The Most Important Person In IMS History

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Starting in mid-April, The Indianapolis Star began a series in which they listed the Top-100 most influential people in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The list was revealed in reverse order in groups of ten. A recent release showed positions 10 through 3, but the remaining two were released just a couple of days ago – Tony Hulman and Carl Fisher. The Star considers Tony Hulman THE most influential or important.

Like any of these lists, they are mostly for fun and not to be taken too seriously. However as you get closer to the top, you pay a lot more attention and they do get serious. They are intended to stir debate, which is a good and healthy thing, so I’ll bite.

Before the final two were revealed, I could already tell that I did not agree with The Star on who they thought was the most important, because they listed my choice at No. 3 – Wilbur Shaw.

In my opinion, Wilbur Shaw is the most important, influential and (add any other superlatives here) individual in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Without Wilbur Shaw, there is no Tony Hulman or any other likely buyer for the dilapidated track after World War II. Without Wilbur Shaw, it is likely that I may never had heard of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and therefore likely I never would have become a racing fan.

Before the war, Wilbur Shaw was the most iconic driver in the history of the track up to that time. In a four-race span from 1937 to 1940, Shaw won the Indianapolis 500 three times and finished second once. He also had two other runner-up finishes earlier in his career. He was likely on his way to his fourth and third straight in 1941 when a wheel broke, seriously injuring the native Hoosier and relegating him to an eighteenth-place finish.

During the war, racing was banned in the US. As the war was winding down in late 1944, Firestone got permission from the US Government to do some tire testing at IMS, with Wilbur Shaw doing the driving. When Shaw arrived at the track that gave him so much success and notoriety, what he saw sickened him.

Track owner Eddie Rickenbacker had already bought Eastern Airlines from General Motors and all of his attention was fixated on his airline. The Speedway was neglected and fell into disrepair over the course of the war. By the time Shaw arrived for the tire test, the facility was literally falling apart. Full-sized trees had grown through the bricks on the main straightaway. Gates and doors were rotting and falling down. Stands were dilapidated.

1945

Shaw learned that it was a foregone conclusion by the locals that the track would be bulldozed after the war and turned into a housing development. Shaw approached Rickenbacker to see if he would be interested in selling the track. He was.

Although Shaw was a three-time winner of the “500” and was financially sound, he didn’t have the type of capital to buy such a sprawling facility, no matter how bad of shape it was in. He enlisted the help of his friend, Homer Cochran, who was an Indianapolis broker, to help Shaw find an investor or a team of investors to help him buy the track. While there was some interest in the local community on saving the track, he could not come close to raising the money necessary to buy the track.

When things seemed bleak and to the point that the most likely fate of IMS was to fall to the wrecking ball, Cochran suggested Shaw talk with Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman of Clabber Girl fame. Cochran set up a meeting between himself, Shaw and Hulman. Along with Hulman’s top assistant, Joe Cloutier, the men made a trip to the rapidly deteriorating speedway to survey the neglected property. In November of 1945, Tony Hulman bought the Speedway. Shaw had hoped to have an ownership role, but instead Tony Hulman appointed Shaw as President and General Manager of IMS.

At that point, Shaw spearheaded the efforts to get the track race-ready in a matter of months. New stands were erected and many buildings were repaired or replaced. As practice began in early May of 1946, construction crews were still putting the finishing touches on the stands as workers were still applying fresh coats of paint.

Shaw continued in that capacity very successfully. He made countless public appearances spreading the word about the race and the track to anyone that would listen. His tireless efforts and his unbridled passion paid off. He turned IMS into a showplace and made the Indianapolis 500 a world class event.

Sadly, Wilbur Shaw went down in a plane crash on Oct, 30 1954, one day before his fifty-second birthday. He would have no successor. By that time, Tony Hulman had learned enough from Shaw that he felt he could continue the work that Wilbur Shaw had begun.

It’s the old chicken-or-the-egg theory. One could not have existed without the other. Tony Hulman ultimately provided the funding for Wilbur Shaw to reach his goal of saving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Without Wilbur Shaw, Hulman never would have purchased the property. But who’s to say that Homer Cochran may not have found someone else to provide funding?

It was Wilbur Shaw that had the drive and ambition to save and preserve the track that had already been providing thrills and memories to a generation of fans and drivers. Had he not seen the shape of the old track at that tire test near the end of World War II, we may have all grown up without an Indianapolis 500 in our lives. Had he not gone on his quest to save the track at all cost, there would be no Month of May and none of this would be happening today.

