The Event That Almost Wasn’t Anymore

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Yesterday was Sunday December 7th. It’s a day that still probably means something to even the youngest Americans – although as time goes on, the significance of that day is softened with each generation. I was born less than seventeen years after that day. My mother was seventeen years-old in 1941 and remembers every moment as the confusing details slowly filtered into her Tennessee home that Sunday afternoon and evening. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was to my parent’s generation, what 9/11 is to ours – without the whacky conspiracy theorists of today that claim it was engineered by the US Government.

Without a doubt, it was a day that shaped the history of the world forever. On a much less significant scale, it was also a day that shaped the racing world in the years to come. During the Centennial Celebration of the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, I had many younger non-racing fans ask me why the one-hundredth anniversary of the race was only the ninety-fifth running. When I explained that the race was shut down during the war years of 1917-18 and again in 1942-45; they looked at me like I had two heads. They couldn’t comprehend that many sports and sporting events took a back seat after the surprise attack on Dec 7, 1941.

Many today cannot comprehend the full-blown effort stateside, when gasoline, tires and even sugar were rationed by all civilians. Every fiber of our being was geared toward the war effort. All able-bodied men went to war. My mother can go through her high-school yearbook and point out countless young men in her class of 1942 that didn’t come back after the war. Although I grew up listening about the depression and the war from my parents, I still have trouble imagining going through my yearbook and pointing out members of my 1976 graduating class that died in battle.

When the war was over in 1945, many sports quickly went back into high gear. Americans had suffered through the depression and then the war years. They were in search of some much-needed relief and sports could provide it.

Unfortunately, one of the premier sporting events before the war looked as though it would not survive the war years – the Indianapolis 500.

Track owner, Eddie Rickenbacker had lost interest in the Speedway during the war. He allowed his facility to deteriorate to the point that it was almost not recognizable. The wooden Pagoda was becoming dilapidated as weeds and even trees grew up around it. Weeds and small bushes were growing up in the middle of the track surface. Small buildings would topple over with barely more than a shove. In short, the track was a mess.

1945

In the last "500" before the war, three-time Indianapolis 500 driver, Wilbur Shaw, had broken his back in a crash while trying to become the first driver (and to this point, the only) to win the "500" three times in a row. After his recovery, he went to work for Firestone. In the latter stages of the war, Shaw went to Indianapolis to conduct a tire test for Firestone. The three-time champion was shocked at what he saw.

Knowing that Rickenbacker was more focused on his new venture, Eastern Airlines – Shaw approached the World War I flying ace after the war, to see what he could do to save the Speedway. Rickenbacker confirmed he was looking to sell. The most likely fate of IMS was to fall to the wrecking ball to give way to a housing development.

Dismayed at the prospect of the beloved Speedway being leveled, Shaw set out to buy the Speedway. There was only one problem – money. Once it became obvious that Shaw could not raise the money to buy the Speedway himself, Shaw approached a friend, Homer Cochran, a broker that had many wealthy and influential friends and clients. Cochran arranged a meeting with Anton (Tony) Hulman, Jr. of Terre Haute, Cochran and Shaw. Hulman had been to the early races as a boy with his father, and was always a fan of the race.

To make a long story short, Shaw appealed to Hulman’s sense of civic pride to save the event that all Hoosiers were proud of. Hulman agreed to buy the Speedway in late October of 1945 – and named the passionate and popular Shaw as president. Together, Shaw and Hulman worked miracles in the next few months to have the Speedway ready for the Month of May in 1946. When fans arrived, they saw a brand new grandstand and many other cosmetic changes to the track. What had been a tired old structure with a questionable future, had been transformed into a viable facility in a matter of months.

The 1946 didn’t go off without a hitch. There were still construction workers at the track as the track was open for practice for a couple of weeks before qualifying. But on Race Day, a huge crowd of people gathered that was larger than Hulman and Shaw even dreamed of. Tony Hulman got stuck in the massive traffic jam and barely made it inside the gates of his own track, before the race started. The successful pairing of Shaw and Hulman lasted until October 30, 1954; when Wilbur Shaw lost his life in a plane crash in central Indiana – one day before his fifty-second birthday.

