Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Last night I received a little visit from the insomnia fairy. It's not that unusual an experience, like almost forty percent of Americans I experience bouts of acute insomnia. Last night I spent about five hours wrestling the sandman, tossing, turning, and drifting off only to wake and start the process again. When my niece was a young girl she crayoned a vignette that still hangs on her grandmother refrigerator. The scene bears the too-wise-for-her-years caption "Insomnia is the Loneliest Disease" and, after suffering through a night of sleep deprivation,  I'd have to agree with the sentiment. When you can't sleep you feel alone and confronted with all the tricks and traps your overactive brain can concoct. Suddenly the commitments of the day ahead feel more urgent, interactions fraught, and the hands on the bedside alarm clock too quick to mark off another lost hour of slumber.

There's a short story in the insomniac experience. I can sense it somewhere on the desolate plains of nighttime, but it'll take a clearer head than I have today to nail down the details. In the meantime I see a mid afternoon nap in my future.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

2013 Indy 500 - Baloons Away

Just about now, not far from where I sit, hundreds of balloons have just been released. The Balloon Spectacle has been a part of the 500 opening festivities since 1943 when Mrs. Hulman suggested adding it as the punctuation of the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana. As a boy I'd stand in the front yard of my suburban home, shading my eyes and watching for the colorful cloud of balloons. I always hoped one would come close enough that I could capture it. I'm not really sure why, there wasn't a prize, no golden ticket, or cash reward, just a slowly deflating bag of helium of the sort that are handed out by the thousands every day.

Maybe I just wanted to touch something associated with the big event. Back then, the Indy 500 was the only event that put Indianapolis on the sports map. The ABA had closed down, shuttering the Indiana Pacers era of hoops dominance, and it'd be nearly a decade before the Colts came to town, so when you thought of Indianapolis you thought of AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Mario Andretti, and Indy cars.

Then again, maybe it didn't have anything to do with motor sports. It probably was the longing for freedom. I frequently dreamed of escaping my lot. My grade school held an annual Spring Fair and as part of the festivities the students would scrawl their names and addresses onto cards. These cards were attached to balloons and we all gathered on the asphalt parking lot behind the school to release them to the wind to kick the fair off. The idea was someone would find one of the cards, mail it back to the school with their location filled in, and we'd all see just how small the world was. My cards never came back, but as I watched another year's balloon float off into oblivion I always imagined myself riding along with it. I'd drift up from the parking lot, over the school, clear the telephone wires and tree branches, and just like that I'd be free of my earthly troubles.

Sorry, I guess I'm having a Richard Bach moment. Nostalgia has a way of creeping up on a fellow when he least expects it.

Here's a video of the Indy 500 balloon release from 2007 (I hope it works, the link seemed a little iffy, but it's an interesting view). The Balloon Spectacle is a far grander affair than what my little public school held, but the magic is still there. In the meantime I think I'll go out on the deck to watch for balloons drifting across the clear Indiana skies.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Full Flower Moon

As the old poem says, April showers bring May flowers and the name of May’s full moon reflects this common wisdom. In most areas, flowers are abundant during May. In fact, most of the cultural names for May’s full moon (Full Corn Planting Moon, Field Maker Moon, When Women Weed Corn Moon, and Blossom Moon) reflect the month’s connection with agriculture and growing things.

For me, May’s moon is always connected with growing up near one of the world’s largest sporting events, the Indianapolis 500. I can remember cool May afternoons during the 1970’s when the sound of qualifications wafted on the spring air, over the roofs of suburban tract houses, and into my small backyard. That sound had a kind of high-octane sex to it, an excitement that didn’t make sense to my pre-pubescent brain but would eventually manifest itself in wayward fantasies about the bacchanalia of 16th Street the night before the race. The Indy 500, complete with a festal procession, drinking feast, and drama within the 2.5 mile oval of Dionysus!

