Countdown to Indy: 99 Races, 99 Problems (Chapter 1: 1911-1937)

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

As the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is making preparations for the historic 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, it is a wonderful time to take a trip down memory lane and examine the rich history of this uniquely American event.

Each of the 99 previous races has produced a winner that will forever have his name etched in motor racing history. 67 race winning drivers, and two relief drivers have their images on the Borg-Warner Trophy. There are, however, an untold number of heartbreaking stories of missed opportunities, bad luck, and tragedy.

This is the first of four installments as we examine 99 races and 99 problems.

1 ) 1911: Ralph Mulford : A story has popped up in recent years that Ray Harroun may not have actually won the Inaugural 500 Mile Sweepstakes.  Because a number of laps were not scored when a car careened into the scoring stand, some have suggested that Ralph Mulford might have actually won. Speedway historian, Donald Davidson gives no creedence to these claims.

2 ) 1912 Ralph DePalma : The Italian-American driver lead 196 of 200 laps on the day, but his car experienced mechanical issues on the final lap. His riding mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins, assisted him in pushing the car around for the final half-lap, but Joe Dawson cruises by and takes the win.

3 ) 1913 Charlie Merz : With Jules Goux taking a convincing win for Peugeot, second place runner, Charlie Mertz had his car’s engine catch fire entering the final lap. Rather than give up the runner-up spot, Merz completed the race with the fire raging.  His riding mechanic, Harry Martin, climbed onto the hood of the moving car to try and beat the flames out with his coat. They finished third.

4 ) 1914 Arthur Duray : Duray, who had made a name for himself by breaking the land speed record on two separate occasions, lead 77 laps in his one and only Indianapolis start. He finds that his car is no match for René Thomas and settles for second place.

5) 1915 Howdy Wilcox: American driver, Howdy Wilcox, has the distinction of being the first 500 driver to be awarded the pole position based on speed. In prior years, the grid was set by either the timing of the entries, or a blind draw.  Wilcox’s pole speed of 98.90 mph wows the crowd, but on race day, Ralph DePalma put on another dominant performance, this time taking the win.

6 ) 1916 Ralph DePalma:  Based on his dominant performance in 1912 and his win in 1915, DePalma was one of Indianapolis’ first big stars. Attempting to capitalize on his fame, DePalma held back his entry, demanding $5000 in appearance money. The Speedway balked as this suggestion. When DePalma relented and filed his entry, he had missed the deadline, and sat at home as Dario Resta took the win.

7) 1919 Ralph DePalma: After his failed attempt to muscle the Speedway into a large paycheck, Ralph DePalma would have to wait out another two years for another shot at Indy glory, with the Speedway closed during the great World War. In the race,  DePalma comfortably led the field past half-distance before tire problems caused him to lose ten laps in the pits, as Howdy Wilcox took the win.

8) 1920 Ralph DePalma : Yes, its Ralph DePalma again (and you thought only the Andretti’s had bad luck at Indy). DePalma was, once again, stomping the field, and had a two-lap advantage on his competition. When his car sputtered to a stop on the back stretch lap 187, his riding mechanic sprinted across the infield to get a can of gas. DePalma ended up fifth while Gaston Chevrolet took the win.

9) 1921 Ralph DePalma: (again) : DePalma takes the pole, and leads the first 109 laps. With a two-lap lead on the field, engine problems take him out once again. His record of leading 612 laps at the Speedway would not be matched until 1987.

10 ) 1922 Louis Chevrolet: Team owner, Louis Chevrolet, descends on the Speedway with a massive seven-car effort. His driver line-up consisted of some of the biggest names of the day, including Ralph Mulford, Pete DePaolo, and Leon Duray. By the end of the day, six of his entries are out of the race with mechanical issues. The lone finisher for Chevrolet is Cannonball Baker, coming home eleventh.

11) 1923 Herbert Shoup: A sixteen-year old resident of Lafayette, IN, Herbert Shoup has a place in Speedway history as the first spectator fatality at the 500.  He was enjoying the race, along with his friends from school, when the car of Tom Alley (driving in relief of Earl Cooper), crashed through the fence on the backstretch. Shoup’s companions, Charles Elliot and William Goetz were also badly injured, but survived.

12) 1924  Lora Lawrence Corum: Indiana native, L.L. Corum is credited as the co-winner of the 1924 Indy 500. However, he was very much incapable of achieving that feat on his own.  Corum had a faster car, while his teammate, Joe Boyer was, in fact, a better driver. Just past halfway, the team pulled Boyer out of his car, handing it over to Ernie Ansterburg. They then called Corum into the pits, and handed that car over to Boyer.  Bringing Ansterburg back in, Corum was put into Boyer’s original car. While Boyer took Corum’s original car to victory, Corum would be sidelined once again, being pulled of the car in favor of Thane Houser, who went on to wreck the car.

13 ) 1925 Ralph Hepburn : Hepburn was a west-coast motorcycle champion, and factory Harley-Davidson driver when he first attempted the Indy 500 in 1925. As a rookie, he would find himself in the lead of the race closing in on three-quarter distance before a leaking fuel tank ended his day early.

