UNTIL THE MOMENT that one ran over his breastbone, Clifford Littrell had been exceedingly fond of automobiles. To be sure, a lot of young people were car-crazy in 1909, endlessly debating the relative merits of the National, the Pierce-Arrow, and the Knox, fogging the windows at the McFarlan showroom with their Sweet Caporal–scented sighs, scanning the glossy pages of The Horseless Age for gossip about rumored innovations like windshields and black tires (as opposed to the standard, tiresome off-white)—and digging through bins at dry goods emporiums for the latest in silk driving scarves (for men) or the kind of cunning little riding bonnet sported by Lottie Lakeside in the hit Broadway musical The Motor Girl. But Littrell was no mere enthusiast.
No, this poor fellow—whom we come upon writhing in the bustling intersection of Capitol Avenue and Vermont Street in Indianapolis, Indiana, at 11:30 on the sunny, sticky morning of Tuesday, August 17—had dedicated his life to what was then known as autoism. At the age of twenty-seven, he had risen from the position of molder in a metal factory to what was then known as a mechanician. His main job was to road-test motorcycles, which is what some Americans who disdained the French word automobile (because it was French) then called cars. It was still so early in the motor age, you see—three years before the Stutz Bearcat and four before the Duesenberg—that people hadn’t quite worked out the terminology.
A corpse was a corpse, though, and the prospect of seeing one caused a crowd to gather. Littrell was no one they knew, they could see, yet no mysterious stranger, either, having just come loose from the noisy caravan of men and equipment heading to the not-quite-finished Indianapolis Motor Parkway—or rather Speedway, as they had been calling it these last couple of months—some five miles northwest of town. A long line of Jacksons, Marmons, Amplexes, Buicks, and other cars had been traveling there, circus-train-style, the better to attract attention and whip up curiosity as they prepared for a historic event: the first racing meet in America conducted on a track built specifically for automobiles. Thousands of auto industry people—executives, salesmen, and common laborers like Littrell—had flocked to Indianapolis that week for three days of competition that would begin the next afternoon and culminate in the first edition of the 300-mile Wheeler-Schebler race on Saturday, August 21.
Littrell worked for Stoddard-Dayton of Dayton, Ohio, one of more than a thousand auto manufacturers then trying to grab a share of the booming U.S. market. Most of those car companies were tiny operations—some were virtual one-man shops—but Stoddard-Dayton ranked among the largest, with several hundred employees. Littrell had started there about five years before, when the company, instead of turning out “Touring cars with Speed and Symmetry in every line,” as their literature boasted, was instead still making mowers, hay rakes, and harrows. That morning he had been perched on the rear of the company’s highly touted No. 19 race car as it rolled out of the garage. It was a precarious spot, atop the gas tank with no handle to grasp, but the trip to the Speedway seemed relatively short, and the traffic, a mix of horse-drawn and motorized vehicles, was moving sluggishly; he thought he would be all right. Then he remembered a wrench he had left behind, and, without informing the driver, he braced himself to hop off the vehicle, figuring he would grab the tool, catch up to the car, and quickly clamber back aboard. Just at that moment, though, the traffic jam eased a bit, the No. 19 car surged forward, and Littrell, who had been poised to jump, tumbled to the street, landing on his back. Brakes, like automobile lingo, were a work in progress in those early months of the Taft administration, and the car behind him could not stop in time to avert disaster. One witness said the sound was “that of a coconut being cleaved.”
The ambulance that came for Littrell was a brand-new electric-powered Waverly with a butter-soft black leather driver’s seat and an interior of polished poplar, the kind of elegant, expensive ($3,000) vehicle already becoming increasingly rare following the introduction of the plebeian Model T Ford ($850) in 1908. Befitting a city that aspired to open a clear lead over Detroit as an automobile manufacturing center, Indianapolis had two motorized ambulances in those days, proudly publicized in the press. That the unknown Samaritan who called for help that morning had summoned the one from the Methodist Hospital, and not the motor ambulance belonging to the Flanner and Buchanan funeral home, is perhaps a testament to the optimism that percolated through the town of 233,000 on the eve of the Speedway’s debut. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Once the word spread about Littrell’s accident, his well-being would concern a circle far beyond his immediate family, back in their humble digs on Dayton’s Wyoming Street. Some of the most powerful men in Indianapolis would stop what they were doing and pray that the Lord not take the beloved husband of Jesse and the devoted father of two-year-old Helen—at least not until Sunday, by which time the crowds and the out-of-town newspapermen would have moved on.
