The Crucible Of Speed

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Most long-term readers of this site know how much I appreciate the history of the Indianapolis 500. Those that share that interest with me will surely agree that with all the modern technology at our fingertips – this is a good time to be an IndyCar fan.

In the eighties and early nineties, the only way you could access old races, documentaries and historic footage; would be to own a VCR and either have a very good Blockbuster Video (remember those?) nearby or have access to a catalog to order selected videos. If you ordered your own videos, you needed to be ready to pay through the nose. They weren’t cheap.

I still have multiple video storage cases of old races from ESPN and ABC that I recorded onto VHS years ago. The problem is, I no longer own a VCR. I think I still have one in my storage space, but I’m not quite sure where it is.

But today, anyone can find footage from the most obscure race you could dream of on You Tube. Not long ago, I watched the original CBS broadcast of the 1978 race at Trenton, featuring Ken Squire and David Hobbs calling the race with Brock Yates in the pits.

But last weekend, I felt like I had struck gold when I came across The Crucible of Speed. I had heard Donald Davidson talk about this documentary for years, but never could think to search for it. It was by sheer luck that I stumbled across it last Saturday. This version has only been uploaded for less than a year. The film quality is near-perfect, considering the age.

If you’ve never heard of it, The Crucible of Speed was produced by Firestone in 1946. Yes, there are parts where it comes across as an infomercial for Firestone, but that’s OK – they were footing the bill. It can be a little hokey and corny in parts, but that also serves as a glimpse of the way things were back then. Those on camera were playing it straight. Not everyone was trying to be an on-screen comedian back then, as they do now.

But once you filter through the Firestone propaganda and the stiffness of the participants, you realize what you are watching and listening to – racing immortals. The use of the word “icon” would be so redundant, I shouldn’t even try.

This thirty-four minute film is in color, which was very rare in those days. In the first half of the film, you will see three-time winner and racing legend Wilbur Shaw interviewing Ray Harroun, the winner of the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Harroun’s legacy is obvious, but I consider Wilbur Shaw to be one of the most important figures in the entire history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; not only as a driver, but for saving The Speedway after the war. Then who walks in and joins the conversation? None other than Ralph DePalma, winner of the 1915 race.

DePalma spends more time telling the story of the 1912 race, when he pushed his Mercedes across the line as Joe Dawson took the victory in his National. They are all huddled around the Marmon Wasp, with it’s lighter yellow paint scheme with garish writing on the rear of the car drawing notice to the fact that it was the first winner. According to Donald Davidson, Harroun said that the current color of the Wasp is the way he remembered it. It has supposedly only gone through three paint jobs in its lifetime. But to hear these legends mention the names of the day like Dawson and Dario Resta seems almost surreal, now that we are a century removed from them now.

But they talked about more than certain races and Firestone tires. They also discussed all of the automotive advancements that were born at The Speedway. Later on in the second half, driver Cliff Bergere makes a speaking appearance; and Ted Horn, Rex Mays and Ralph Hepburn are seen, but not heard from.

The second half of the film focuses on the 1946 race, the first running of the Indianapolis 500 since 1941 – before the US entry into  World War II. It has excellent footage that captures the enormity of the event, even then – almost seventy years ago. It struck me that as far away and long ago as that race seemed, it was still Tom Carnegie’s booming voice on the PA.

So, if you consider yourself a racing fan and would like to take a trip down memory lane; or if you are younger and would like a glimpse into what it was like in yesteryear – set aside thirty-four minutes sometime this weekend and watch this video that I’ve included here, in its entirety and in one sitting. Do yourself a favor and enlarge the screen to full-screen. It’s clear enough that you won’t lose anything.

Seeing these gods of the Indianapolis 500 was mesmerizing to me. If you are a fan of the history of the Indianapolis 500, I have an idea you’ll agree with me.

George Phillips

 

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18 Responses to “The Crucible Of Speed”

  1. Brian McKay in sunny Florida Says:

    Amazed at what we can find on YouTube. No need to buy from Duke Video and others any longer…?

  2. Great stuff George… I have it Chromecast up on my 50 inch TV right now….

  3. madtad1 Says:

    So, that’s how you spent your snow day! 😉

    Seriously, thanks for this! I look forward to watching it!

  4. I’ve seen it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. Stewart - South Africa Says:

    Who has ever heard of a doccie on Indy called ‘The Racer’s Edge’ or something close to that?