14) 1926  Dave Lewis: In the first 500 to be shortened by rain, Dave Lewis found himself embroiled in an epic battle for the lead with eventual race winner, Frank Lockhart. Lewis fought the good fight, and led 43 laps, until his engine dropped a valve after 91 laps.

15 ) 1927 Frank Lockhart: In defense of his 1926 win, Frank Lochkart came back strong the following year, and led 110 laps on the day before he fell out with engine problems. This allowed George Souders to lead the final 51 laps, winning with an astonishing eight-lap margin of victory over the field.

16 ) 1928 Jimmy Gleason: Races are won and lost in the pits, and the story of Jimmy Gleason is no exception. Gleason had a fast car, and was battling Louis Meyer and Tony Guotta for the lead when he headed down pit road to get some water in his radiator with only 5 laps to go. His crewman inadvertently missed the radiator, pouring water over the magneto, shorting out the ignition and ending Gleason’s race.

17 ) 1929  Ray Keech: Maude A. Yagle has an indelible place in motor racing history the first, and to this date, only female winning car owner in Indy 500 history. Her driver, Ray Keech, took the lead on lap 158, and never looked back, scoring the biggest win of his career.  Sadly, Keech could not savor victory very long, dying just sixteen days later after crashing at Altoona Speedway.

18 ) 1930 Paul Marshall: With new engine rules in effect, the 1930 Indianapolis 500 produced one of the most lop-sided victories in history seeing race-winner Billy Arnold lead 198 of the 200 laps. Tragedy struck during the race, however, when Cy Marshall crashed hard seeing his car overturn. While Cy was injured badly in the crash, his riding mechanic and younger brother, Paul, lost his life in the accident.

19 ) 1931 Wilbur C. Brink: The hard-luck story of 1931 should go to Billy Arnold, who led 155 laps and had a five-lap advantage when he spun and crashed on lap 162, sending his car over the wall. However, Arnold’s disappointment cannot match the tragedy suffered by eleven-year old Wilbur Brink. He was gleefully playing in his front yard when Arnold’s tire bounced across Georgetown Road, striking and killing the youngster.

20 ) 1932 Billy Arnold: After the tragic events of the 1931 race, Billy Arnold, now recovered from his own injuries, came back strong in 1932. By lap 50, he had lapped the entire field save for second place. For the second consecutive year, a crash sent Arnold over the wall. Suffering a broken shoulder, Arnold announced his retirement from racing.

21 ) 1933 Howdy Wilcox II: Howdy Wilcox II, who is unrelated to the Howdy Wilcox that won the 1919 race, finished second in the 1932 500 as a rookie. The following year, Wilcox qualified for he race, but found himself disqualified from the 1933 event before race day. The reason given was medical complications from apparent diabetes. Some of the local press reported that Wilcox was actually suffering from epilepsy, rather than diabetes. This prompted Wilcox to sue the Speedway for slander. The matter was settled out of court, with Wilcox winning $3,000 in damages.

22 ) 1934  Mauri Rose : In 1934, Bill Cummings took the win over Mauri Rose with a margin of victory of 27.25 seconds. Rose filed an official protest following the race stating that Cummings did not slow his pace under the “slow-down” period while an accident was cleared, gaining valuable time on the track. In this era, the pace car would not go onto the track to slow the field and the cars did not bunch up. It was left to the driver’s discretion to hold position. A furious Rose saw his protest turned down.

23 ) 1935 Clay Weatherly : The 1935 500 got off to a grim start when Hartford Stubblefield, Leo Whittaker, and Johnny Hannon were all killed in practice. Clay Weatherly begged team owner Leon Duray to repair Hannon’s car and enter it in the race for him. In the race, Weatherly lost control of the car on lap 9, sending it over the fence, and killing him. It was the only time that two drivers were killed in the same car, in the same year, at the Speedway.

24 ) 1936 Bill Cummings : Bill Cummings, a former 500 winner, qualified his car 13th for 1936. Anticipating the start, Cummings found that his clutch had overheated, and his car would not go into gear. Cummings has the distinction of being the first driver in 500 history that lined up on the grid, and didn’t make the start.

25 ) 1937 Ralph Hepburn :  In the closing moments of the 1937 Indianapolis 500, Wilbur Shaw held a one-lap lead on the field when his car developed an oil leak. Shaw slowed his pace considerably, hoping the car would make it to the checkers. Meanwhile, Ralph Hepburn unlapped himself and came after Shaw with a vengeance. On the final lap, Hepburn was able to pull alongside Shaw coming into turn four. With nothing left to lose, Shaw mashed the pedal to the floor and held off Hepburn by 2.1 seconds. This was the closest finish in Indy 500 history, establishing a record that would not be broken until 1982.

I hope you have enjoyed this trip through history. Click here for Chapter 2: 1938-1966


Image: IMS Photo Archive 



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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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