And that brings us back to flowers. I mean, after all, whether you’re talking about boys and girls or flowers and bees, it’s all really about sex. The Full Flower Moon is a symbol of the fertility of the land, the farm, the flock, and the farmer. Next time you find yourself out on a May night with the scent of Mock Orange or Leather Leaf Verbena teasing your nose, think of the loves of your life and wild oats sewn in the fields of your youth, and give a smile to the Full Flower Moon.

1936 Indy 500 - A Toast with Buttermilk

The month of May is coming to an end and along with it, my month of Indy 500 trivia and chaff. With the last lap fast approaching, we take on one of the 500’s long-standing traditions, milk. According to the Bleacher Report, the first appearance of milk in the victor’s circle occurred in 1936 when Louis (Lou) Meyer requested a glass of buttermilk after winning his third 500. Apparently the idea of drinking buttermilk on a hot day came from Meyer’s mother, though Bleacher Report seems to be the only online resource sighting that bit of trivia.
Meyer’s 1936 victory made him the first ever three time Indy champion, but he’d never win another 500. He passed away at the age of 91 in a Las Vegas hospital, but his contribution to the tradition of the Indy 500 goes on to this day.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Indy 500 - Hellcat or Wildcat?

FA31 Hellcat
One of the great things about living in the vicinity of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is you get a sidelong view of all the spectaculars that play a part in the race. The Goodyear blimp moors nearby, the drivers and celebrities are in town, and there's an assortment of mechanical marvels to ogle. Today, while making a lunchtime run to the grocery store, I saw a flight of WWII era aircraft flying in formation. They were far away enough that I couldn't make a positive identification, but their flattened wing tips suggest they are FA31 Hellcats or F4F Wildcats.

I dug into the web's archive of information and came up with a couple tells between the Hellcat and it's predecessor the Wildcat. The designers made changes to the shape of the tail and wings to improve maneuverability and control. Now, armed with knowledge from the 1943 issue of Popular Science I'll do my best to make a positive identification.

In the meantime, keep your eyes turned skyward and let me know if you see these speed demons of the past!

1950 Indy 500 - The Drink of Champions, Blatz

Our first color ad comes from 1950 and, as the big day is very near, I thought I'd go with a beverage that will be consumed in quantity between the green and checkered flags - beer.
Blatz, Milwaukee’s first bottled beer…not its best, not even the middle of the road, but put in a glass container first. Myron Fohr, the gentleman wearing the grease, never led a lap in the one Indy 500 in which he raced. Looking at him he has the appearance of a guy who drives a bar stool, not a race car. He probably fit into the cockpit a little like the cork in the fifth of thunderbird he kept tucked under the seat for emergencies. And take a quick look at those nails…apparently the folks at the ad agency spent some time caking crud under Myron’s nails (or gave up on removing it out and decided to go with the dowdy grease ball look).
The small ad in the lower left is for NBC’s television adaptation of the radio show Duffy’s Tavern. The series centered around an Irish tavern in New York and the misadventures and get-rich-quick schemes of Archie, its manager. The show opening featured a rendition of When Irish Eyes are Smiling played on a tinny piano. The music always was interrupted by the ring of a telephone and Archie spinning the catch phrase “Hello, Duffy's Tavern, where the elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin'. Duffy ain't here—oh, hello, Duffy..." Here's a bit of the radio show.
And here's some of the television show.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

1947 Indy 500 - Fame and the 500

The Indy 500 and celebrity have always gone together, and in this photograph from the August 1947 issue of Popular Mechanics we get a chance to see evidence of that connection. Keenan Wynn came into the world under the extravagant moniker Francis Xavier Aloysius James Jeremiah Keenan Wynn. He was the son of vaudeville comedian, perfect fool, Disney voice of the Mad Hatter, and early variety show host, Ed Wynn.
To be honest, I didn't recognize Keenan Wynn's name until I checked out his list of film credits. He appeared in hundreds of television and movie rolls over his long career including A World of His Own one of two Twilight Zone episodes in which Wynn would feature.