One couldn’t blame the town fathers and the Speedway founders for hoping to avoid unseemly incidents that might mar the mood. A lot was at stake for the spunky Circle City over the next few days, and to have a young autoist mangled by one of the very machines that everyone had come to celebrate would be something sure to get tongues a-clucking. If the papers played it as a random accident that was one thing; plenty of car wrecks made the pages of the town’s four dailies each day, usually with too much information about heads sliced cleanly open and knees crushed to a papery translucence. But should the Littrell incident turn into some sentimental tabloid trope about how “Death had visited the race meeting even before the first cars were cranked up for competition” and so on, as it easily might—well, that no doubt would set off the biggest round of I-told-you-so’s since the day in 1897 when the first automobile arrived in Indianapolis (it was a Benz, shipped from Germany) and, against much good advice, carriage maker Charles Black took it for a trial spin and promptly smashed a horse cart parked outside the Grand Hotel and two plate glass shopwindows on Washington Street. More than that, Littrell’s death, should it occur, would provide political leverage to certain voices in the community who equated an auto racing track with the Seventh Circle of Hell, and wanted no such diabolical venue in Indianapolis.
WHILE SCIENTIFIC MARKET research was still in its infancy, it was clear from tavern-talk and newspaper stories that America was sharply divided on the subject of automobile racing. To put that controversy in context, let’s recall first, though, that the nation just then was palpitating through the first torrid stages of a love affair with organized sports. Entrepreneurs and politicians had established that horse racing, boxing, and baseball—the three most popular pastimes in the first decade of the twentieth century—could, if presented properly, stir civic pride, keep young men out of trouble, and enliven the local economy. The relatively new games of football and basketball were meanwhile coming on strong as school sports. Indiana, for its part, already had thriving men’s and women’s basketball leagues that mixed college and YMCA (and YWCA) teams, and a baseball club, the Indianapolis Indians, who in 1909 were the reigning champs of the American Association, eclipsing their cross-state rivals, the Muncie Fruit Jars. But Indianapolis—twenty-third on the list of American cities in terms of economic clout, and hell-bent on cracking the top ten—badly needed what today would be called a marquee event to attract out-of-towners and help the city overcome its image as a burg somehow both sleazy and dull.
Earlier that year, Mayor Charles A. Bookwalter, borrowing from the writings of Saint Paul, had ordered the proud phrase “I am a citizen of no mean city” inscribed on the cornerstone of the new city hall. Bookwalter, a practical politician known for his tolerance of downtown gin mills, whorehouses, and gambling dens, was also a strong believer in sports as a tool of urban advancement; a former president of the American Bowling Congress, Bookwalter had brought the titans of tenpins to Indianapolis for the ABC Tournament in 1903, and the event had attracted a fair-sized “family” audience to Tomlinson Hall. For those looking to burnish the city’s reputation as a place where Big Things happened, and crowds flocked, sports was obviously one way to go. But was an automobile speedway really the project around which the good citizens of Indianapolis wanted to rally?
Was auto racing, for that matter, really even a sport?
It was a fair question.
A large problem with auto racing for many people (then and now) was that machines, not athletes, provided the muscle and the quickness. A short stroll through the pit area at, say, the one-mile Indiana State Fairgrounds track, where car races in Indianapolis had previously occurred, could have told you that most professional autoists were not athletes in the conventional sense of the term. A star driver like Ralph DePalma believed in calisthenics, a balanced diet, and abstaining from alcohol while preparing for a race (he sometimes consumed nothing but bread and milk for several days before a competition), but DePalma was a singular driver in any number of ways. In terms of personal habits and physical presence, the cherubic, cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield and the ungainly, pear-shaped Louis Chevrolet were more the norm for race car men—though the point is really that there was no norm.
