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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Indy car racing a century ago

by Gordon Kirby
Many fans today would be surprised to know that one hundred years ago in 1916 AAA National Championship racing was one of the most visible and popular sports in America. There were fifteen Championship races in 1916 and another forty AAA non-championship races. The season stretched from March through November and most of the major races drew huge crowds of 100,000 or more fans. In total, legions of fans all around the country enjoyed watching AAA races a century ago.

More importantly 1916 was the first year the AAA organized a formal National Driving Championship with a race-by-race points system. Until then going back to 1909 the AAA's champion had been selected by a vote of the leading auto racing writers of the day but in 1916 a proper championship was established. It was a first for automobile racing anywhere in the world.

In those days the legendary board track speedways were just beginning to replace road races as the primary venues for AAA racing. The first board track was opened in 1910 at Playa del Ray in California and no fewer than four giant, high-banked 2.0-mile speedways were built during 1915 in Chicago, Tacoma, Cincinnati and Sheepshead Bay just outside Brooklyn, New York.

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Most of the board tracks were designed and built by former bicycle racer Jack Prince and his engineering partner Art Pillsbury. Nineteen of these wood ovals ranging between 1.0 and 2.0 miles in length were constructed between 1915 and 1926 and every AAA Championship race between 1921-'27, but the Indy 500, took place on a board track.

However the high cost and difficulties of maintaining the wooden surfaces meant that many of these tracks enjoyed very short lives. Most survived only three or four years before deteriorating and being torn down. The longest-lasting board track was the 1.25 mile Altoona, Pennsylvania oval, which was built in 1923 and subsequently rebuilt before running its last race in 1931, becoming the last of the giant, high-banked board ovals to close.

The AAA's 1916 Championship schedule included nine board track races plus the Indy 500 (run over 300 miles that year), a 100-mile race at Indianapolis in September, a season-closing dirt track race at Ascot in California, a race on a one-mile cement oval in Minneapolis, and two major road races--the Vanderbilt Cup and American Grand Prize run two days apart in Santa Monica in November.

The 1916 season started in March and April with half a dozen non-championship races on California dirt tracks and road circuits. Eddie O'Donnell won four of these races aboard a factory Duesenberg but the opening round of the AAA's newly instituted Championship didn't take place until the second weekend in May at the spectacular 2.0-mile Sheepshead Bay board track, nicknamed 'The Colossus of Brooklyn'.

The first race at Sheepshead Bay had been run in October of 1915 over 350 miles and was won Gil Anderson's Stutz. On the second weekend of May, 1916, three AAA races were run at Sheepshead Bay. The first two of these were 20 and 50-mile non-championship sprints won by a pair of Peugeots driven by Johnny Aitken and Ralph Mulford. The feature race, called the Metropolitan Trophy, was run over 150 miles and won by Eddie Rickenbacker's Maxwell.

Round two of the championship was run at Indianapolis two weeks later. With WWI raging in Europe the race was cut to 300 miles in 1916 and was totally dominated by Italian-born Englishman Dario Resta's Peugeot, which led all but seventeen laps. Resta won by almost two minutes from Wilbur D'Alene's Duesenberg and Ralph Mulford's Peugeot. Rickenbacker qualified second and led the race's opening nine laps before suffering a steering failure while Aitken started from the pole and led a handful of laps before dropping out because of engine trouble.

Next came the Chicago Derby, a 300-mile race on the 2.0-mile board track in Maywood. Resta won again, this time beating Ralph DePalma's Grand Prix Mercedes by more than a minute. Two weeks later on the one-mile Des Moines board track DePalma came through to score his first win of the year and then won again on the one-mile concrete Twin Cities oval in Minneapolis on July 4th weekend.

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Round six of the 1916 championship took place on the 1.25-mile Omaha board track with Resta scoring his third win of the year. Round seven was the Montamarathon Trophy on the 2.0-mile Tacoma board track where Rickenbacker came through to win again aboard his Maxwell, but the rest of the season was dominated by the Peugeot's of Resta and Aitken.

In September, Aitken won three races in a row: a 300-miler on the 2.0-mile Cincinnati board track; a 100-mile race called the Harvest Classic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; and the Vincent Astor Cup, a 300-mile race at Sheepshead Bay.

The following month Resta scored his fourth win of the year in a 250-mile race on the Chicago boards called the Grand American Prize. Two weeks later Aitken also recorded his fourth win of the year with victory in the Harry Harkness Trophy, a 100-miler at Sheepshead Bay.

In November the focus shifted to the west coast for what would prove to be the last of two great American road races--the Vanderbilt Cup race sanctioned by the AAA and the American Grand Prize sanctioned by the rival ACA (Automobile Club of America). The races were run two days apart on the same nine-mile road course in Santa Monica and both counted for the AAA Championship.

The Vanderbilt Cup was run first over 35 laps (295 miles) with Resta and his Peugeot winning yet again. Two days later the 48-lap (404 miles) American Grand Prize was taken by Johnny Aitken who took over Howdy Wilcox's Peugeot for the race's second half after his car burned a piston on the opening lap. Resta dropped out of the Grand Prize race with ignition problems while Earl Cooper finished second in both races aboard his Stutz.