Wynn also made appearances on the big screen, including roles in Annie Get Your Gun along side Betty Hutton and Howard Keel, Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire and Jane Powell, Kiss Me Kate, A Hole in the Head with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson, The Absent Minded Professor, and Dr. Strangelove with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott.
Some amazing photos and the great story of Keenan Wynn’s little Alfa Romeo’s history can be found on the Hemmings Motor News site.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

1947 - Boy's Life Goes to the Track

Every magazine gives its own take on what’s important about the race. For Boy’s Life that means an emphasis on the Boy Scouts and in Wilbur Shaw, a life-long Scout, they found an icon. Shaw ascended from running errands in the pits to win the 500 twice and eventually become president of the Speedway. I wonder if there is a badge for lifetime achievement.

Monday, May 20, 2013

1964 Indy 500 - Eddie Sachs

Just in case my post about the Sport of Death made it seem like driving a race car is no more dangerous than your morning commute, here's a video tribute to Eddie Sachs who lost his life during the 1964 race. As I said, Death hovers and waits.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

1937 Indy 500 - The Purse Includes Time

I’m a fan of old fashioned watches and that fascination drew me to the ad for this double-faced design by Gruen. The ad mentioned Wilbur Shaw received a similar watch as part of the winner’s purse for his first 500 win in 1937. Shaw went on to win three times in four years. Got to love it when a local boy makes good!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

1939 Indy 500 - The Sport of Death

Auto Racing - the Sport of Death?
Life Magazine took a harsh line when reporting on the 1939 Indy 500, kicking their article off with the headline “145,000 Patrons Watch the Sport of Death at Indianapolis Speedway”. After reading that, one could be forgiven for thinking the Speedway hosted gladiatorial matches culminating with a Ben Hur style chariot race after the morning's bouts and executions had warmed the crowd up. Nobody can deny that racing is a dangerous business. In the history of the Indy 500 fifty five drivers, mechanics, and track personnel who have died during the race or practice. Death never has been satisfied to focus on participants, though. Ten spectators have been killed while watching the race and possibly the most tragic case is that of Wilbur Brink, a 12 year old boy who died instantly when the wheel of Billy Arnold's car bounded over the fence, crossed the street, and struck the youth while he played in the yard of his house.

Newsreel Stills of Floyd Roberts' Wreck
The 1939 race saw the death of veteran racer Floyd Roberts in the 106th lap, a death captured by newsreel cameras. It might be the humanization of death that spurred Life to make the assertion “With automobile testing moved to the safer proving grounds of the manufacturers, even hard-boiled sports writers now protest racing’s needless risks.” Of course Life's theory has a couple problems. Firstly, after making a statement that implies a broad consensus of the sport-writing community, they cite only one columnist (Hearst’s Bill Corum). Also they make the bogus assumption the purpose of the sport of racing is the testing of automotive product. I wonder if they'd also claim the purpose of baseball is the testing of clubs, football the testing of helmets, and soccer the testing of nets?

Still, it would be ignorant to pretend that racing didn't involve real danger. It’s easy to see the drivers as part of the machines they drive, at least until someone perishes. Every death brings calls for safety improvements, and even the geometry of the track itself has been modified since 1939 to help prevent fatalities. Nothing can make any race absolutely safe, though, and when the engines roar on Memorial Day weekend take a moment to think of the men and women who drive the oval. Remember, the specter of death always hovers over the Speedway among the cheers and gasoline fumes, waiting for the next tragedy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Year's First Sighting of the Goodyear Blimp

Just a quick note before heading out this morning, this week I caught the year's first glimpse of the Goodyear Blimp. I haven't seen it doing one of its nighttime advertising passes, but that will come eventually. Here's a nice historic photo of the blimp from 1931. This particular shot was taken over the now defunct Ford Airport in Michigan, but it went well with the era of 500 history I've been touching on lately.

Got any Indy 500 blimp memories? I'd like to hear them.

