turn and onto the brick straightaway with the high whine of its supercharger screaming defiance. Hepburn asked for the green flag by raising his hand. Touching the brakes momentarily and feathering the throttle as he approached the turn, in the approved manner for front-drive pilots, Hepburn quickly put his foot into it again and accelerated steadily through the curve. The car clung to the groove, and there wasn't a single spectator on the grounds who didn't realize instantly he was watching Speedway history being made.

The time for the first lap was 1 minute and 7.02 seconds for a new track record of 134.288 miles an hour. The next two trips around the course each required a fraction of a second more. But the final lap was the fastest of all, 1 minute and 6.94 seconds for an average speed of 134.449.

Ignoring the possibility of a victory by some member of the European contingent—headed by Luigi Villoresi and Rudi Caracciola, who was eliminated from consideration two days later by severe injuries sustained in a crash on the No. 2 turn—race fans looked forward confidently to a Hepburn triumph in the first four-hour "500" ever run.

On May 30, crowds turned out in greater numbers than ever before—and created a traffic jam of gigantic proportions. Overheated cars full of impatient fans still were crawling through the Speedway gates long after Henry Ford II had led the field across the starting line in his Lincoln pace car.

For the first 50 laps, the Novi lived up to all expectations. Starting in 19th position, it thundered to the head of the pack in 15 minutes and increased its lead by almost 200 feet on each trip around the course during the first hour of the race. In 71 minutes it had traveled 140 miles.

The crowd gave it a tremendous ovation as Hepburn made what appeared at first to be a routine pit stop. But the Novi needed more than fuel and new tires. Its hydraulic brakes also needed attention and the work required almost nine precious minutes. Despite the commanding lead he had attained, Hepburn found himself back in 13th place when he finally was rolling again.

Once more the Novi charged toward the front, passing nine cars and closing in on the leaders relentlessly, until it "swallowed a valve" on the 122nd lap and was side-lined for the day.

Mechanical trouble also was taking a toll of the older cars. Only ten were running at the 400-mile mark.

But seven managed to go the distance, with George Robson winning at the wheel of a nine-year-old six-cylinder Thorne Engineering Special. Jimmy Jackson, his only serious challenger late in the race, developed carburetion trouble and had to be content with second place. Horn finished strong, after a long stop with magneto trouble, to nose out Emil Andres for third money.

While the racing fraternity concentrated on new equipment for 1947, the Speedway management reviewed its own problems and gave traffic control top priority. Thousands of dollars were poured into the construction of new gates and new roads inside the grounds so that 21 lanes of vehicles could be accommodated simultaneously.

Lou Meyer and Dale Drake stepped up the production of new engines in the California plant they had purchased from Fred Offenhauser. Included in their output during the winter months would be the components for two V-8 supercharged units made from the Winfield patterns for the Winfield Engineering Corporation,39 which already had ordered a second Novi chassis from Kurtis.

With financial support from the Blue Crown Spark Plug Company, Lou Moore also was at work on two additional front-drive cars of similar design. But for power, he preferred to rely on the four-cylinder "Offy" of established durability.

Some of the drivers also had new ideas. They formed the American Society of Professional Automobile Racing (ASPAR) and elected Hepburn their president.

They asked and received assurance of prize money amounting to 40 per cent of the gate receipts from promoters staging 100-mile championship races on the one-mile dirt tracks throughout the country. Then they demanded the same percentage from the Speedway. Shaw met with the group for the first time on a midwinter trip to Los Angeles.

"I know exactly how you fellows feel," he told them. "I've been on your side of the fence most of my life. If we could run the 500-Mile Race under the same conditions as other promoters operate, we'd be glad to go along with your request. They pay a small percentage of their receipts, or a very nominal fixed fee, for the use of the tracks which, in most cases, are state-owned property. These tracks were built for other purposes, with the taxpayers' money. They are being maintained with the taxpayers' money.

"Operation of the Speedway is an entirely different matter. Even without considering our original investment, our annual expenditures amount to several hundreds of thousands of dollars for taxes, maintenance, improvements and personnel to make possible one big race a year.

