Formation of a new organization capable of shouldering the AAA Contest Board's responsibilities was recognized as a task of considerable magnitude by everyone concerned—drivers, car owners, mechanics, officials, promoters, and even the race fans themselves.
It was only natural for them to look to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for leadership, for the "500" was the symbol of racing in this country and the pinnacle to which all of the sport's participants aspired.
Tony Hulman provided that leadership in his usual conservative manner—not by taking charge and telling the interested parties what to do, but by bringing them together for a preliminary exchange of ideas in open forum on August 10. George M. Ober, judge of magistrate's court at Speedway, Indiana, who was interested in racing only as a spectator, served as temporary chairman.
Colonel A. W. Herrington, former Contest Board chairman who criticized the AAA publicly for its surprising action, offered the group the benefit of his long experience. Every one present was given an opportunity to express himself, and it soon was evident the racing fraternity would require very little outside assistance to govern its affairs.
A driver, car owner, mechanic and promoter were chosen to work with the Hulman-Ober-Herrington trio on plans for the most practical method of procedure. They were, respectively, Duane Carter, Bob Estes, Herb Porter, and Tom Marchese.
Formation of the new organization, named the United States Auto Club, Inc., was completed on September 16, 1955, with articles of incorporation on file in the office of the secretary of state of Indiana. Its chief purpose would be "to conduct, supervise and regulate the conduct of automotive competition and tests of any kind and to do anything and everything necessary in connection therewith."
Five representatives at large and the original seven-man committee were chosen to form the Board of Directors (later increased to 18 members), and Carter was named director of competition.
The Speedway owner, who had taken an increasingly active role in the operation of the track after Wilbur Shaw's death, again turned his attention to the physical properties of the big plant. A steel-and-concrete replacement for Grandstand B the previous year had increased the seating capacity to a new high, but several major improvements were essential.
The surface of the race course needed attention. The turns were repaved with Kentucky Rock Asphalt at a cost of almost $100,000.
Adequate office facilities on the grounds—instead of in downtown Indianapolis, where almost all Speedway business had been transacted from the time the track was built—also was a matter of particular urgency. Indianapolis newspapers were clamoring for the creation of a Speedway museum, and Tony combined the two projects by erecting a new office-museum building near the track's main entrance.
The staff moved into its new quarters on March 17, 1956, and the museum was opened in mid-May with six famous cars on display. Among the six were the 1911 Marmon Wasp, which Ray Harroun had driven to victory in the first "500"; the Miller-Hartz front-drive special, with which Fred Frame had won the 1932 Classic; and the Italian Maserati in which Shaw had scored two of his three triumphs. The addition of other historical cars, trophies, photos and racing equipment soon made the museum one of the nation's outstanding tourist attractions.48
Interest in activity on the race track, during the week prior to the start of time trials, centered on new cars: the two lighter, faster rear-drive creations powered by the snarling Novi engines; the sleek John Zink Special built by A. J. Watson, chief mechanic of the winning car the previous year; and an Italian Ferrari assigned to former World Champion Nino Farina.
The first Saturday designated for official 1956 qualification attempts was packed with action from start to finish. Seventeen entrants earned starting positions, and 10 of the 17 broke the record set by Jack McGrath. Jack Turner and Bob Christie figured in spectacular spins without damage to car or driver.
At the end of the session, Pat Flaherty had taken the No. 1 spot in Watson's new car with one-lap and four-lap records of 146.056 and 145.594. Jim Rathmann and Pat O'Connor completed the front row. Perfect weather prevailed and 12 more positions were filled on the following day. Only four of the 33 starting berths remained open with a second scheduled weekend of qualifying still ahead.
Then came the rains—scattered showers during the early part of the week and a steady downpour beginning late Friday night. Saturday's program was washed out completely. Sunday's forecast promised little improvement. Tension mounted with each succeeding hour as the unqualified drivers deluged officials with "if" questions.
"What if it rains all day tomorrow?"
"What if the field still is incomplete at sundown?"
"Even if the field is filled tomorrow, what about the two hours you took away from us?"49
Assurance was given that two more hours would be made available for qualification attempts, weather permitting, even if it became necessary to open the track on Monday. At one time on Sunday it appeared as if this concession had not been necessary. The rain stopped, and an army of workmen wielded brooms. Four cars qualified, filling the last of the 33 positions.
Then it rained again—63 minutes short of the stipulated two-hour period. But another all-day rain on Monday drowned the last hopes for any further extension of qualifying hours. Time had run out on more than a dozen capable cars, including the Ferrari and one of the popular Novis. Paul Russo, who had qualified comfortably on the opening day, would carry the hopes of the Novi crew alone.
Of even greater concern, from the fans' standpoint on Monday afternoon, was the possibility that it might be necessary to postpone the race for the first time since 1915. Such action appeared inevitable because the entire southwest corner of the track was under water; all three tunnels were impassable; and the torrents were swirling around the foundations of six grandstands.
Again the downpour ended, and Clarence Cagle, the Speedway's superintendent of grounds, who hadn't had a moment's rest since he awakened on Sunday at dawn, rallied his exhausted maintenance workers for their second straight all-night battle with the flood.
When the gates were thrown open Tuesday morning, Cagle still was coaxing a few more hours' work from overheated electrical pumps. But all three tunnels were in operation. The stands were clean and dry. The track was ready for another record assault. And the race would start on schedule.
It took Russo only 15 minutes to convince the loyal Novi admirers that this was to be their year. He ended the early duel for the lead between Flaherty and O'Connor by surging around both of them on the inside. This tremendous display of skill and power came on the main straightaway at the start of the 11th lap.
Threading his way through traffic at a phenomenal speed of 144 miles an hour, he began to widen the gap 15 or 20 feet on each trip around the course. Then, without warning, the Novi jinx struck again.
Russo popped a tire for the first time in his 10 years of competition at the Speedway. His handsome crimson car with the distinctive tail fin swerved out on the No. 1 turn. It hit the retaining wall with a shower of sparks, and the sound of tearing metal was plainly audible above 32 roaring engines. As the Novi skidded to a stop at the upper edge of the groove, Russo vaulted from the cockpit and sprinted to the inner safety apron.
Flaherty and O'Connor resumed their battle for supremacy. When they made their first pit stops, Johnnie Parsons and Don Freeland led briefly. But Flaherty, defying superstition with a shamrock50 painted on his helmet, was back in front to stay before reaching the 200-mile mark. He was rolling again with 20 seconds to spare, after making his second pit stop at 330 miles, and Sam Hanks still was that far behind in second place at the finish.