    I saw this when I was at school a hundred years ago, it was all in monochrome and was footage from the 1950s and perhaps early 1960s.

    I have searched Google, but no luck.

    • billytheskink Says:

      STP put out a tape called “The Racer’s Edge” (their longtime slogan) back in the 90’s that documented their successes racing in Indycar and NASCAR, but that is obviously not what you are talking about.

      This would be a good question for Donald Davidson. He knows of darn near every film about the Speedway.

  6. That old footage is priceless. It was cool to see the speedway evolve as well as the cars from 1911 to the early 1940’s. So much changed in that time. Did anyone notice the flagman standing on the wire over the track at the start/finish? How did they do that?

    It reminds us how important IMS is not only for automobile innovations like “balloon tires” from Firestone, the rearview mirror from Ray Harroun(sp?), but shocks, engine designs/innovations, superchargers the list goes on and on. Its the history of IMS and how it affected and influenced how we live move around the planet. Its a pretty important place.

    I was wondering: do they ever play “The Crucible of Speed” in the gift shop? It documents the early days of the speedway really well.

    Thanks George that was cool.

  7. Phil Kaiser Says:

    George, for about a hundred dollars or so you can get a real nice VHS to DVD copier! I have had one for years now and have “duped” all my father’s 8mm films from the early ’60s & ’70s (Eddie and Dave in 1964 happened right in front of him and there it is in full color… ghastly!) and I have even transferred store-bought copies of AJ’s VHS “autobiography,” as well as “To Live & Drive the Indianapolis 500” from ABC-TV (no copy-guards on those). The best part is that you get to watch the cool stuff all over again (if you want) while you’re dubbing them to DVD!

    George, before you forget about those tapes and get too old to care (LOL) go get a DVD recorder at your earliest convenience; you won’t be disappointed!

    OR… you can send all your VHS tapes up here to me in Indianapolis and I’ll make TWO DVD copies of everything… one for me and one for you. And we can meet up at The Track in May so I can give them all back to you!

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • I got a DVD recorder about ten years ago. All of my Indianapolis 500 tapes are now on DVD, as well as all of my documentaries. But I’ve still got a ton of “other” races like 1991 Nazareth, etc. that are still sitting there on VHS. – GP

    • billytheskink Says:

      “Live and Drive the Indy 500” is a great tape (on Youtube now too), especially Sam Posey’s musings on cars one day doing 300 MPH around Indy and that great Paul Page intro:
      “This man accepts the historic challenge, a Sunday afternoon drive in Indiana…”

      If you ever have an overwhelming desire to watch your videotapes, George, you can probably get a VCR for less than $10 at a Goodwill or other thrift store. Now, if you’d recorded races on Betamax, you’d be out quite a bit more to watch them.

      • And speaking of Sam Posey, I just saw advertised on Motorsport Collector Sam’s new soon to be published book, “Where the Writer Meets the Road.”

        DVD Recorders! No race fan should be without one.

  8. Great post as always. I share your love of history. Would you mind linking to my site? If you have not seen, please check it out. It’s free, full of early-days auto racing history articles and images and I just want to spread the word. Thanks again for your great work, keep it up!

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    I just did a Google search for “Mark Dill” and came up with a very interesting looking site along with numerous pickle recipes. So thanks for that suggestion Mark. I will watch this video a bit later as the remainder of my morning will be spent hauling in fire wood. (There will be a May this year won’t there?!) I bought one of those devices to transfer my Dad’s 8mm racing footage to DVD, but the six year old kid next door has been too busy to hook it up for me.

  10. Another great documentary was on last night concerning Formula 1. It was called “1”.It covered the early days of F1,very interesting concerning the quest of safety by Jackie Stewart and then Bernie Ecclestone.Interestingly enough it explains how Bernie got into F1 and the driver’s unions, which seemed to never hold any weight either with those drivers.

  11. Yannick Says:

    Thanks for the hint, George. But I had accidentally stumbled over this film late last year when searching for something else. Usually, I’m not into historic racing but I was curious about what the track looked like back in the day, so I watched it. And it was well worth it.

    However, every obscure race cannot be found: last weekend, I went searching for footage from the 1981 Pocono 500, the last IndyCar race sanctioned by USAC which had lots of Silver Crown cars filling up the field. Yet, I searched to no avail since this race seems to not have been broadcast back in the day. Too bad this significant turning point is not well documented (by today’s standards).

  12. Brian McKay in sunny Florida Says:

    USAC sanctioned IndyCar races beyond 1981.

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