"An agreement such as you are demanding could kill the 500-Mile Race in a single year. And if you kill it, you'll be killing all auto racing.

"Most of you haven't had a chance yet to become well acquainted with Tony Hulman," Shaw added. "We've given a lot of thought to the question of prize money and we are willing to guarantee a $75,000 purse, not counting $20,000 in lap prize awards and all the usual cash prizes offered by accessory companies.

"I can give you Tony's solemn promise, too, that the Speedway will pay as much additional prize money each year as sound economic procedure permits. If you'll agree to go along with us on that basis, I feel sure you'll be satisfied with the way things turn out next May."

But as winter gave way to spring, it was evident ASPAR leaders intended to carry out their strike threat. Thirty-five official entries for the race were received prior to the deadline at midnight of April 15, including a sufficient number of good cars and veteran drivers to assure a better race than that of the previous year. But ASPAR representatives, who claimed to have 3040 additional entries "in their pocket," continued a campaign intended to convince the public a 1947 race was impossible without their participation.

They still were holdouts when the time trials started as scheduled on May 17. Horn won the pole position in the dependable Maserati. Bergere and "Doc" Williams41 qualified the powerful Novi Specials. Mauri Rose earned a starting berth with one of the new Blue Crown cars, and three other entrants also passed their official tests before rain interrupted the first weekend program.

Now ASPAR resistance began to disintegrate. Leaders of the group indicated they would withdraw their demands in exchange for permission to compete under the provisions of the original entry form.

According to the rules of racing, however, such procedure would require the written consent of all 35 bona fide entrants who had not been a part of the ASPAR group, and it appeared to be a hopeless task because of the ill feeling which had developed. Discreet investigation revealed it would be useless to try unless ASPAR first agreed to two specific stipulations:

  1. That no ASPAR car, regardless of its qualifying speed, could crowd any of the original entries out of the starting line-up if they met the minimum requirement of 115 miles an hour in the time trials.
  2. That no ASPAR car could share in the special qualifying awards ($1,500 a day) originally posted by the Speedway.

When ASPAR members accepted the first stipulation, but balked at the second, Tony Hulman expressed a willingness to post duplicate awards for that group; and all parties concerned were invited to a meeting in the Speedway office on Thursday to discuss methods of obtaining the necessary waivers.

Everyone agreed that a disinterested party stood the best chance of getting the job done. Bill Fox, sports editor of the Indianapolis News, was selected by acclamation, and 48 hours of around-the-clock effort accomplished the task. Then it rained.

Only four cars were able to qualify between showers during what had been planned as the final weekend of trials. Twenty-two positions still were unfilled at sundown on May 25. Three entrants qualified on Monday and one on Tuesday, during the brief periods the track was dry enough for high speed. Another 24-hour extension was granted by race officials, and 11 successful attempts increased the official line-up to 28. Then the field was declared closed. But disappointed ASPAR entrants, who contended they had not had sufficient practice time to tune their cars properly, asked for one more chance.

After a heated discussion at the drivers' meeting on the following afternoon, the track was reopened for one hour of time trials starting at 6 P.M. Two more positions were filled.

Ten of the ASPAR contingent were included among the starters on race day, but none of them except Mays ever figured prominently in the contest. He finally finished a poor sixth—12 minutes behind the winner.

Bergere was the early leader in the favored Novi, before experiencing supercharger trouble. Then Rose and his rookie teammate Bill Holland dominated the event in the Blue Crowns as they moved toward one of the most controversial finishes in racing history.

With sufficient fuel and rubber to go the distance, Holland led Rose by approximately two miles at the 400-mile mark. But he had failed to make himself familiar with the operation of the special drivers' scoreboard at the starting line, which constantly showed the relative positions of the five leading cars, and he was under the erroneous impression he was in front by more than a full lap. These were the scoreboard figures:

16 - 27 - 1 - 9 - 54
 0 -  0 - 2 - 3 -  4

They showed Holland leading the race in car No. 16, by less than a full lap; Rose second, in car No. 27, on the same lap as Holland; Horn third, in car No. 1, two laps behind the leader; Mays fourth, in car No. 9, three laps behind the leader; and Bergere, driving relief for Ardinger in car No. 54, one lap farther back in fifth place.

