Johnny Aitken, the Brick Test and the First Indy 500

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By Ken Zurski

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Johnny Aitken

On September 11 1909, at the Speedway in Indianapolis, race car driver Johnny Aitken hopped into his six-cylinder National motor vehicle, the same one he used to break speed and distance records, and gave the engine a go.  Like a shot, he drove over several hundred yards of newly laid bricks.

Track officials on hand kept a close eye on the ground, specifically the bricks, which were being considered as a possible replacement for the original “crushed stone” surface. Ever since the track opened earlier that year, the stones, gravel really, was proving to be costly – not only in maintenance, but in lives too.

Just a month before on Aug 9, the first long distance car race took place over the oval track. It was a disaster. A driver’s mechanic who rode shotgun during the race was killed along with two spectators. The race was scheduled for 300 miles, but was mercifully stopped at 235 miles. The drivers and their machines were not the issue. The problem was the track. The stones were too rough and loose.  The frequent tire blow outs and debris thrown in driver’s faces led to dangerous and deadly results. The unfortunate victims that day may have been the latest, but certainly not the first, fatalities at the track. Something needed to change.

But what would work?

The National Paving Brick Manufactures Association chimed in. They pitched their product as sturdy and reliable even under racing conditions. But their persuasive bias alone wasn’t enough. It was a costly venture, so track officials needed to see it for themselves. They had crews set down a few hundred yards of bricks and they asked one of the local drivers to help. Run over it, they instructed. Johnny Aitken happily obliged.

Aitken, nicknamed “Happy,” was an Indianapolis native who began testing cars at the National Motor Vehicle Company before racing them full-time with all the derring-do he could muster. Aitken was pretty darn good at driving. He won a few sanctioned races, set speed records for distance and supported another Indiana man, a bicyclist turned car aficionado named Carl Fisher, who used profits from a compressed gas headlight he invented to help finance, along with a few other money men, a showcase track built over farmland in Aitken’s hometown. He called it the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Carl Fisher

Fisher, now track president, was not in attendance when Aitken tested the new bricks, but was eagerly awaiting word. Although resistant at first, since attendance numbers went up after races where someone was killed, Fisher knew that the new sport needed its “heroes” alive, not dead. The newspaper’s reporting, however, was typically less sympathetic and more flippant. “The [killings] only served to increase the excitement,” the Indianapolis News enthused after a driver and his mechanic where thrown from their vehicle to their deaths.  The next racing day, the News observed: “There were more women in the crowd…and they appeared to be the most interested spectators.”

Fisher read the papers, heard the outcries from critics, and could no longer ignore the truth. The track was unsafe. He considered changing to a concrete surface at first, before deciding on bricks. However, they would have to be subject to vigorous scrutiny, he insisted, before opening his pocketbook.

After the initial run over the brick surface, Aitken turned his vehicle around and did the same thing again. About a dozen or so track employees waved off the dust and smoke and immediately inspected the bricks for damage. There was none. The next test, however, would be even more revealing.

This time Aitken positioned his vehicle directly on the bricks.  Two heavy duty ropes were tied to the front of each tire and secured to a couple posts held firmly by a concrete base. Aitken got the signal and gunned the engine. The tires spun wildly in place creating a massive smoke cloud, but little else. When it was over, not one brick was missing; not a chip out of place. That sealed it. The project was given the go ahead. The bricks would cover the full two-and a half mile track.

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Laying the bricks

Fisher promised the bricks would be installed in two weeks, a gross miscalculation. He even scheduled an air and dirigible show on the grounds just to keep interest up, but when work on the track and new grandstands took longer than anticipated, he was forced to cancel the event. The overall cost of the brick installation ballooned to $700,000 nearly triple the amount Fisher originally budgeted.

On May 30, 1911,  a Tuesday, driver Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 with an average speed of just over 74 mph. Or did he? Historians still debate who actually finished the six-hour race first. Another driver Ralph Mulford claimed he was ahead of Harroun at the end, but lost count and went an extra “insurance” lap just to be sure. By the time he crossed the finish line for the second time, Harroun was already celebrating.

Regardless of who actually won the race, nearly 80-thousand enthusiastic fans cheered the drivers on to the very end. “They had seen their hands weaken on the steering wheel,” the Indianapolis Star reported. “They had seen their drawn faces filled with anguish of intense hardship, and time after time they had seen them risk their lives in the speed arena”  As for Harroun’s apparent victory: “There were but four tire changes,”  the winning vehicle’s manufacturer boasted the next day.  The bricks, they subtlety implied, made the difference. “Three of the original ‘Firestone’ tires finished the race.” The track later picked up the moniker, “Brickyard.”

But there was a tragedy. Sam Dickson, a mechanic for the car driven by Arthur Greiner, never made it home. When Greiner’s car lost a tire and ran off the course it looked like it might somersault through the infield’s tall meadow grass. Instead it came to a sudden and horrifying halt. “Rather than keep going,” wrote author Charles Leerhsen, “the car stopped in mid-maneuver, so that it stood straight up, balancing for a moment on its steaming grille.”  Then it slowly flopped forward. Greiner was lucky, he was chucked from the cockpit and survived, but Dickson never left his seat and was crushed under the vehicle’s weight. The race was never stopped.

Johnny Aiken also participated in the first Indy 500. He completed 125 laps before a broken connecting rod ended his day.

He did, however, lead the first lap.

Aitken left auto racing in 1917. He worked to promote Peugeot vehicles and even traveled to France during the war to tour their large car making factory. Returning home, he developed “the cough.”  The Spanish Flu epidemic had been spreading quickly overseas. The former race car driver recovered from his initial bout of influenza, but only briefly. Soon enough bronchial pneumonia set in. Aitken died on October 15, 1918.

He was 33.

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(Sources: Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500,  Charles Leerhsen; Indianapolis Star May 31, 1911; various internet sites)

 

 

 

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