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I’ve always been a huge fan of Wilbur Shaw. Not only was he a great driver, winning the Indianapolis 500 three times in a four-year stretch (1937, 1939-40), and possibly on his way to a fourth when a wheel broke in the 1941 race. He also drove what may be the most successful car to ever run at IMS – the Boyle Maserati. But perhaps even more significant than his list of driving accomplishments, is what he did for the Speedway after he retired as a driver. I fully believe that Wilbur Shaw is certainly one of the three most important figures in the history of IMS, with Carl Fisher and Tony Hulman being the other two. In my book, Wilbur Shaw should be credited with saving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from destruction after World War II.

Please don’t think for a minute that I am trying to compare the possible loss of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the loss of life that was incurred on Sunday December 7th, 1941 or throughout World War II. What my parent’s generation went through with the depression and the clouds of war looming over them as their friends gave the ultimate sacrifice is something I cannot fathom. We should all be grateful for those that grew up in the thirties and forties that sacrificed everything to defeat the axis that threatened us. There’s a reason they are referred to as “The Greatest Generation”.

But once the war effort was behind us and our nation was entering an era of prosperity, race fans came dangerously close to losing something that was very important to a lot of people, also becoming a casualty of World War II. Those of us that are race fans owe a debt of gratitude to Wilbur Shaw. He went above and beyond what most would do in making sure that the race that he cherished would survive and last for generations to come.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “The Event That Almost Wasn’t Anymore”

  1. This helps give a perspective of some of the more precarious periods in Indy 500 history. To have such a unique event survive through the WW2 years while simultaneously creating a bedrock of tradition for the U.S. and the sport of motor racing worldwide, is not only historical, but it also contributes to molding the evolutionary development of automotive technology, sporting, and tradition of this country we live in. As the Indy 500 has been almost lost more than once throughout the years, it reminds us, if mismanaged under the wrong hands, it could disappear.

  2. Wonderful story George. My parents, not long out our of college, signed the papers to buy their first house (a small lake cottage for $6,000) the day before Pearl Harbor. Of course, their life as well as millions of other Americans changed drastically. After the war my Dad began taking me to the 500 and I have been forever hooked. I plan to be at the 100th running.

    The Boyle Maserati is one of my favorite cars in the museum.

    I had not seen the first photo you have posted. Shocking.
    With all due respect to Mr. Shaw and all the Speedway owners who followed, the rest rooms are only marginally better after all these years.

  3. Living here in central Indiana, there was a 30 – 60 minute film narrated by Tom Carnegie which was played year after year in my early years on the purchase of the speedway. As a child, I would look forward to watching this as well as other films, usually 30 minutes in length, concerning races for specific years. I always wondered what happened to those films? These films, as well as attending the race for the 1st time in 1960, created interest for myself. My streak is still intact, but where did those films go? Some say local station channel 6 have these, as that is where Carnegie worked when not at the speedway. I am not sure where they are at, but I would really enjoy watching them again in the month of May.

  4. I am one of those that think his importance is immeasurable. Besides being one of the greatest drivers to ever turn a wheel, Mr. Shaw proved to be an astute businessman as well. He also did what he was passionate about. I think that he woke up every morning ready to go.

    Out of all the people in history to have lunch with I think that breaking bread with Wilbur Shaw would be special.

    By the way. Vuky always enjoyed drinking from the silver cup that was engraved with “Water from Wilbur.” He said so.

    • billytheskink Says:

      It is unfortunate that the “Water from Wilbur” tradition was not retained. It would probably be hokey if they tried to revive it now, but I’d consider it if the dairy farmers ever got tired of promoting milk…

  5. I’m always amazed by how much the place deteriorated in just four years. It looks more like twenty years of neglect.

  6. Being from Columbus, I always got a kick that The Ace from the Hat in the Ring squadron once owned IMS. The Speedway is a magnet for fascinating people.

  7. Excellent article George!

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