Frank Lockhart – Boy Genius (Part II)

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By Tom Gahr

Note From George: I am pleased to welcome back guest blogger, Tom Gahr to this site. Tom wrote an excellent article in June regarding the rich open-wheel history in Iowa. Tom is back with an excellent article that focuses on the fascinating life of 1926 Indianapolis 500 winner, Frank Lockhart. It is so indepth that we have decided to divide it into two parts. Part I ran yesterday.  Tom is a 41 year-old husband and father of 2 living in Minnesota, with a passion for history. He grew up in Upstate N.Y., not far from Watkins Glen, but his formative memories of IndyCar racing are from watching the racing on ABC with his Dad. After drifting from the sport during college and young adulthood, he has taken up a renewed interest in it, and enjoys sharing his appreciation for it with his 8 year-old son.However, his wife and daughter are still perplexed by this male fascination with things that go “vroom”.

In May of 1927 on the 1.5-mile Atlantic City board track, Frank Lockhart set a qualifying record of 147.729 mph with his supercharged 1.5 liter Miller. Over thirty-three years would pass before any driver lapped another American speedway at a faster speed! He followed that up by winning the pole in Indy at a record speed of 120.1 mph, and led the first 110 laps before a broken connecting rod put him out of the race. That season Lockhart won the 200-mile race at Altoona, the 25-mile race at Charlotte, and the 65- and 75-mile races at (Rockingham) Salem, N.H., for a total of nine AAA wins in two years.

Despite finishing the season 2nd again in championship points behind Pete DePaolo, Frank was a household name. During 1927 he had established a world record of 164.28 miles per hour on the dry lakes of Muroc, California; in his standard race car powered by a tiny 91 1/2 cubic-inch displacement Miller engine. With that experience whetting his appetite, Frank set his sights on becoming the fastest man alive.

At the time, the Land Speed Record was still something pursued by professional racers, and just beginning to become specialty in its own right. Oldfield, DePalma, and Burman, had all held the record at one time. During the teens and 20’s the cars had changed from traditional open wheel race cars, to behemoth locomotives powered by two or more aircraft- type engines, with piston displacements up to 4,900  cubic inches. Lockhart felt that a smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic car would be capable of overcoming the limitations of weight, and wind resistance. Working night and day with the Weisel brothers, he sketched out a revolutionary vehicle, that would become known as the Stutz Blackhawk.

Photo 5

The "Blackhawk Special" was much smaller in every respect than the LSR machines of the time, being powered by one 16-cylinder  engine (two banks of 8 cylinders, set at an included angle of 30  degrees), and having only 181 cubic-inch displacement. With $50,000 in sponsorship from the Stutz corporation, Lockhart began building his machine at the Stutz factory in Indianapolis. Convinced that rotational drag from the typical disc wheels was resulting in the instability of cars at high speed, Lockhart designed articulated wheel spats to cover the wheels. The chassis was slim, with an enclosed engine compartment to eliminate drag under the vehicle. Models were tested in a wind tunnel, to balance the forces on the steering. The resulting car was smaller, and sleeker than anything the world had seen at the time, and would set trends for future automotive design.

Photo 6

In February of 1928, the Stutz Blackhawk Special was ready for the record attempt. Frank and his team arrived in Daytona, but struggled to find speed. After days of frustration, it was determined that the aerodynamic design was starving the engine compartment of air, and modifications were made to the bodywork. During a trial run at Daytona Beach on the morning of Feb. 22, 1928, at a speed of approximately 225 mph, the tires apparently struck an irregularity in the sand and catapulted the "Blackhawk Special" end over end into the sea. Lockhart was trapped in the vehicle and nearly drowned. He was rescued from the water by spectators, and was uninjured except for a few bruises and cuts to his hand. The "Blackhawk Special" was sent back to Indianapolis for repairs. With the winter speed season winding down, the car was rebuilt and returned to Daytona in April for another try. As his finances were running low, and his expenses to rebuild the Blackhawk special were ballooning, Lockhart had accepted $20,000 in sponsorship money from the Mason Tire Company to switch from Firestone to Mason tires for his run.

On Wednesday, April 25, 1928, Lockhart made his second attempt at the world speed record. It was late in the season, and the condition of the beach was deteriorating. The AAA officials were anxious to leave Daytona. Ray Keech had set a new record at 207 mph only three days before, but Lockhart was on a mission, and could not be dissuaded from his goal. Frank began a series of shakedown runs, slowly working up to speed. On his third pass down the beach he broke the 200 mph mark running against a headwind. At the end of the run he made the mistake of locking up his rear brakes, unknowingly cutting the right rear tire on a sea shell.

Photo 7

Although it was standard practice to examine the tires after each run, it took a long time to remove the Black Hawk’s wheel spats, and Lockhart was in a hurry to finish his runs before the tide came in. He decided on a quick, visual inspection of the tires, and set off once more. Bringing the Blackhawk up to speed along the beach, with the wind at his back, Frank barreled down the hard packed sand racing the morning tide to set the land speed record. He was flying at an estimated 225 mph when the right rear tire exploded. The Black Hawk snapped right, and then left before catching in the sand and going airborne. The car tumbled wildly 140 feet down the beach toward the spectators. Lockhart’s lifeless body came to rest a further 51 feet from where the car stopped, almost at the feet of his poor wife.

Frank Lockhart’s life burned hot and fast. Like the car he designed, he sped across the landscape of the golden age of racing. And like so many others before and since, he paid the ultimate price. He died shortly after his 26th birthday, but left behind a legacy larger than many who spent whole lifetimes chasing the same dreams. The fact that his name is lost and forgotten today is a shame. We owe much to our past, and would be wise to stop from time to time and reflect upon those who like Frank Lockhart gave so much in the relentless pursuit of speed.

References:

Golden Age of the American Racing Car, 2nd Edition, by Griffith Borgeson, SAE, ISBN 0-7680-0023-8

The Racing Campbells: http://www.racingcampbells.com/content/campbell.archives/stutz.black.hawk.asp

Motor Sports Hall of Fame: http://71.6.142.67/revize/motorsports/hof/lockhart_frank.htm

Al Blix Auto Racing History: http://71.6.142.67/revize/motorsports/hof/lockhart_frank.htm

Photos 5, 6, & 7. courtesy of the Florida State Library & Archives http://www.floridamemory.com/PhotographicCollection/

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6 Responses to “Frank Lockhart – Boy Genius (Part II)”

  1. Jack in NC Says:

    Enjoyable history. I knew nothing about Lockhart. Keep ‘em coming.

  2. Travis R Says:

    Great story – thanks for sharing. As Jack said, keep ‘em coming!

  3. Hi Tom,
    Wonderful stuff – very interesting chap indeed, it would seem

  4. Excellent site,Thanks for this great post – I will be sure to check out your blog more often.Just subscriped to your RSS feed..

  5. james t suel Says:

    I FOUND FRANK LOCKHEART WHILE NOSEING THROUGH THE LIBRARY
    AT SCHOOL .7TH GRADE FOUND A BOOK CALLED [OF MEN AN CARS]
    FRANK LOCKHEART STORY WAS IN THIS BOOK. HES BEEN A HERO EVERY SINCE. HIS 1926 500 WIN PHOTO GRACES MY WALL TO THIS DAY.
    GREAT STORY ,THANKS

  6. Brian McKay in Panama City Says:

    We’d like to read more bio sketches like this.
    Such a cryin’ shame that the fatal accident could’ve been avoided by an inspection of the tire. Yet so many of us make errors in judgement each week… sad…. How do we know that the tire was cut by a sea sheel on the previous run?

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