Which was absolutely fine for many fans for whom the cars were sexy and interesting enough to compensate for any failure on the part of the drivers to resemble Greek deities. Americans at that moment were poised on the edge of a historic domestic decision. Or maybe “poised” isn’t the right word for a multitude in an emotional roil over the question of when to finally bid adieu to Old Dobbin and take the plunge into the motor age, to convert the old stable into a garage. Differentiating among the mind-boggling number of auto makes was difficult but key for those for whom a car might be the largest financial commitment they would ever make. Racing—which put the latest products to the test and let the chips (as well as the drive chains and connecting rods) fall where they may—was one good way of getting the information people sorely needed, the closest thing a car shopper had in those days to Consumer Reports. Leading manufacturers favored the practice, too, because they felt that it got clutched customers off the dime. As Henry Ford himself said, “The way to sell cars is to race them.”
And yet there were severe limits on what one could glean from the racing game. After almost fifteen years of fitful evolution, auto racing in 1909 remained an inchoate muddle, capable of yielding few hard truths. As an attraction at fairs and horse tracks it sometimes worked, and sometimes failed miserably to pull in fans. Even its staunchest backers admitted that the sport—or whatever it was—suffered from a lack of structure: it had no dependable schedule, no regular season, no annual rallying point unless you counted the Vanderbilt Cup, a road race far out on Long Island—and no clear and consistent rules about how much you could soup up your supposedly stock vehicle. Statistics were kept haphazardly if at all, and the timing and charting of events was often highly subjective when it wasn’t utter chaos. Gimmicks were often the order of the day, with promoters staging races in which drivers picked up and dropped off female passengers, or tried to see how far they could go in twenty-four hours of constant circling; in 1908 a Brooklyn-born choirmaster named Ralph Mulford emerged as the steely-bunned king of these round-the-clock marathon grinds. But a lot of what was called auto racing then was really just barnstorming, a distant cousin of vaudeville in which a field of five or six drivers would tour the country, staging what was essentially a fixed race at every stop. “Fixed” in this context, however, does not suggest something entirely predictable or in full working order. Just because it wasn’t difficult to guess the intended winner of an event billed as “Barney Oldfield and His Traveling All Stars” didn’t mean that tires, gears, centrifugal force, and fate wouldn’t conspire to produce a bloody or even deadly day at the races.
Which was, of course, why a lot of people came to the auto races. Not to see death, exactly, in most cases—but to spend some time luxuriating in its titillating possibility.
IT WOULD BE difficult to exaggerate the dangerousness of racing in a vintage 1909 automobile. “A man prominently identified with motor racing said that he would as soon ask a man to stand against a wall and be shot at with a Winchester as ask him to drive in a track race,” said an editorial in the Detroit Daily News in 1909. Explosive tire blowouts were common, oil leakage routine, and so you often had cars careening out of control on a well-lubricated surface. Vehicles frequently flipped over, or “turned turtle” as they said in those days, usually crushing the driver and “riding mechanicians” (the term didn’t shed its vestigial syllable until about 1912), poor souls—or total idiots, or immoral thrill seekers, depending on your point of view—who had no seat belts, roofs, roll bars, or hard helmets to protect them. Nor were the drivers’ and RMs’ chances much better when, following a collision or blowout, they flew from their seats and sailed into walls, trees, fences, buildings, infield ponds, or seas of startled onlookers. No one kept stats on deadly racing wrecks, but they occurred so often that drivers sometimes took up a collection the night before an event for the next day’s newly minted widows, whoever they might turn out to be. Some bookmakers offered propositions that allowed you to bet on a particular driver to win, live, or die. (Wagers were seldom accepted on the fate of riding mechanicians, who, for all practical purposes, didn’t count; though killed at a significantly greater rate than the drivers—who at least had the steering wheel to hang on to when things got hairy—RMs often went unnamed in newspaper accounts of their own demise.)
Because of all the carnage racing produced, a good many people thought the sport-not-a-sport debate missed the point, and that car competitions ought simply to be declared illegal. Some towns formally banned auto racing, while elsewhere mobs reminiscent of the torch-bearing villagers in Frankenstein chased touring drivers and their crewmembers out of town. More than a few localities went so far as to hire a professional rainmaker, hoping he could create a cloudburst on race day that would force a possibly life-saving cancellation. A man named Ned Broadwell made a handsome living in the Midwest in the early 1900s both by trying to cause rainouts at race meets and accepting bribes from auto racing promoters to get lost.
