“Blood and Smoke” – A Review

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Conspiracy theories don’t interest me much. I have always been convinced that there was only one shooter involved in the Kennedy assassination. I fully believe that NASA landed men safely on the moon in July of 1969 and every other time that history says they did. I also believe that the attacks of 9/11 were done by terrorists, and were not a plot by the US government. And for the record…I don’t subscribe to the theory that the US has buried nuclear reactors under the polar icecaps to cause global warming.

That’s why when the book Blood and Smoke was released in 2011; I had little interest in it and dismissed it as nothing more than someone trying to stir something up. If you have not heard of this book, it stirs up the notion that Ray Harroun quite possibly didn’t win the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Notice I didn’t say that the author, Charles Leerhsen, claims that Harroun didn’t win it – he simply suggests that he may not have. He thinks it is quite possible that Ralph Mulford may have won it. That’s about as strong his evidence is.

I had heard of this alleged controversy before, but wrote it off as the product of people that had nothing else to do. The internet has given new life to stories like these. Donald Davidson totally dismisses the claims by the author, offering up concrete facts that Leerhsen conveniently left out. After hearing Davidson go off a few times on The Talk of Gasoline Alley back in 2011, I knew I had no interest in reading this book.

But a funny thing happened last fall. My wife Susan was browsing through Amazon.com one day in search of a new racing book for my birthday. She came across Blood and Smoke. She had never heard of it, but the description made it sound like something I might like. Knowing my love of the history of the Indianapolis 500, she wondered why I grimaced when I opened it. I told her why and she offered to send it back. I thought about it, but I figured I needed to read it before completely writing it off as garbage. That was a big mistake.

It took me roughly five months to read Blood and Smoke. I am a slow reader, but that’s not why it took so long. I would read a few pages and get so mad I’d shut it, put it down and wouldn’t pick it up for another two weeks. Every night, I would climb into bed, see that book on the bedside table and say “not tonight”. I couldn’t bear to pick it up.

One would think that since Mr. Leerhsen was going to suggest that Mulford had won instead of Harroun – most of the book would be devoted to the actual race and the so-called confusion that followed. The book has 247 pages, yet the race in question doesn’t even begin until Page 217. Thirty pages. That’s it. Thirty pages out of 247 to offer up flimsy evidence that Ray Harroun was handed the win for political reasons.

So what did the other 216 pages deal with? This was where Leerhsen took his shots at Carl Fisher, the four founders of the Speedway, the Speedway itself and fans of racing in general. About the only person spared in Charles Leerhsen’s character assassinations was Ray Harroun himself. Leerhsen does not seem to be a fan of motor racing or those that follow it. I wondered why he would write a book about it, since he has written no other books on racing.

Leerhsen’s mini-biography on the back flap credits him with writing three self-proclaimed best-selling biographies covering subjects Donald Trump, Chuck Yeager and NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff. The majority of his career was spent writing for various magazines including Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Money, People, TV Guide and Smithsonian. He has been an editor at Sports Illustrated, People and Us Weekly. Leerhsen also spent eleven years at Newsweek. It reads like an impressive career in journalism, but I’m not sure where his knowledge of racing history comes from.

To his credit, the book is thoroughly researched. He credits many sources from his research as well as citing various interviews he conducted. The problem is, he doesn’t simply present facts. He twists them and opines whether or not he thinks they are credible. For instance, he quotes Donald Davidson a couple of times. He never says he interviewed him – he just used old quotes. But after quoting Davidson, he throws in his own two cents worth to discredit what Donald had said. I’m sorry, but I’ll trust anything Donald Davidson says about the first Indianapolis 500 over Donald Trump’s biographer.

I’m not going to say that Carl Fisher was last century’s Roger Penske of the business world, but the man had many successes to his credit. He was a successful bicycle merchant in his early years. Later on, he founded Prest-O-Lite, which ended up making almost every headlamp for practically every automobile of the day. He founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and later developed Miami Beach.

But to read Mr. Leerhsen’s account, Carl Fisher was a bumbling fool, a flake, a drunkard and basically stumbled by chance upon any good fortune he encountered. Any successes enjoyed by the eccentric Carl Fisher were strictly by total accident according to Mr. Leerhsen. Although he spent only thirty pages on the subject of his book, he devoted entire chapters to Fisher marrying a teenager that he didn’t love in addition to his extramarital exploits and his heavy drinking.

Leerhsen referred to Fisher as “Crazy Carl Fisher” every chance he got. Fisher was portrayed as completely inept, especially in his decision-making with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His version of Fisher is that of a very corrupt man, who couldn’t care less if drivers, riding mechanics or even spectators were injured or even killed at his Speedway. He is presented as a man who only cared for the show and to make sure the public got more of what it wanted.

This is where Leerhsen took his shot at racing fans in general. Several times, he refers to racing fans as “blood-thirsty” who are interested in seeing cars crash and drivers die. He portrays drivers of the day as complete maniacs that laughed in the face of death. He justifiably mentions the fatalities that were common to racing in those days, but says that’s the only reason fans paid attention.

