The Most Important Person In IMS History
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.
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.