As Rose pressed forward with characteristic determination, whittling as much as a full second off Holland's lead each lap, Moore had visions of his two drivers engaging in a last-minute duel which easily could end in disaster. Every cent Moore had and could borrow—about $60,000 in all—was wrapped up in those two cars; and his major concern was to keep his drivers in their one-two positions without battling each other for supremacy. Barring mechanical trouble, no one had a chance to catch them.

Moore gave each man the E-Z signal and Holland responded immediately by reducing his speed almost three miles an hour. Rose continued at the same speed he had been traveling, thus closing in on Holland even more quickly.

With 20 laps to go, only 32 seconds separated the cars. Rose had no way of knowing how fast—or how slowly—Holland was running. But five laps later, as Mauri came out of the No. 4 corner and moved onto the main straightaway, he could see Holland's car swinging into the No. 1 turn. That was the only incentive he needed to run flat out.

Bill's attractive wife already was on her way to "Victory Lane," to pose with her husband for newspaper and newsreel cameramen, when Rose passed Holland without a challenge on the backstretch during the 193rd lap. Believing he still was a full lap in front, the rookie waved his veteran teammate onward with a smile. Moore gave both drivers the OK sign on their next trip past the pits with Rose 150 feet in front.

One lap later, with the unsuspecting Holland trailing by almost 400 feet, Moore gave Mauri a quick P-1 sign and displayed the OK again for the other driver.

At the completion of the 200th lap, a jubilant Rose received the checkered flag 28 seconds ahead of Holland to earn $35,125 in prize money.

Movie Queen Carole Landis42 presented Mauri the Borg-Warner trophy, while Holland, stunned at the unexpected result, braked to a halt in front of the pits and shouted imprecations about the double cross he felt had been given him.

"Who in the hell can a driver rely on, if his own pit crew won't keep him informed of his position?" he demanded, ready to fight anyone who disagreed.

Calmer heads prevailed. Race officials pointed out that he had no one but himself to blame for failing to watch the drivers' scoreboard. Friends explained Moore's sincere fears of a late dogfight which might have sent both cars crashing into the wall on one of the turns.

"Stay away from Lou until you cool off," they advised. "There'll be another race next year—and where could you get another car which would improve your chances of winning?"

Tom Milton, first two-time winner of the 500-Mile Race and toastmaster for the 1947 victory dinner, expressed the thoughts of the racing fraternity when he introduced Holland to the assembled fans.

"Bill is to be congratulated for his success on his first trip to the Speedway. With more experience he can have a great future. I'm sure that on reflection he will be content with his fine achievement. But all of us must realize that, while the '500' calls for the ultimate in skill, it also places responsibilities on the competitors. These responsibilities involve even what they say and do, particularly after a race. They also include a knowledge of the rules. It is up to the driver of a car to know what he is doing in a race and in what position he is in. I'm sure Holland realizes that now.

"I don't know what Lou's orders were to Rose and Holland, but whatever they were, they were correct," added Milton. "Moore could have had but one hope, that the two cars would finish one-two. Which car won and which was second couldn't have been uppermost in his mind. Certainly in those last seven laps, he didn't want a duel to the death between Rose and Holland.

"To Lou Moore auto racing owes applause for putting into the '500' two such successful cars."

Milton moved to Rose's introduction and paid him high compliment.

Then, turning to the victor who was on his feet, he said: "But Mauri, as fine as your performance was, I don't think it was the best job done out at the track yesterday, and I know you don't think so either, so I thought you should tell everyone who drove the best race."

It wasn't a framed question, but it didn't fluster Rose.

"Ted Horn drove the best race this year and I guess we all know it," Rose said. "He made four pit stops, I made only one, but he finished third and drove the fastest laps of the race to do it."