Anytime Ray Harroun is mentioned in the chapters leading up to the final thirty pages, it is always followed by the caveat of “…who was credited with winning the first Indianapolis 500” instead of simply the winner of the first Indianapolis 500. The entire book is set up to invoke doubt, instead of using facts to make his case. It’s sort of like a cheesy news site that makes you click on a headline with a question mark; like “Peyton Manning To Retire?” You bite and click on it only to find that you’ve been suckered in to a story intended to raise questions only. That’s how convoluted Leerhsen’s logic was.

According to Leerhsen, Fisher bungled everything to do with the Speedway and constantly found himself in desperate times. Most of the time, Fisher was supposedly bailed out at the last minute by Howard Marmon, founder of the Marmon Motor Car Company of Indianapolis. This helps lay the groundwork of Leerhsen’s theory that Fisher was Howard Marmon’s puppet, due to the fact that Fisher owed so many favors to Marmon. Based on Leerhsen’s theory, this led to an allowance of a Marmon purpose-built car to be entered, when the rules were set up for cars in a mostly stock configuration. Another small twisting of the rules was creating a way for Harroun’s car to carry the No.32 – a nod to Marmon’s model 32 passenger car – even though it was not the thirty-second car entered, which was the way cars were numbered.

Of course, when the scoring methods of the day came into question – it is proposed by Leerhsen that since Fisher was so beholding to Howard Marmon, Harroun should be declared the winner. His strongest argument to suggest Harroun may not be the winner is the fact that Fisher – for whatever reason – had all of the scoring records destroyed the next morning. While that is a little unusual, it does not guarantee a conspiracy was in the works.

By now, I’m sure many are thinking that I would parrot anything that Donald Davidson said and would never keep an open mind about such things. That is not true. When it comes to the few times that Donald has inserted his opinion on matters, he and I disagree quite often. For instance, you can tell that Donald is not a huge fan of Bobby Unser. I am. He also takes a very sympathetic view toward Kevin Cogan and his one season at Penske. I do not.

But on the topic of Blood and Smoke, Donald and I are in total agreement. Had the author used the extensive research he obviously did to present facts, and only facts, to present his case – I may have been a little more open-minded. Instead, he sprinkled a few meaningless facts in with his seemingly personal vendetta against Carl Fisher and the Speedway.

Give me a book about Parnelli Jones, Mauri Rose, Billy Arnold or Ralph DePalma any day. These are topics that any race fan can appreciate and should seek out. A book like Blood and Smoke, that does nothing but cast a lot of doubt, is more suited for the convenience store – right next to the National Enquirer.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to ““Blood and Smoke” – A Review”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I found Blood and Smoke to be a brisk read, out of necessity really, since I checked it out from the library. I’m not sure what Leerhsen would claim his aim was with the book, but in the early pages it seems clear to me that his intent is not to write a history nor to really build a convincing case against the official results of the first 500 (because it does an especially terrible job at that). Rather, it appears his intent was to present a snarky look at early 20th century American life using the founding and establishment of IMS as a frame.

    Leerhsen’s tone is one of constant bemusement, as he seems to regard the turn-of-the-century American as a creature one half step up from a Neanderthal. You can practically hear him chuckling as he recounts anecdote after anecdote that can be portrayed as “wacky” compared to his modern sensibilities. Several of these are largely unrelated to the Speedway or the 500, other than that they occurred in Indianapolis between 1908 and 1911.

    It is easy to see why Donald Davidson hates this book. In addition to quoting him out of context and according him little respect, it is not remotely close to an accurate or fair history. However, as an amusing and irreverent look at the United States at the dawn of the automobile age, I think Blood and Smoke actually succeeds. If you go into the book expecting what it is, and do not mind Leerhsen’s general disrespect for auto racing and early 1900’s Americans, it is an OK read. In that sense, it’s probably much more appealing to non-race fans. Personally, I did not greatly enjoy the book much in general, but I will admit that I did find several of the periphery stories that Leerhsen recounts to be pretty amusing.

    • _alanstewart Says:

      I can’t add a lot to what billytheskink said, as his take was extremely similar to mine. I watched JFK not as a documentary of what EXACTLY happened, but one person’s creative liberty of what really happened. My favorite movie of all time, Hoosiers, is loosely based on a small high school in Indiana winning the 1954 state title. So loosely, in fact, that the ONLY part of the movie that is 100% accurate is the final eight seconds of the state championship game. If you go in to ‘Blood and Smoke’ accepting it for what it is — one person’s creative version of the events that happened leading up to the first Indy 500 and NOT a reference book, nor the gospel according to Leerhsen — I think you’ll actually somewhat enjoy the book. When people go into it thinking it’s being presented as 100% truth, you end up with the same frustration that George felt.

  2. I’m about halfway through this book, so I was delighted to see your post here. I’m really enjoying it because I love learning about all of the things that happened in the first 20 years of this race. It is simply fascinating to me.

    Anyway, I like that it’s out there, and you can make up your own mind about what you believe to be true. That being said, I’m really, really looking forward to Jade Gurss’s new book, The Beast – Inside Story of the Penske/Ilmor Motor from the 1994 Indy 500. That is going to be a book that everyone should read. Can’t beat the price either.

