“Blood and Smoke” – A Review
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.