We're counting down to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 with a series of fascinating insights on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in RACER magazine and on RACER.com.
In conjunction with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its incredible collection of photography and race records, we're exploring some of the stories behind the traditions and showcasing the heroes, the groundbreaking machines and the epic races that made the Indianapolis 500 the most important race in history.
This week, we take a look at how two pre-War Indy icons, Louis Meyer and Wilbur Shaw, both came close to being the first man to take a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
WHEN CLOSE ISN'T CLOSE ENOUGH…
It wasn't until 1977 and the 61st running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race that A.J. Foyt became the first man to win the “500” four times. Yet, some four decades before “Super Tex” sealed the deal, two drivers had already come tantalizingly close to achieving that feat – Indianapolis Motor Speedway icons Louis Meyer and Wilbur Shaw.
Now, we remember Meyer as the first driver to win three Indy 500s –1928, '33 and '36 (BELOW) – and, after his third, a man who inadvertently started a tradition when he downed a quenching bottle of buttermilk in the winner's enclosure.
As a youngster growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., buttermilk had been his refreshing drink of choice and, even if he hadn't won the race, his crew had one ready and waiting for him. When he held up the bottle, along with three fingers signifying his three wins, and the image appeared in the next day's newspapers, a sharp-minded executive from the dairy industry realized the great marketing opportunity just presented and soon made sure that a bottle of milk would be part of the winner's celebrations from then on. The milk was removed from proceedings between 1947 and '55, but was brought back in '56 and remains an Indy tradition to the present (alas, poured over the winner's head as frequently as down his throat in recent years…).
And since we've gone off on something of a tangent, Meyer was party to two more “firsts” in 1936, being the first winning driver to receive the keys to the pace car and the first to be presented with the new Borg-Warner Trophy.
Whereas present-day Indy 500 winners get acquainted with the Borg–Warner Trophy in Victory Lane, Meyer's presentation came at a post-race gala dinner. Then, as now, he didn't get to manhandle the massive trophy home. Instead, he was presented with a walnut plaque that included a small relief of the Borg-Warner. In 1988, the plaque was superseded by the “Baby Borg” mini replica (CLICK HERE FOR STORY).
The pace car was an altogether more spontaneous gesture. Since retiring, twice Indy 500-winner Tommy Milton had become an engineer with Packard and was asked to drive the Packard pace car at the start of the '36 race. In those days, the pace car was only really center stage for the single pace lap before the field was released to start the race, so Milton's idea to present it to the winning driver was not only a kind gesture that continues to this day, but a shrewd way to ensure Packard received a little extra publicity. For Meyer, it was an unexpected, but welcome addition to his $31,300 prize money.
Wilbur Shaw, meanwhile, is revered not only as the second of Indy's three-time winners (1937, '39 and '40) and its first back-to-back winner, but for his role in preventing the Speedway from becoming a post-war housing development in the 'burbs of Indianapolis.
When the track and grounds fell into disrepair during World War II, owner Eddie Rickenbacker seemed willing to sell it for whatever fate might await. But Shelbyville, Ind.-born Shaw was determined that the stage for his finest hours would remain a racetrack and worked tirelessly to find potential investors.
In the fall of 1945, he met with Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman. Convinced of the Speedway's viability and Shaw's credentials, Hulman purchased it and installed his fellow Hoosier as president, general manager and face of the facility (AT RIGHT, the pair are pictured together as Hulman, left, signs the deeds of ownership). It proved a hugely successful alliance, albeit one cut tragically short when Shaw died in a light aircraft accident in 1954.
But how much greater would Meyer or Shaw's legend be if either man had been the first to achieve that elusive fourth win?
Meyer's near miss on the quartet came in 1939. He'd started second in the Bowes Seal Fast Special and, after taking the lead for the third time on lap 135, appeared to have victory in the bag. However, on lap 182, he blew a right-front tire, spun in Turn 1 and limped to the pits. By the time he was back on track, the new leader was…Shaw.
The normally cool and calculating Meyer chased him hard – too hard. On lap 198 of 200, he spun in Turn 2, crashed through the inside wooden fence, and was thrown from his car onto the track. With that wake-up call, a bruised, but otherwise unhurt Meyer decided to retire even before climbing aboard the ambulance. Minutes later, his relieved wife arrived at the infield hospital and noticed he was shoeless. The missing footwear was found still inside his racecar...
Shaw went on to win his second Indy 500, then added a third in 1940. But, in '41, after taking the lead on lap 45 and looking set for a fourth, he spun in Turn 1 on lap 152 and hit the outer wall hard. A wire wheel on his Mike Boyle-entered Maserati (pictured prior to the race, LEFT) had collapsed, not only ending the local hero's quest for four, but also denying him three consecutive wins – a feat still not accomplished to this day.
Shaw believed he knew why the wheel had collapsed. In the final days before the race, he'd been balancing his wheels with their race tires mounted, but for some reason had problems with one of them. Sure, it was usable, but it wasn't his first choice and he marked it up accordingly – “USE LAST,” written in chalk on the tire's sidewall.
A couple days later, at 7 a.m. on race morning, gasoline fumes from the refueling of George Barringer's rear-engined Miller drifted into the adjacent garage of the Thorne Engineering team, where a spot of last-minute welding was taking place. Sparks ignited the fumes and the subsequent explosion and fire burned a number of garages to the ground.
Shaw's car was unscathed but, he believed, the water from the hoses used to contain the inferno had washed the chalk message from the rogue wheel and, instead of being a last resort option, it was fitted at the pit stop prior to his accident.
Like Meyer, Shaw's near-miss would be his last start at the Brickyard – not because of retirement, but because of World War II shutting down racing for four dark years.
Would Shaw have added a fourth if war hadn't intervened? Impossible to say, given the countless twists of every Indy 500. But “what ifs?” are all part of the enduring fascination of the “500.”
• For tickets to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, CLICK HERE.
For more insight on the history and heritage of the Indianapolis 500, check out legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson's blog HERE on Indianapolismotorspeedway.com.
To get up close to racing history, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. Find out more HERE
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