1936 Indy 500 - Champion

Yes, who can forget the 1936 Indy 500 when a gigantic alien spark plug abducted the winner on the final lap? Lucky for us they’ve put a roof on the track to keep space invaders out. 1937 ad for Champion spark plugs snipped from Popular Science.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

1931 Indy 500 - Louis Schneider

Schneider and Miller and the 1931 Indy 500 Starting Lineup
 Louis Schneider, Indiana native competed in six Indianapolis 500 races and in 1931 made it to the winner’s circle. He never would win again and in an ironic twist he won driving car number 23 and the next year drove car number 1 and finished 23rd. Symmetry I guess.

This image of Schneider ran in the February 1932 issue of Popular Mechanics and, having combed the archives for a while, I noticed something interesting. All of the Popular Mechanics issues have been mercilessly marked up with copious hand-written notes on almost every article. The notes deal with the specifics of each article - things like names, statistics, dates, and the like. My junior detective work leads me to think that the archive must have gotten their supply of old Popular Mechanics from an editor or a hopless obsessive compulsive. Whatever the case, the article about Schneider had an associated address that just screamed for a little Googling. Apparently it had some connection with car designer Harry Miller in the 1930s.
The Address
So I fired up Google and did a little checking, as of the writing of this blog post the mysterious address belongs to a faceless distribution center that squats in a neighborhood that could play backdrop to a zombie apocolyps flick. A quick check of Miller’s biography on Wikipedia didn’t turn up a connection with LA. I’ll have to do a deeper excavation someday.
Modern Long Beach Ave.

Monday, May 13, 2013

1926 Indy 500 - Built for Speed

1926 issue of Popular Mechanics featured an article on race car builder Harry Miller. Reading this piece brought back memories of my grandfather telling stories of how drivers and their crews would stay with families in Speedway so that they would be close to the track. Simpler times, now there isn’t a driver or owner who isn’t a millionaire several times over.
I found the picture of cars lining up for the start of the race interesting. My grandfather lived about five blocks from where this photo was taken and for a while my aunt lived about a block away from the start line. The line of trees and buildings behind the grandstand marks Georgetown Road, the long-time scene of pre-race debauchery and source of lurid pubescent fantasies. The field beyond is the Coca-Cola field where fans camp, grill, and generally make a mess of things before the gates open on race day. The structure in the infield is the Pagoda, which used to house the flagmen and time-keepers.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day - With the Jolly Green Giant

This morning I woke to the sudden realization that I'd failed in my Mother's Day responsibilities, I'd failed to put a web greeting together. So, between coffee and getting ready to visit my own mother, I did a brief search of the web for mom-appropriate material. I came across a lot of Victorian greeting cards and images that would have worked well, but the item that stayed with me was this little Mother's Day mention in a Green Giant ad.

The ad ran in the November 15, 1937 issue of Life Magazine, so the mention of the May holiday really is just a passing mention. The form, including the pronunciation guide, is an imitation of the McGuffey Reader a creation of William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey's readers were one of the nation's first true textbooks for teaching reading and grammar to young students.

It's interesting that the bad mother is a saucy fan dancer. Then again, maybe I'm making an assumption. The prim woman in the leg-of-mutton sleeves could be the bad one. She does look like the wicked step-mother sort now that I think about it. I can imagine her saying "I know you'd like to go to the ball, but the basement floors need scrubbing and someone has to kill the bats infesting the belfry...". In the end, though, neither one of them look anything like a real mother - especially not of the era when the ad ran.

Back to my point and reason for writing this morning, happy Mother's Day to all you mom's out there. I sincerely hope your children don't gift you with cans of Green Giant peas (or any other vegetation short of flowers).

Friday, May 10, 2013

1915 Indy 500 Celebrities

This page from the June 1915 issue of Motor featured an Indy 500 version of the social page showing off some of the important faces in attendance. Sizing presented a bit of a problem and the resolution of the original scan made reading a bit of a challenge, so here are the captions (as best I could interpret them) isolated with their respective images.