Mauri's quick honesty was a well-deserved tribute to one of the great drivers, whose record for consistent excellence at Indianapolis was outstanding. Everyone in the room acknowledged the statement with a standing ovation.

Horn had won the AAA National driving championship for three straight years. He had finished fourth or better in nine consecutive Indianapolis races, beginning with the 1936 event, but never had succeeded in adding the "500" to his long list of triumphs.

Second-place prize money amounting to $31,300, including lap prizes of $14,300, did much to ease the anguish of Holland's disappointment, and as race fans rehashed the unusual finish during the winter months, the combination of Moore and Rose and Holland prepared for 1948.

Members of the Novi crew, confident they could have both cars in shape to go the full 500 miles at record speed this time, shared the spotlight. Bergere would be in one cockpit again, with Chet Miller as his teammate.

Criticism following a Bergere spin during practice, however, caused Cliff to relinquish his seat in the car, and Hepburn was summoned to take his place.

Although Hep hadn't driven a single mile in competition since 1946, he displayed all his skill in practice and was "cutting a couple of fast ones" to make sure the car was in perfect condition before making an official qualification attempt on the first Sunday designated for time trials.

Several watches caught him at 133 miles an hour, and it seemed as if he went through the south turn at even greater speed for one more quick one.

Race officials at the starting line heard the big Novi accelerate down the backstretch. The distinctive sound of the engine—a blend of screaming, whining, roaring noises—faded momentarily as Hepburn eased his pressure on the throttle approaching the northeast turn. Almost instantly he stepped on it again in the usual manner of an experienced driver at the wheel of a front-drive car, which requires a steady pull through the turns.

Suddenly there was a squeal of tires losing their grip, followed by an even mightier roar from the engine as Hep applied full power in an effort to correct the slide. The car fishtailed and lunged straight toward the outer retaining wall. It hit nose first with a crunching thud; and Hepburn's long racing career was ended. The terrific impact had broken his neck.

Chet Miller withdrew from the other Novi, ending a string of appearances in 13 consecutive 500-mile events, but Duke Nalon replaced him at the wheel of the car and qualified it with a flawless performance one week later. Instead of charging toward the front at the start of the race, however, Nalon followed the strategy of Rose and Holland—content to remain within striking distance of the leaders. Horn's Maserati and the Bowes Seal Fast Special, driven by Mays, alternated in the No. 1 spot for more than 200 miles.

Followed closely by Rose, Nalon finally surged ahead as he neared the halfway mark, hoping to get a lead of several seconds before the participants made their scheduled pit stops. Faster work by rival pit crews dropped Nalon to third place, behind Rose and Horn, when all cars were running again. Mays was fourth and Holland fifth. At 400 miles, with Mays on the side lines with a broken torsion bar and ruptured fuel tank, the order was Rose, Nalon, Holland, and Horn.

Rose was equal to every challenge. Unless unexpected trouble developed, it was evident he couldn't be caught; and, when trouble did occur, it was Nalon who was the victim. Due to an air pocket in the tank, he had not taken on enough fuel to go the remaining distance. Eighteen laps from the finish, he found it necessary to stop again. Holland moved into the runner-up spot behind Rose, and the Novi contingent could do little but look ahead to another chance in 1949.

Shaw, cognizant of the racing fraternity's growing dissatisfaction with the attitude displayed by some AAA officials, who apparently failed to understand the complex problems faced by drivers, mechanics and car owners, took steps to correct that situation for future events by placing a long-distance call to Tom Milton in Detroit.

"We need your help down here, Tom," he told the Speedway's 1921-23 winner. "It's becoming increasingly important for us to select officials with actual racing experience, and I'd like you to head the 1949 staff as chief steward."

"Why pick on me?" asked Milton. "I've never had any training as a race official, and I don't see how I can spare the time from my business."

"You have to find time, even though the job doesn't pay a dime, except for expenses while you're in Indianapolis. We need someone who knows all the answers and has the integrity and guts to administer the rules consistently and impartially."