    Here’s the link if you want to pre-order:

    https://www.octanepress.com/book/beast

  3. So, George, what you’re saying is that the book didn’t redeem itself in the 60 or so pages that you had left when we met for tenderloins at Culver’s about three weeks ago? Man, and here I had my fingers crossed for a “last five pages plot twist” that would pull it back from the brink on insanity. Oh, well. It’s just another book that I wouldn’t have time to read, anyway…

  4. More than anything, for me it is just nice to find that there are still folks reading actual books. Who knew?! One person even mentioned going to a library. Perhaps all is not lost after all.

  5. So much of this is politics. Many of the authors are of a left wing persuasion and it colors their conclusions. A great example of this is baseball’s Black Sox scandal. The “official story ” is that the owner, Charles Comiskey , was a cheapskate and underpaid his players. To get even, the players threw the series to make up for their lousy pay. Eliot Asinof was a big part of that and his politics are well known.

    This is probably the story you have heard. Poor exploited players.

    Yet in research I and others have done, another story emerges. Overall, the White Sox were one of the best paid teams even if several players probably made less than average. There was no $10,000 bonus that Eddie Cicotte was cheated out of. Even Chic Gandil, the ringleader, admitted that Comiskey’s “cheapness” had nothing to with what they did. But the evil capitalist had to be at the center of all things bad. Sounds just like what you ran into with this book. They did the same thing to Charles Comiskey. He was cheap in some ways, but that did not cause the scandal.

  6. George, I took Davidson’s College-Level History Of The Indianapolis 500 class a couple of times at IUPUI here in Indianapolis and he won’t even comment on that “book,” except to say he tried and tried to get the author to come sit down and interview him. And to some of the folks commenting on your review: history is not up to opinion, it is what actually happened. Period. And watching a movie like JFK or Pearl Harbor or Titanic is not even close to history at all, it is pure entertainment and full of distortions and made-up crap to keep folks coming to their movies.

    Hey George, I’m with you on most of those conspiracies, I really am, but if you believe that one bullet went through Kennedy’s neck, changed directions and went through Gov. Connely’s back (breaking two ribs) then hit and shattered Connely’s right wrist, bounced off and went completely through Connely’s left thigh and came out virtually pristine on the gurney he was laying on in Parkland Hospital after the shooting, well then you really need to do some serious research on that assassination. That’s the “Single-Bullet Theory” by Arlen Specter in a nutshell. Oh, by the way, the 12 doctors who examined Kennedy in Dallas (with a few hundred years of emergency room trauma experience between them) ALL concluded immediately Kennedy was hit from the front and not the rear, but were ignored by all investigators. They weren’t even called to testify at the Warren Commission because the fix was in. And nobody has ever explained why Kennedy’s brain went missing between Dallas and DC, never to be seen again. These are facts, not supposition. You like books? Read Best Evidence by David S. Lifton, it’s a great read and it’ll change your mind on this topic fast.

    • Crap, his name is spelled “Connally.” Oops.

    • _alanstewart Says:

      “And to some of the folks commenting on your review: history is not up to opinion, it is what actually happened. Period. And watching a movie like JFK or Pearl Harbor or Titanic is not even close to history at all, it is pure entertainment and full of distortions and made-up crap to keep folks coming to their movies.” — Phil Kaiser

      Phil, thank you for making my point for me. If Blood and Smoke was written as an accurate account of the events that took place, you would be 100 percent, completely right with this statement. But, it’s not. If you know that going in, you’ll enjoy the book far more than if you go in knowing what actually happened. That’s what I was trying to say.

  7. Dear Mr. Phillips: I’ve seen your words about my book “Blood and Smoke,” a main point of which is that chaos reigned on the day of the first Indy 500. It seems that you are more fascinated by the idea of “conspiracy theories” than I am. The Speedway in 1911 lacked the technology to keep track of a 40-car race that lasted about seven hours. It is amusing to read the conflicting contemporary accounts of where various cars were at specific points in the race. After an incident in the infield, 10 minutes went by without anyone even trying to keep track of the running order. And when Carl Fisher destroyed the scoring sheets that had not been blown away by the wind (no kidding) he was trying to hide the fact that no one could say with certainty who had won (though it was most likely the Marmon with Ray Harroun). My book was fact-checked once by Simon & Schuster, its publisher, and again by Smithsonian Magazine and yet again by Sports Illustrated, where excerpts ran. As for Donald Davidson not speaking to me, as one of the commenters alleges, I refuse to believe Donald said that. He is a lovely and genuine man and, as I say in the Acknowledgements, he gave me a personal tour of the museum and spoke to me on many occasions over the course of my several trips to the Speedway, over meals and in his office, as well as on the phone and via email. He and I disagree but I respect him deeply and he was an important source for me in the preparation of “Blood and Smoke.”

  8. Correct me if I am wrong, but I didn’t get that George is “more fascinated by the idea of ‘conspiracy theories'” than you. However, he did present your conspiracy theories.

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