THE ANTI-RACING FORCES in Indianapolis had spoken out strongly after Carl Fisher announced, in the winter of 1908, that he and his partners would begin construction of the Indianapolis Motor Parkway, and Mayor Bookwalter had heard them out—and then gone about the business of helping the founders of the Speedway, as it would be retitled after a few months, get the necessary approvals and permits. By the spring of ’09, all seemed to be going well at the construction site, or so the press releases said. The track would open as scheduled on June 5 of that year, Bookwalter proudly told whoever would listen, and soon the world would know, he was sure, that auto racing, if packaged and presented properly, could be an exciting but safe and decidedly high-class endeavor every bit as worthy of public acceptance as the Sport of Kings, America’s Pastime, or the Manly Art of Self-Defense. And this, the mayor felt, besides being a triumph in itself, would help Indianapolis establish a reputation as the Car Capital of the U.S.A.
But the optimistic projections of Bookwalter—who was perhaps still feeling exhilarated from the injection of campaign funds he had received from the Speedway’s backers—were one thing. The true facts told a different, more sobering, tale.
For Fisher and his three co-founders—Arthur Newby, James Allison, and Frank Wheeler—launching the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was proving to be much less fun than they had imagined when, with a clink of highball glasses, they kicked in a total of $250,000 to buy 320 acres of what had been the old Pressley farm (no relation, but the owner did have a daughter named Elva) the year before. Back then the affluent amigos saw the Speedway as a mere sideline to their regular endeavors, a valuable addition to the community and the Indiana auto industry, to be sure, but also an amusing, high-profile way of flexing their celebrated Midas touches. Almost immediately, though, their lark had turned into a bear of a project and they had found themselves mired in quotidian but crucial issues relating to racetrack construction—most notably, the problem of getting a sufficient quantity of the particular kind of gleaming white stones that their chief engineer had chosen for the racing surface. They needed 90,000 cubic yards to cover the planned 60-foot-wide, two-and-a-half-mile-long course, and, because the surface was what would elevate the Speedway above the cindery, poorly graded horse tracks that autoists hitherto had been racing on—and thus be the key component in allowing a sometimes primitive spectacle to be presented as civilized sport—Fisher had spent the winter and spring of ’09 identifying, visiting, and striking deals with eighteen different firms in and around Indiana that stocked that particular grade and shade of gravel.
The Speedway, in general, had necessitated much more day-to-day decision making and hands-on managing of people and resources than the partners had anticipated. Seven days a week for five months, five hundred men and three hundred mules had toiled long hours, hauling in thousands of wagonloads of track bedding and surfacing material. The same workforce also had built a twelve-thousand-seat grandstand and forty-two other structures including cafÉs, clubhouses, refreshment stands, judges’ booths, restrooms, and a press shack from which the word could go forth about the wonders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, America’s answer to the year-old but already famous Brooklands course in Surrey, England, the first built-for-auto-racing venue in the world.
Throughout the construction period, the word did go out relentlessly and at times weirdly, thanks to publicity chief Ernest A. Moross, a tall, lean former bicycle racer whose official title at the Speedway was director of contests. While composing propaganda pieces for various newspapers—publicists often published under their own bylines in those days—Moross maintained an unvarying regimen: he would roll a sheet of paper into his typewriter, light a cigarette, then allow himself to be transported to the land of purple prose. In the Indianapolis Star of August 14, 1909, he promised “Competition such as been dreamed of will be witnessed when cars representing almost every country in the world will whirl by piloted by demons of speed and unrest.” Hyping the infelicitously titled Wheeler-Schebler race, which was named after a carburetor company owned in part by Speedway founder Frank Wheeler, he called it “a battle of giants at which the pygmies will be torn in twain as if by mountain chains.” In Moross’s defense, no one knew just how receptive the citizens of Indianapolis would be to the idea of auto racing at the Speedway, so it made sense, in a way, to go with the hard sell and err on the side of shredded pygmies. (By the same logic, he could also be forgiven for asserting elsewhere that “the town was booked up solid” for the race meet, although “many fine accommodations” remained available.) But Moross, like Fisher, may simply have been burnt out by mid-August of ’09, having spent the last few months tied to his desk as if by mountain chains, working like a demon of unrest. The man was exaggerating, spinning, and outright fibbing as fast as he could, doing heavy-duty damage control in the wake of two shakedown events that had caused flop sweat to blossom across a number of prominent brows.
