Indianapolis 500 Retrospective – Rickenbacker and war

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Eddie Rickenbacker in his No. 5 Maxwell at the 1916 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.

Captain ‘Eddie’ Rickenbacker was the WWI hero for the USA, a pilot in the US Air Corps, he began his military career as a driver for higher ranking personnel before he finally got his chance to fly. His military record shows that Rickenbacker was given the French Legion of Honour, the US Medal of honor for his efforts in the skies above Billy, France, and several commendations from the US Air Force throughout his military career. He is said to have taken down 26 hostile aircraft.

Back at home in peacetime, Rickenbacker had an interest in automobile racing. He competed in the Vanderbilt cup and at Indianapolis in some of the pre-500 events, and thrice in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, with a best result of 10th in 1914 for Dussenberg. He was noted as a driver who had immense planning in his racing activities, from surveying the surface on which the race would take place, learning navigation, which was more than essential during the Vanderbilt races, and in forming an understanding of organising pit stops efficiently to his advantage.

Rickenbacker had formed his own car company, Rickenbacker Motor Company in 1921, but the company was unable to make the impact he had hoped and he closed it in 1927. This lead to his purchasing of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Carl Fisher in 1927. Upon buying the Speedway for an undisclosed sum, Rickenbacker would bring a few notable changes. Whilst also making the venue somewhat of a family affair, his brother, Al, would focus on promotion of the races, especially in the latter years of Rickenbacker’s ownership of the venue.

Ariel map of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1930 showing the newly created golf course in the track infield. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
Ariel map of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1930 showing the newly created golf course in the track infield. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
Rickenbacker’s impact on the speedway included the opening of an eighteen-hole golf course, which was opened on June 1st 1929, the design of which still exists today. Indianapolis born Will Diddel designed the golf course and the idea of it was to allow for people to visit the speedway year round and therefore overall provide some income for the venue, outside of the Indianapolis 500, sound familiar? The belief from the speedway management (Rickenbacker) was that it would bring in hundreds of people to play golf on the weekday, for a nominal fee.

The late 20’s had seen the great racing manufacturers of the world at the speedway, the 30’s returned more to a road car mentality, and away from the great racing machines. Why this is is generally contested. Some belief it is in response to the economic downtown of the 1930’s around the world, others believe it was always Rickenbacker’s aim to bring in these regulations. Either way, the superchargers where gone and a maximum displacement of 6.0 L was invoked on the Speedways entrants from 1930.

Under Rickenbacker’s ownership, the Indianapolis 500 media interest increased substantially. Whilst in the latter years of the Fisher era, in 1924 to be precise, Chicago-based WGN first broadcast the Indianapolis 500 live. KBWF Indianapolis is known to have performed a five and a half hour broadcast, with a sixteen man team in 1929, and in 1930, the Indianapolis 500 media radio broadcasting went national. During the 1930 Indianapolis 500, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) carried the final hour of the race, a day which also saw them carry the presidential address of Herbert Hoover. World-famous broadcaster Graham Mcnamee commentated the final hour of the race.

The broadcasts had an issue, though. Whilst radio was clearly a direction that IMS would follow in later decades, in 1932, it was decided that the only media at the Speedway would be newspapers, as the Speedway failed to negotiate a deal with a national network. By 1936, the world’s media had full interest in the Indianapolis 500, with WGN, Columbia Broadcast and NBC all carrying coverage of the Indianapolis 500, before coverage evolved with the Mutual Broadcasting system. Rickenbacker himself would commentate on the 1936 race for NBC.

The Speed Kings. Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer, and Lou Moore posing for a Florsheim shoe advertisement. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
The Speed Kings. Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer, and Lou Moore posing for a Florsheim shoe advertisement. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
In 1936, the Speedway’s bricks where paved over with tarmac for the majority of the 2.5-mile oval, with only some of the front and rear stretch retaining the bricks, reflecting changes in the style of the cars and the technology involved in auto racing. The Rickenbacker era also saw the start of the building of the future for the Indianapolis 500 as lore began to appear and drivers became national heroes, and none more so than Louis Meyer, who would win three Indianapolis 500’s in 1928, 1933 and 1936. Meyer was the first to drink the milk, buttermilk to be specific, upon claiming victory in 1933, a tradition which continues to today. His 12 starts, three wins, six top-sixes and two front-row starts made Meyer one of the greats at Indianapolis.

The end of the Rickenbacker era would give rise to names which would in the future leave their own timeless impression on the speedway. Wilbur Shaw, who won three Indianapolis 500’s in the Rickenbacker era, would have a serious influence on Tony Hulman buying the Speedway. Mauri Rose would go on to win two Indianapolis 500 in the post-war era, after the first of his victories in 1941. Rex Mays, though never tasting success, would become renowned. Unfortunately, Floyd Roberts would perish at the Speedway in 1939, a year after claiming victory with Wetteroth Miller.

In 1941, the last Indianapolis 500 under the Rickenbacker era, a fire broke out in the garage area of the Speedway destroying thirty of the garages, damaging power lines and destroying the car of George Barringer of Houston, Texas. The fire was said to have started in Barrigner’s garage, and was caused by spilled fuel being accidentally ignited. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt, however the fire resulted in $100,000 of damage.

With war in Europe becoming further intensified, interest in his airline, Eastern Airlines, and the attack on Pearl Harbor bringing the USA into WWII, Rickenbacker padlocked the Speedway and abandoned it following the 1941 race.

His own exploits continued, however. He was involved in two plane crashes in two years, the first whilst flying for his own Eastern Airlines occurred near Atlanta, Georgia. The second, whilst Rickenbacker was part of the war effort in 1942, occurred when his Boeing B17-d Flying Fortress went down on a remote island in the central Pacific Ocean. The incident is legendary, with Captain Rickenbacker and the remainder of the survivors lost for 24 days, the news declaring him deceased, before they where rescued by a Navy float plane.

Rickenbacker continued to serve his country throughout the remainder of the war on fact finding missions to the USSR. He departed Eastern Airlines at the end of the 1950’s and died in Zurich, Switzerland in 1973.

Rickenbacker would eventually, after a few years of it falling into disrepair, sell the speedway to Tony Hulman from Terre Haute, Indiana in 1945. At a time, many believed the Speedway would be demolished to make way for housing, but Hulman and Wilber Shaw would return the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race to its pre-war glory.


In the next part we explore the Tony Hulman era, up until the events of 1977-1978.

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4 Comments on "Indianapolis 500 Retrospective – Rickenbacker and war"

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Tim C
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Tim C

Great post . . . love the history of the speedway.

Tom Firth
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Tom Firth

Cheers

Coji
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This might have been one of the more interesting articles I’ve read. Great stuff. Could you imagine what would have been lost had it been converted to housing? I wonder how close it was to happening or if it was mostly conjecture. I’ve seen a few tracks shut down because of housing, and what irks me is that the residents who moved in after the track had been there, then complained about noise levels. As if it wasn’t know. The track was there and operating all along. Don’t like noise, don’t move next to a freaking race track. Sorry about… Read more »
Tom Firth
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Tom Firth
I’m sure some of it was newspaper conjecture, but other bids did reportedly exist for IMS property so perhaps was more to it. I think it was definitely in the bounds of possibility given how much motorsport changed internationally after the war years, not forgetting how much society did as well. If you’d said in the inter-war years before WW2 that Brooklands would not be the home of British Motorsport in a few short years, become an aircraft factory and for the most part a housing estate eventually, they’d of laughed you out the building. The same with Donington Park.… Read more »