Above, left to right: Mrs. A. G. Batchelder of New York, wife of the chairman of the executive board of the American Automobile Association; Miss Ruth Ralston; Mrs. S. M. Ralston, wife of Governor Ralston of Indiana; Mrs. Homer L. Cook, and Mrs. Katherine Kidder of Terre Haute Ind.

Above: Carl G. Fisher, Henry Ford and H. O. Smith talking things over after the race.
Above: Mrs. Henry F. Campbell, wife of the treasurer of the Stutz Motor Car Co.

Above, left to right: Mrs. Mark Thistlehwaite, A. G. Batchelder and Mrs. Batchelder. In rear: Mark Thistlehwaite, secretary to Vice-President Marshall, U. S. A.

Left to right: Miss Mary O’Brien, of Louisville; Mrs. John Irwin, of Chicago; Mrs. L. C. Frady, of Chicago; Mrs. John Darmody, Mrs. J. J. Cole and Mrs. H. C. Lathrop of Indianapolis, and Mrs. B. W. Bishop of Brooklyn. In rear: J. F. Trsynor (?), C. P. Henderson, Earl Richardson, and B. W. Bishop.

We’re all familiar with Henry Ford and some may even know that Mark Thistlehwaite was secretary to the US Vice President and former Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall, but the majority of the importance of the others in these photos have mostly been lost to time. Nothing catchy or coy to say about them really, in a way they’re reminders of the fleeting nature of our accomplishments. One day we’ll all be fading photos in some photo archive, and the race will go on.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

1915 82 Miles per Hour!

As technology has improved, the speeds achieved at the Indy 500 have steadily risen. It's interesting to think that in the run-up to the 1915 race the average speed attained by race winners was only 82.47 mph. Today you almost get run off the interstate for going slower than 90.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

1915 Oilzum

I always thought the guy in the Oilzum “O” was a robber. I guess never having known a time when driving a car meant wearing goggles and elbow-high gauntlets was a requirement left me with nothing but a picture of a cartoon crook as a point of comparison. There’s  a lot of garbage about Oilzum online, but nothing really useful in figuring out its role and history at the Speedway. I have no idea whether a car using their products ever won a 500 or not, but I can say that as of August 1915 the best Oilzum could claim was a second place finish.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Indy 500 and U-Loy!

I Loy, we Loy, they Loy, and U-Loy. This ad for steel comes from the October 1922 issue of Automobile Topics a magazine devoted to the fad of automobiles. Reading the copy I have to wonder if U-Loy steel disintegrated at 126mph.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

200th Running of the Kentucky Derby

Syd Mead’s 200th Running of the Kentucky Derby
If you're a fan of noir sci-fi you should know Syd Mead, he is the designer behind the world of Blade Runner. He does great artwork with a real pulpy feel to it. This one struck me as appropriate for Derby weekend.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Two 1924 postcards of the San Francisco Cafe in Tijuana Mexico. The art deco facade drew me in, but the mystery has kept me interested. I found two postcards of this decadent dining hall, but couldn't find anything on its history. I guess that'll take some more digging, if anyone knows more about the San Francisco Cafe or Colonial Cafe as it later became known, drop me a line!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

1928 500 Starting Lineup

I’m a big fan of Shorpya really top-notch online archive of historical photographs and the month of May gave me an opportunity to plumb its depths for an Indianapolis 500 photographs. You're looking at track-level view of the starting lineup for the 1928 race. In the shot you cans see Tony Gulotta’s car (8), Babe Stapp’s car (7), Ralph Hepburn’s car (16), Louis Schneider’s car (24), and Lou Moore’s car (28). This puts the photographer on the inside of the track, at the third row of cars.

Louis Schneider, seen conversing with his mechanic, like so many early drivers was an Indianapolis native. Can you imagine how he must have felt sitting in his car, waiting for the starter's flag to drop on what was his second Indy 500? I bet he had butterflies the size of condors flitting around in his stomach. Schneider raced for six seasons, winning the 500 in 1931. He would die in September 1942 at the young age of 41.