Wilbur Shaw has already been noted as one of the top drivers in Indianapolis 500 history. But in my opinion, what he did after his driving career was over, makes him one of the Top-Two most important people in the history of The Speedway. When you add his driving career on top of that, there is no longer any question who the most important person in the history of the track is. It’s Wilbur Shaw.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “The Most Important Person In IMS History”

  1. JohnMc Says:

    A terrific article George! I agree whole heartedly.

    I know that it is more popular to have the four founders and Tony Hulman placed before Wilbur, however, Shaw’s deep passion for and tireless efforts on saving the speedway seals the deal for me.

    By the way, does anyone know where Wilbur’s silver cup is? I always look for it whenever I am at the IMS Museum and have yet to find it. Vuky liked the water a bit more than the milk because it was Wilbur Shaw giving it to him after winning the 500.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      A few years ago Wilbur’s son sold much of his dad’s racing memorabelia at aucton. I bid on some items but was outgunned.

    • John, milk was not offered in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500 from 1947 until it was reinstated in 1955, perhaps that’s why Vuky liked water better and didn’t “drink the milk.”

      By the way, there are photos of Pat Flaherty drinking water (after the milk) from a silver loving cup in Victoy Lane in 1956, could you be remembering that moment?

      Phil Kaiser
      Indianapolis

  2. Bob F. Says:

    I put Wilbur Shaw a solid #2. But without the vision of Carl Fisher, he would never have had the chance to save anything. And don’t forget, when Fisher was offered a huge sum of money to sell the track to a real estate developer in the late 1920’s, he instead took less money and sold the track to Eddie Rickenbacker so that the race track could continue. He was the founder and also the first person to “save” the speedway in a sense.

    One thing is for sure. Without these two there would no longer be an Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They are both the clear top 2.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    You make a compelling case for Shaw, George. Shaw, Carl Fisher, and Tony Hulman are practically tied for #1 in my view. Ranking any of these three above the others is dealing with the thinnest of margins.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    In the history of the track I believe that Wilbur Shaw had one of the better mustaches, surpassed only perhaps by Mauri Rose. I always found it interesting that English actor Robert Shaw, who played a Chicago gangster in the Newman film The Sting, was a dead ringer for Wilbur Shaw. Wilbur Shaw had the vision and Tony Hulman had the money. I would also rank Homer Cochran and his Rolodex right up there. I am grateful for all of them.

  5. EDGAR Emmitt Says:

    It was Shaws dream but Hulmans money.
    My vote is for Hulman.
    No money no IMS
    As they say money talks ,well you know the rest.

  6. SkipinSC Says:

    I’m no Donald Davidson, but, like you, George, I have a pretty good knowledge and sense of the history of the Speedway. I think, if anything, Shaw and Hulman should SHARE the title, since without the other, neither would have been able to revive IMS after the war.

    Face it: Hulman had the money, but not the passion and Shaw had the passion, but not the money. Together they made the magic happen.

    Carl Fisher I understand because he essentially founded the place, but the event has truly become a world wide “happening” only since World War II, and even more so in the era of world-wide communication.

    • Tony Hulman most certainly had the passion, in fact he used to go to The Race for years before he bought the place. He was a very shy man who liked to stay out of the spotlight. Some might misinterpret that as not having passion, but he did indeed have passion for the greatest spectacle in racing to be sure!

  7. I believe you could make a strong case for any of these men, and I have a difficult time putting them in any sort of order. They are all special in their own way, in what they did. It would be much easier to put them all on the “Mt Rushmore” along with someone else, which is a whole other debate.

  8. A very compelling case George. I’d say that Hulman deserves a little more credit because he reinvested so much of the profits back into the speedway and its infrastructure (except maybe the restrooms 😉 ) instead of just maintaining what was already there.

  9. This is a preposterous argument. Everybody who’s ever listened to a single episode of Talk of Gasoline Alley with Donald Davidson knows that the most important person in IMS history is Jim Hurtubise.

  10. George, I wrote this little piece on Wilbur about a year and a half ago. I think we’re in agreement that this man should be considered #1 on the list.

    https://openwheelamerica.com/2014/10/30/the-savior-wilbur-shaw/

  11. Gurney Eagle Says:

    Without Fisher, there is neither Shaw nor Hulman.

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