Classic Car Capital
4-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt on the way to his first victory in 1961.
4-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt on the way to his first victory in 1961. (IMS Archives)

History of the Indianapolis 500 – Part Two

Harry Miller (IMS Archives)
Harry Miller

Harry A. Miller was arguably the single most influential individual in the history of American racing. Miller’s machines were finely crafted to an extraordinarily high standard and, even today, are sometimes referred to as ‘jewels’. Two Miller 122s traded to Ettore Bugatti by racer Leon Duray are reported to have provided the inspiration for Bugatti’s successful dohc engines.

Miller historian Mark Dees called the 122 front-drive Miller introduced in 1925 the apogee of Miller’s designs, but he continued to work with supercharging, intercooling, all-wheel drive and a V-16 engine for Indianapolis. The influence of Harry Miller carried on long after his lifetime, in the form of the Offenhauser and, later, Meyer-Drake engines that continued to win at the Speedway until 1976.

Duesenberg and Miller took turns trading Indianapolis 500 victories between 1922 and 1928 before Miller finally prevailed, winning two consecutive races in 1928 and 1929. Miller-powered and Miller-derived Offenhauser-powered cars in both rear-drive and front-drive designs then went on a tear, winning every 500 through the 1930s before Wilbur Shaw’s 1939 victory in a Maserati GP car.

There were other stories in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, of course, but nothing to stand up to the story of Duesenberg and Miller.

For one, several top European grand prix teams showed a brief, intense interest in the Indianapolis 500. The three-car French Ballot team found success at the Speedway, including second and third place finishes in 1920 and 1922. English manufacturer Sunbeam built three new cars for the 1921 race. Four Bugattis started the 1923 500 with European GP drivers including Pierre de Viscaya and Count Louis Zboroski. Mercedes also created a major presence at the 1923 race for European champions Max Sailer, Christian Werner and 1908 French GP winner Christian Lautenschlager.

A notable entry in 1924 was driver Alfred Moss, father of future world champion Sir Stirling Moss, who drove a Fronty-Ford. Moss was studying dentistry at Indiana University at the time.

IMS partners Fisher and Allison, together with real estate developer Lem Trotter—who located the Speedway property in 1909—continued to buy land in the area surrounding the Speedway—outside of the city of Indianapolis. Another of Fisher’s ambitions, according to Speedway historian Donald Davidson, was to build the “world’s first ‘horseless city’.” Whether Fisher accomplished this or not, the surrounding area quickly became known as Speedway City and was incorporated as the town of Speedway, Indiana in 1926.

Yet another account of this era was the story of Eddie Rickenbacker, who became the second owner of the Speedway in 1927. Following his first race at the Speedway with Duesenberg in 1914, Rickenbacker drove for Maxwell and, when Maxwell withdrew from racing, brought the availability of the former Maxwell assets to the attention of Carl Fisher and James Allison who formed the Prest-O-Light Racing Team as a second ‘house team’ in 1916.

Rickenbacker distinguished himself as a flyer in WWI and returned home as a national hero, America’s top ace and recipient of the Medal of Honor. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who would later become chairman of Eastern Airlines, took out a loan from friends in 1927 to purchase the Speedway. His presence enhanced the prestige of the Indianapolis 500 and his leadership carried the Speedway through the difficult years of the Depression.

Eddie Rickenbacker driving Rickenbacker 8 pace car (IMS Archives)
Eddie Rickenbacker driving Rickenbacker 8 pace car (IMS Archives)

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  1. Wonderful article and I particularly liked the following:

    “A notable entry in 1924 was driver Alfred Moss, father of future world champion Sir Stirling Moss………….”

    About time someone made Stirling World Champion. He really deserved the 1958 F1 title which he lost by a single point.

  2. One thing I would have loved to see mentioned was Andy Ganetelli, the turbines and the Novas. All were characters in Indy history.