IT WOULD BE difficult to designate the bigger of the two disasters that preceded the Speedway’s first auto racing meet, though the more colossally boring was clearly the hot-air balloon races, held on the unseasonably sultry Saturday of June 5. This should not have surprised anyone, really, since competitive gasbagging had been on the downslide since the late eighteenth century, when the invention of the passenger balloon by the Montgolfier brothers of Annonay, France, had ignited an all too brief vogue for joining the Mile-High Club. But Fisher, though born poor, had a collection of eccentric-rich-guy passions, one of which involved the vehicles he liked to call “cloud racers.” The previous October he had arranged for a 40,000 cubic foot balloon to carry one of his new-model Stoddard-Daytons over Indianapolis—with him in the driver’s seat. Fisher, perhaps the most successful auto dealer in the country that year, guessed that the stunt would generate more interest than signs or ads about the car’s new state-of-the-art oil pump and “double ignition system,” and he was correct. “Five thousand unbelieving people watched the start at the plant of the Indianapolis Gas Company,” the Star reported, “and saw the automobile securely hitched to the balloon to take the place of the customary basket. . . . Cheers from the thousands and hats waved in the air marked the start of the flight . . . [and] more than 100 cameras held by persons in the crowd were snapped several times.” The car hovered about a hundred feet above the downtown area for an hour and forty minutes before landing softly in Southport, about eight miles away. How much the stunt helped sales can never be known, but Fisher had such fun that he resolved to get a balloonist’s license and compete in a race that his Speedway (then still in the dreaming stages) would one day present. “Carl Fisher holds license No. 17 for balloon pilots in America,” his friend Will Rogers wrote in his syndicated newspaper column soon afterward. “I didn’t know you could pilot one—I thought the wind did that.”
Just as Will Rogers’s jokes couldn’t all be gems, Carl Fisher’s aeronautical exploits weren’t uniformly riveting. He had sold the idea of a balloon race to his fellow founders as a way to generate revenue without disrupting work on the track surface, which was at that late date still far from finished. (The balloonists would use only the infield, as a launching point.) Naturally, Fisher couldn’t resist taking part in the competition: he and his “aeronautical advisor,” Capt. George F. Bumbaugh, would travel in a large red balloon Fisher had christened the Indiana. But the event was a hard sell from the start. Although statistics showed ballooning to be about as dangerous as duckpins, Moross did his best to wring melodrama from the lives of the pilots. “Pathetic partings were exchanged between some of the men before they left their families,” said a story he planted in the June 4 Star. “Wives and children feared to bid goodbye to the men because of the possibility of fatal damage in such a daring undertaking. Mrs. Lambert and Mrs. Honeywell both pleaded with their husbands in vain to restrain them from entering, according to reports by friends.”
The day actually started out promisingly for the promoters: an estimated forty thousand pilgrims clogged the roads to the Speedway. Ultimately, however, only about 3,500 paid the 50-cent to one-dollar admission, the rest realizing that they could see just as well, if not better, reclining in pastures or perching on tree limbs just outside the grounds. Not that anyone saw much more than nine huge balloons slowly disappearing into a scorching, featureless sky at the urging of their rather stodgy-looking pilots (a silk top hat tumbled sadly from the stratosphere as the modest throng began to disperse). It was all so very 1789, or at any rate so pre-1903, the year the Wright brothers made their historic powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and rendered ballooning a quaint curiosity. Prizes were to be awarded for distance traveled and hours spent aloft, but the results wouldn’t be known for days, by which time the populace had long since moved on to other, more engaging matters, like, say, combing their hair and chopping celery. (Then and now, balloon races became interesting only when the contestants were blown over Southern states, where people shot at them.) Most people never noticed Fisher’s claim that his Indiana had stayed aloft for a world-record 48 hours, 50 minutes—or that, after witnesses came forward to say they had seen him on the ground during that interval, he confessed that he and Bumbaugh had in fact landed periodically so he could “stretch my limbs and smoke a cigar.”
Although Moross feigned amazement over the results of the balloon races, insisting they were an aesthetic and financial success beyond description (as so many things for him were) and speculating publicly about future air shows involving the Wright brothers and others, the communal yawn over the Speedway’s inaugural event was more than a bit disconcerting to the founders and others concerned with the facility’s fate. True, this wasn’t the big midsummer auto racing meet, but the fact remained that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had thrown open its gates with considerable fanfare, and few Hoosiers with four bits in their pocket had seemed to give a hoot.
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