“Gentlemen Start Your Engines”
I’ve read many racing books over the years – some obviously better than others. However, I just finished what I believe should be on every true racing fan’s short list of “must read” books – Wilbur Shaw’s autobiography; Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.
To fully appreciate the book, you must first understand the significance of Wilbur Shaw. I consider Wilbur Shaw to be one of the three most important figures in the one hundred year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It may actually be a three-way tie among any of those three. They are, in no particular order: Carl Fisher, who bought the land for his vision of a massive testing facility that would become the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Tony Hulman, who bought the dilapidated Speedway after World War II and saved it from demolition; and Wilbur Shaw, the former three time winner of the Indianapolis 500 who would later persuade Tony Hulman to save the Speedway in the fall of 1945.
Wilbur Shaw first drove in the Indianapolis 500 in 1927. He had never driven in a race that was longer than one hundred miles. He started in nineteenth position, respectable for a rookie, yet posted an impressive fourth place finish. Ironically, his relief driver was another young driver named Louis Meyer. Meyer would go on to win the next year, garnering the first of his three five-hundred victories allowing him to become the first three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
Shaw would eventually become the second three-time winner, earning victories in 1937, 1939 and 1940. He nearly became the first driver to win four and also the only driver to win three in a row – a feat that has never been accomplished to this day.
During practice for the 1941 race, Shaw was experiencing trouble with one set of wheels staying balanced. He had marked the bad set with chalk, warning to use that set as a last resort. As fate would have it, a fire broke out in Gasoline Alley on the morning of the race. Firefighters managed to salvage all but one car from the blaze. Shaw’s car was spared but the water from fighting the fire had washed the markings off the tires and they mistakenly found their way onto Shaw’s car during the race. On lap 152, while leading the 1941 Indianapolis 500 by more than a lap over second place – Shaw’s wheel buckled sending his Maserati spinning helplessly through the south end of the track before backing into the outside wall. The accident resulted in compression fractures in Shaw’s spine and caused temporary paralysis. The accident combined with the onset of World War II effectively ended Wilbur Shaw’s great driving career.
But Shaw didn’t fade into the sunlight. Shaw was an accomplished pilot and had already gone to work for Firestone in Akron. He was given the task of heading up their newly created aviation division. Although not a trained engineer, his common sense approach to problem-solving served him well in his new capacity. Toward the end of the war, Firestone began to plan for the resumption of normal business. During the winter of 1944-45, Shaw was asked to test a new synthetic tire that Firestone had developed for road use. He went to the Speedway to conduct the test on a cold winter day that saw the temperature hover around five degrees. It was then that he saw the deplorable condition that his beloved Speedway had fallen into.
Current owner and former driver and World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker was now consumed with running Eastern Airlines and had little time nor interest for the decrepit Speedway. It was assumed that the Speedway would simply fall prey to the wrecking-ball, giving way for a housing development. This is when Shaw met his ultimate challenge.
Wilbur Shaw was a dynamic individual who excelled at practically everything he touched. Whatever goal he set for himself, he would either meet or exceed it. As a young man, Shaw was never at a loss for female companionship. Yet when a beautiful young girl named Bea Patrick caught his eye, he announced to everyone his intentions to marry her. Six weeks later, he did just that. They had a very happy marriage. A couple of years later while Shaw was preparing to race in Detroit, Bea and their unborn son both died suddenly due to complications in pregnancy.
Shaw was crushed. For practically a year, he did not want to race, talk, eat or even live. He had already finally begun to evolve from his depressed state when he met a young girl who worked in the office of an Indianapolis car dealership. Again, he boasted to all that would listen that he had just met the girl he was going to marry. The girl’s name was Cathleen Stearns. Her name is mentioned once in the book because from their first date, Shaw called her “Boots” – naming her after a comic strip character of the day. Boots didn’t give in quite as easily and made Shaw work hard to win her over. Nevertheless, he did and they were married not long after they met. He and Boots traveled everywhere together. Not only were they man and wife, they were the best of friends.
In addition to being an excellent racecar driver and an accomplished pilot, Shaw was an expert mechanic and an astute businessman. He seemed to derive success from everything he attempted. But he was now faced with his greatest challenge. How could he save the Speedway? He was a successful businessman and was also very well respected and connected, but this was out of his league. Coming out of the depression and fresh off of a grueling war, the kind of money this endeavor would require just didn’t seem to be out there.
Then one of Shaw’s contemporaries told him of a man that he should go see. The man was Terra Haute businessman Tony Hulman. Hulman had gone to the race as a child and understood the importance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the state of Indiana. He was a quiet, unassuming man who didn’t want to lose money but said if he bought it, any profits would be put directly back into the facility.
After several meetings between Shaw and Hulman, Tony Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on November 14, 1945. He immediately appointed Wilbur Shaw as President of the Speedway. They had a monumental task in front of them – they had to replace grandstands, pull weeds from the middle of the track and basically transform what amounted to a condemned property into a top racing facility before May 30, 1946.
The track opened for practice on May 1 with workers still putting the final touches on the new grandstands as well as the other improvements necessary to hold the Memorial Day classic. Everyday, someone would tell Shaw that he was never going to make it, but in the true style of Wilbur Shaw – he did. The race was a success. Shaw managed to build off of that success each year as every race became bigger and better than the one before. Wilbur Shaw worked tirelessly for the next several years, laying the foundation for the traditions we embrace today.
Sadly, Wilbur Shaw and two other men plunged to their deaths in a private plane near Decatur, IN en route back to Indianapolis from Detroit on October 30, 1954 – just one day shy of his fifty-second birthday. Boots would live for another forty years. She passed away in 1994 and is buried beside Wilbur Shaw in Vernon, IN.
The book was written by Wilbur Shaw and goes up to the start of the 1952 Indianapolis 500. There is no mention of a ghostwriter or an “as told to..” but I feel quite certain another writer was involved. Then again, we are talking about Wilbur Shaw – a man of many talents.
The book is one that would be enjoyed by race fans as well as those who enjoy reading about the man away from the track. Shaw dwells thoroughly over each Indianapolis 500 that he was involved in. It is also a telling reminder of the dangers of racing in those days, as he talks openly about his racing friends who lost their lives behind the wheel. It is also interesting to get a glimpse of racing life in the thirties and forties and how innovation and gaining a competitive edge over your competitor was so important – something that is lacking in today’s racing. We also get an in-depth look at the personality that drove the man to succeed at so many things. If only IMS had such a man at the helm today.
This is not an easy book to find. It is listed in the Amazon store on this website but is apparently out of stock. I looked in my local library, searched at all the bookstores before my female friend found a used high school library book version of it for the whopping price of $9.00. It is in excellent shape and not for sale. It will become a permanent part of my collection of memorabilia. But take my advise and find yourself a copy. It is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. I don’t mean just racing books…I mean ANY books. It’s a great journey into yesteryear at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.