Friday, May 3, 2013

1914 Indy 500 Pilots

A hundred years ago if you subscribed to a magazine entitled Horseless Age: the Automobile Trade Magazine your friends knew that you were a member of the modern set. Few people could envision an age when the horse-drawn hacks and carriages that crowded city streets would be replaced by motorized vehicles. The automobile shook society, redefining assumptions about travel, status, and mobility. It was an age that saw Emily Post include directions on automobiles in her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home (in case you're interested, according to Ms. Post it is the height of gaucheness to use the term “Auto” in place of “Automobile”). But let's save the aside on manners for another day.
What struck me most as I read the article was the reference to drivers as pilots. It's a marker of the age, nobody knew what to call a driver and literary outlets surely were fumbling for the right word. Reading an article that focuses on how many "foreign" drivers are entered in the Indy 500 also leads to an uncomfortable confrontations with the narrow-mindedness and prejudices of our past, but its nothing compared to most articles of the 1910s. Compared to some of the protectionist, rabble-rousing articles aimed at the burgeoning middle class, Horseless Age’s seems enlightened, but then again they are focusing on what most Americans considered socially acceptable foreigners (the French and British).

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The 1910 Air Show at the Speedway

1910 and Airplanes at the Speedway
A year after the National Balloon Race, the Speedway played host to another display of the cutting edge technology of the era. In June of 1910 Indianapolis played host to a six-day air show which included an appearance by the Wright brothers and Walter Brookins' breaking of the world record for altitude.
Another favorite photo of the track is this panoramic image showing box kite like aircraft lumbering around the oval. In the background you can see an early dirigible as well as a monoplane. The picture was taken from the south end of the track, allowing a view of the beginnings of the pits and the fabulous pagoda on the front stretch, but what I find amazing is the lack of separation between the track and the spectators.
The wonderful site The First Super Speedway has a day-by-day run down of the air show's events and links to Indianapolis Star articles of the era in case you want to read up.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Quote for May

A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.

~ English Rhyme

Happy May Day!

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might.

May Day, the first of May, is an ancient holiday that holds close to its pagan roots, an occasion for dancing and revelry honoring the return of spring and all its vital energy. Though Christianity nearly obliterated the ancient traditions of Northern Europe, you might be familiar with one of the ancient May Day traditions – the Maypole. That’s right, dancing around the central pole with ribbons, weaving in and out to the music.

In the 20’s Hanover College here in Indiana held an annual May Day festival that included not only the Maypole but the crowning of a May Queen.  The practice continued at least through 1949 as evidenced by the image I found in the Indiana Historical Society digital image library. Not sure what happened after that, I didn’t find any information on the web but I’ll admit I didn’t do a very exhaustive search.

Here's hoping you have a great spring, happy May Day!

Up, Up, and Away...

A Panoramic View of the 1909 National Balloon Race held at the Speedway
You might think of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as home to Indy car racing, a place where cars set speed records in a race that's steeped in tradition and history. You'd be right to think of the track this way, but it is and always has been a business venture. In fact, before the track's construction had finished its President, Carl Fisher, was thinking of ways to get a return on the money his investors had put into the track.
The National Balloon Race held on June 5th 1909 was organized as an attempt to recover some of this money. Construction of the track began in early April of 1909 and and, as you can see from the image above, it would be some time before the facility would be ready to host an automobile race. Carl Fisher always had been fascinated with aviation and he became the 21st person in the United States to earn a balloonist’s license. According to the Indiana Historical Society site most of the spectators show in this image didn’t pay admission, instead they gathered outside the Speedway grounds to watch the show from afar.
A Photo Postcard of the 1909 National Balloon Race held at the Speedway
The amazing panoramic view of the pre-race preparations comes from the digital archives of the Indiana Historical Society and I highly recommend making a trip over to their site where you can zoom in to look at individuals in the crowd. I’m not sure about the positioning of this photo, but I believe it’s what will be the north end of the track.
There also are some great Indianapolis Star articles at the First Super Speedway site, take a look!