Said Milton, "I'm not sure I care to assume the responsibilities after being out of racing so many years. If you insist on an immediate answer, it's 'no.' But if I have a little time to think, I'll give it consideration."

Three days later Shaw called Milton again, using his most persuasive powers. The conversation lasted almost 30 minutes.

Milton finally capitulated.

"If you really believe I'm the only guy who can handle the job to the satisfaction of everyone concerned," he said, "I'll come down next May. But on one condition."

"What is it?" asked Wilbur.

"Simply this," Milton answered. "Whatever management wants to do to accommodate the spectators is your business. But I want it understood clearly that I'm to be in complete charge of everything that happens on the track. The race itself—and the rights of each participant—must take precedence over everything else."

"That's as it should be," agreed Shaw and subsequent conferences resulted in the naming of Karl Kizer as referee, because of his long connection with racing.

Milton's tenure extended through four years and he induced other former drivers to shoulder officiating responsibilities. Among them was Harry McQuinn, who succeeded Milton as chief steward in 1953, serving in the No. 1 spot for five years before passing the duties along to Harlan Fengler in 1958.

The task of organizing an efficient staff of approximately 300 individuals wasn't accomplished in a single year. But the "Milton pattern," which has been followed consistently since its establishment, began to take form on the first day of his stewardship. His "open door" policy encouraged members of the racing fraternity, and the press-TV-radio representatives as well, to participate in the assembling of information needed to rule intelligently on each problem as it developed. The era of secret huddles and arbitrary official decisions was ended.

In preparation for the 1949 race, Bud Winfield and Jean Marcenac rebuilt the Hepburn car for another assault on Speedway records. Mays was persuaded to drive it, as Nalon's teammate, and fortune smiled on them during the entire pre-race period. Nalon qualified at 132.939 to earn the pole position with Mays flanking him in the front row.

When Seth Klein's green flag sent the field away to a flying start, Nalon took immediate command. Mays, grabbing second place, remained just far enough behind to give himself plenty of racing room. For 23 laps the Novis set new records on each trip around the course.

Then, on Nalon's next trip through the northeast turn, near the spot of Hepburn's accident the previous year, his rear axle broke. The left rear wheel came off and bounced high in the air. The car traded ends and hit the wall tail first. The impact tore off the left front wheel and ruptured the fuel tank.

Sixty gallons of methanol poured from the breach and flashed into flame, ignited by the sparks created as the car scraped to a halt against the concrete retaining wall. Nalon, badly burned but not critically injured, jumped in flames from the cockpit as the fuel flowed across the entire width of the track and formed a wall of fire eight feet high.

Some drivers had no choice but to guide their cars right through the flames. Others, with time to reduce speed, avoided the fire by swerving on to the grassy safety apron at the inner edge of the track.

Immediate display of the yellow flag made it mandatory for all participants to maintain their respective positions while emergency crews handled the situation, and Mays automatically became the leader in the other Novi. Twenty-four laps later, however, he was out of the race, too—stalled on the backstretch with magneto failure.

Lee Wallard inherited the No. 1 position, only to have a fuel line break on the 55th lap; and the race became another Rose-Holland duel for the third straight year, with George Connor in another Blue Crown Special43 as an added threat. In fairness to all three of his drivers, Moore signaled them into the pit for fuel and tires in reverse order. Connor was served first, then Rose, and finally Holland, enabling the latter to regain racing speed without losing the lead for a single instant.

Guarding against a sudden challenge by Rose, Holland increased his advantage steadily until he had almost lapped him. Then, keeping him in sight, he matched the 122 miles an hour speed at which the second-place car was traveling until it suddenly stalled because of a broken magneto strap with eight laps to go. Rookie Johnnie Parsons closed strong to nose out Connor for second money by 24 seconds, but was more than two laps behind Holland at the finish.

Cash prizes distributed at the Victory dinner amounted to $179,050, almost double the largest purse ever paid prior to the Hulman-Shaw regime.

Add a Comment