The final AAA Championship race of 1916 was a 150-mile race on the one-mile Ascot dirt track in California. Rickenbaker drove a Duesenberg to win at Ascot with Cooper again coming home second. Neither Resta nor Aitken entered the race at Ascot.

Resta took the championship with 4,100 points to second-placed Aitken's 3,440, both winning five races. Rickenbacker was classified third with 2,910 points followed by DePalma in fourth with 1,790 points, Cooper fifth with 1,405 and Wilbur D'Alene finishing sixth with 1,120 points.

America's first national driving championship had witnessed a fierce battle among world-renowned drivers and factory-backed teams from Peugeot, Duesenberg, Maxwell and Stutz. It was everything a motor racing series should be featuring larger than life drivers and spectacular cars competing on a superb variety of tracks in front of huge crowds.

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But America's entry into WWI meant that neither the Indy 500 nor a formal AAA championship would be run in 1917 or 1918, although many AAA races took place during those years. The 500 returned to the calendar in 1919 and a points-paying championship was organized for the second time in 1920, running every year thereafter save for the WWII years from 1941-'45.

Dario Resta continued to race for a few more years while becoming an American citizen and moving his family to California. After several years in retirement he returned to racing and competed in the 1923 Indy 500 aboard a Packard. The following year he raced in Europe for the Sunbeam factory team, winning the voiturette class in the Spanish Grand Prix. Sadly, Resta was killed at Brooklands in the UK later in 1924 at the age of 42 while trying to set a land speed record aboard a Sunbeam. A broken drive belt resulted in a punctured tire and a fiery accident which Resta did not survive.

Johnny Aitken was born and raised in Indianapolis. He started racing in 1909 and led the opening laps of the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Aitken's only other start in the 500 came in 1916 aboard one of the Peugeots but he won an amazing total of 15 of the 41 races he started at the IMS, the most of any driver in the Speedway's history.

Aitken was the only driver to win races in all four of the automobile racing weekends held at Indianapolis in 1909 and 1910 before the first 500 was run. He also won all three races comprising the Speedway's Harvest Classic in September, 1916. Aitken served as team manager for Joe Dawson's winning National in the 1912 Indy 500 and Jules Goux's winning Peugeot in 1913. Tragically, Aitken died in October, 1918, at 33 a victim of the Spanish 'flu pandemic.

A renowned American hero, Eddie Rickenbacker went to Europe and learned to fly in 1917. He became America's most decorated WWI flying ace shooting down 26 German 'planes from the skies over Europe. He went on to lend his name to an automobile company for a few years before buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1927 and providing much-needed leadership for the Speedway through the Depression. Rickenbacker sold the track to Tony Hulman in 1945, becoming a vice-president and then owner of Eastern Air Lines and establishing himself as a successful entrepreneur and promoter of air travel. He died in 1973, aged 82.

Ralph DePalma famously led all but four laps of the 1912 Indy 500 before his Mercedes broke with two laps to go. He finally won the 500 in 1915 aboard a Mercedes and scored a total of 25 AAA Championship wins, including two in 1916. DePalma drove Packards in 1917, '18 and '19, setting a land speed record of 149.875 mph on Daytona Beach in February of 1919 aboard a V-12 aero-engined Packard.

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After WWI, DePalma raced Ballots in 1920 and '21, qualifying on pole position at Indianapolis in 1920 and leading 79 laps before running into engine trouble. He won three races in 1921 and continued to race Indy cars through 1933, scoring his last major win at Syracuse in 1928. DePalma competed for a few years in stock cars until retiring in 1936. He died on March 31, 1956, aged 73.

Earl Cooper joined the Stutz team in 1912 and was a regular winner over the next few years in both road races and board track events. He was elected AAA champion by America's auto racing writers in 1913, '15 and '17 after winning many important races. Cooper retired after the 1919 Indy 500 but returned to action in 1921 and continued to race competitively through the end of the 1926. He won five races in 1923 and led the 1924 Indianapolis 500 before blowing two tires in succession and having to settle for second place behind Joe Boyer. He was on the pole for his final Indy 500 start in 1926 and retired for good in 1928 with a total of 21 AAA wins. Cooper died in 1965, aged 79.

Meanwhile, the AAA continued to run Indy car racing for another forty years until they pulled out and were replaced by USAC in 1955 following Bill Vukovich's death in the Indy 500 and the Le Mans disaster in which 80 spectators were killed. USAC ruled the roost for a quarter-century before giving way to the team owners' organization CART in 1979 which in turn lost control some twenty years later to Tony George's IRL now known as today's IndyCar.

Over the decades there have been many ups and downs as well as numerous changes in the spectacle and nature of the sport. There have also been revolutions aplenty, both technical and political, amid a staggering lack of leadership and longterm vision or planning. We can only hope that as Indy car racing digs more deeply into its second century the sport will find a way to regain some of its lost grandeur from a century ago.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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