- Historic Sites
Every spring thirty million Americans watch the Indianapolis 500. It’s the nation’s premier racing event and the pinnacle of a glamorous, murderous epic that stretches back nearly a century.
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
Because Speedway officials believed that the track design could not sustain the high speeds (averaging eighty-eight miles per hour) that were recorded in the 1919 race, they reduced the maximum allowable engine displacement from 300 cubic inches to 183. Smaller engines were supposed to inhibit high speeds. Meanwhile, the new crop of engineers was waiting, ripe for the challenge. “During the war,” Fred Duesenberg said in 1926, “the Government asked automotive engineers for a powerful engine, so we got together and pooled all our ideas. By selecting the best we had to offer, we finally developed an engine of about 1600 cubic inches which developed 203 horsepower, and we thought we had done a pretty good job. Today, just eight years later, we have produced a motor one-tenth that size which develops almost the same horsepower.”
The inaugural running of the five-hundred-mile race drew ninety thousand fans, and it was an instant tradition.
Louis Chevrolet had already sold out of the company that bore his name when he perfected a four-cylinder engine, the Frontenac, for Indianapolis in 1920 and an eight-cylinder version for 1921. Mr. Chevrolet then focused his talents on producing performance parts for, of all things, Fords. The Duesenberg brothers, who grew up as farm boys in Iowa, did produce a passenger car in the early twenties, but until the advent of the monumental Model J in 1928, production cars were a sideline. Their main diversion was the Speedway, where they won three times, from 1924 to 1927. Their prime competition was Harry Miller, a gentle-spirited man from Culver City, California. From 1922 to 1936 a car with a Miller engine won the 500 whenever a Duesenberg did not. Miller’s design went through a succession of names and evolutionary changes but was still winning at Indy as late as 1976.
On the track the great rivals in the early twenties were Tommy Milton and Jimmy Murphy, both good-looking and all-American. In 1921 Murphy, in a Duesenberg, was the first American ever to win the French Grand Prix (and he was appallingly slighted by the French in the victory celebrations). Back home he put a Miller engine in his Duesenberg car and won the 1922 Indianapolis 500, topping the speed record by 5 mph at 94.48 mph. Murphy started out as a protégé of Milton, but their friendship gave way to years of acrimonious feuding. In 1924, though, when his rival was killed in a race at Syracuse, Milton immediately saw to all the arrangements for Murphy, who had been orphaned as a child and had no close relatives.
Thirty years later Milton described the thoughts of a race driver for Popular Mechanics: “Maybe it is a year or two before you start winning, but you laugh that off some way or other. Then you win a race. All your faith is confirmed. You are the best and from there on out nobody else is going to win. Then Joe Blow comes along and beats you. Well, that was just an accident. But then he beats you again and perhaps a third time. So you cut him in—he’s not as good as you are, but he’s a good driver, too.
“Then some other drivers beat you and you cut them in. You are still the best, but you have had to cut in two or three guys with you. Then those drivers start getting bumped off. It now begins to penetrate your brains that the thing is hazardous and when that happens, you are all washed up as a race driver.” Milton retired as a race driver soon after Jimmy Murphy’s last race.
The Indianapolis Speedway was originally paved with bricks to reduce dust, but the scores of other speedways that sprang up in its wake just before and after World War I used wooden surfaces, called board tracks. They were especially popular in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
From the first, racing has been an exorbitantly expensive undertaking, and track racing around the country was curtailed during the Great Depression. With the nation’s businesses in terrible straits, a popular form of racing developed in Los Angeles. As if in a Frank Capra movie, the little guy responded in his own little way to a great big crisis, and the result was midget racing. Half as long as a J-Duesenberg and only slightly bigger than a bread box, a midget race car had a wheelbase of about seventy inches and a weight, including its driver, of not more than eleven hundred pounds. Until the mid-thirties the cars had all sorts of power plants, from motorboat engines to a Duesenberg Eight cut in half.
“You are the best and from there on out nobody else is going to win. Then Joe Blow comes along and beats you.”
Two young Angelenos invented the breed and first tried it out on the Loyola High School football field in 1932. Within a few years the Gilmore Oil Company had built the first speedway devoted to midget racing, on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, and hired Fred Offenhauser to design a decent, dependable engine for the cars.