The Crucible Of Speed
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.