Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500

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9781439149058: Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500

“History comes alive” (Kirkus Reviews) in the wild and true story of the first Indy 500 and the dawn of the automotive age—now in paperback.

Forty cars lined up for the first Indianapolis 500. We are still waiting to find out who won.

The Indy 500 was created to showcase the controversial new sport of automobile racing, which was sweeping the country. Daring young men risked life and limb by driving automobiles at the astonishing speed of seventy miles per hour with no seat belts, hard helmets, or roll bars. When the Indianapolis Speedway opened in 1909, seven people were killed, some of them spectators. Oil-slicked surfaces, clouds of smoke, exploding tires, and flying grit all made driving extremely hazardous, especially with the open-cockpit, windshield-less vehicles. Most drivers rode with a mechanic, who pumped oil manually while watching out for cars attempting to pass, and drivers would sometimes throw wrenches or bolts at each other during the race. The night before an event the racers would take up a collection for the next day’s new widows.

Although the 1911 Indy 500 judges declared Ray Harroun the official winner, there is reason to doubt that result, since Speedway authorities ordered the records to be destroyed. But Blood and Smoke is about more than a race. It is the story of America at the dawn of the automobile age, a country in love with speed, danger, and spectacle.

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About the Author:

Charles Leerhsen was formerly an executive editor at Sports Illustrated. He has written about sports and culture for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times, and People, as well as Sports Illustrated. A native of the Bronx, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Sarah Saffian.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


UNTIL THE MOMENT that one ran over his breastbone, Clifford Littrell had been exceedingly fond of automobiles. To be sure, a lot of young people were car-crazy in 1909, endlessly debating the relative merits of the National, the Pierce-Arrow, and the Knox, fogging the windows at the McFarlan showroom with their Sweet Caporal–scented sighs, scanning the glossy pages of The Horseless Age for gossip about rumored innovations like windshields and black tires (as opposed to the standard, tiresome off-white)—and digging through bins at dry goods emporiums for the latest in silk driving scarves (for men) or the kind of cunning little riding bonnet sported by Lottie Lakeside in the hit Broadway musical The Motor Girl. But Littrell was no mere enthusiast.

No, this poor fellow—whom we come upon writhing in the bustling intersection of Capitol Avenue and Vermont Street in Indianapolis, Indiana, at 11:30 on the sunny, sticky morning of Tuesday, August 17—had dedicated his life to what was then known as autoism. At the age of twenty-seven, he had risen from the position of molder in a metal factory to what was then known as a mechanician. His main job was to road-test motorcycles, which is what some Americans who disdained the French word automobile (because it was French) then called cars. It was still so early in the motor age, you see—three years before the Stutz Bearcat and four before the Duesenberg—that people hadn’t quite worked out the terminology.

A corpse was a corpse, though, and the prospect of seeing one caused a crowd to gather. Littrell was no one they knew, they could see, yet no mysterious stranger, either, having just come loose from the noisy caravan of men and equipment heading to the not-quite-finished Indianapolis Motor Parkway—or rather Speedway, as they had been calling it these last couple of months—some five miles northwest of town. A long line of Jacksons, Marmons, Amplexes, Buicks, and other cars had been traveling there, circus-train-style, the better to attract attention and whip up curiosity as they prepared for a historic event: the first racing meet in America conducted on a track built specifically for automobiles. Thousands of auto industry people—executives, salesmen, and common laborers like Littrell—had flocked to Indianapolis that week for three days of competition that would begin the next afternoon and culminate in the first edition of the 300-mile Wheeler-Schebler race on Saturday, August 21.

Littrell worked for Stoddard-Dayton of Dayton, Ohio, one of more than a thousand auto manufacturers then trying to grab a share of the booming U.S. market. Most of those car companies were tiny operations—some were virtual one-man shops—but Stoddard-Dayton ranked among the largest, with several hundred employees. Littrell had started there about five years before, when the company, instead of turning out “Touring cars with Speed and Symmetry in every line,” as their literature boasted, was instead still making mowers, hay rakes, and harrows. That morning he had been perched on the rear of the company’s highly touted No. 19 race car as it rolled out of the garage. It was a precarious spot, atop the gas tank with no handle to grasp, but the trip to the Speedway seemed relatively short, and the traffic, a mix of horse-drawn and motorized vehicles, was moving sluggishly; he thought he would be all right. Then he remembered a wrench he had left behind, and, without informing the driver, he braced himself to hop off the vehicle, figuring he would grab the tool, catch up to the car, and quickly clamber back aboard. Just at that moment, though, the traffic jam eased a bit, the No. 19 car surged forward, and Littrell, who had been poised to jump, tumbled to the street, landing on his back. Brakes, like automobile lingo, were a work in progress in those early months of the Taft administration, and the car behind him could not stop in time to avert disaster. One witness said the sound was “that of a coconut being cleaved.”

The ambulance that came for Littrell was a brand-new electric-powered Waverly with a butter-soft black leather driver’s seat and an interior of polished poplar, the kind of elegant, expensive ($3,000) vehicle already becoming increasingly rare following the introduction of the plebeian Model T Ford ($850) in 1908. Befitting a city that aspired to open a clear lead over Detroit as an automobile manufacturing center, Indianapolis had two motorized ambulances in those days, proudly publicized in the press. That the unknown Samaritan who called for help that morning had summoned the one from the Methodist Hospital, and not the motor ambulance belonging to the Flanner and Buchanan funeral home, is perhaps a testament to the optimism that percolated through the town of 233,000 on the eve of the Speedway’s debut. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Once the word spread about Littrell’s accident, his well-being would concern a circle far beyond his immediate family, back in their humble digs on Dayton’s Wyoming Street. Some of the most powerful men in Indianapolis would stop what they were doing and pray that the Lord not take the beloved husband of Jesse and the devoted father of two-year-old Helen—at least not until Sunday, by which time the crowds and the out-of-town newspapermen would have moved on.

One couldn’t blame the town fathers and the Speedway founders for hoping to avoid unseemly incidents that might mar the mood. A lot was at stake for the spunky Circle City over the next few days, and to have a young autoist mangled by one of the very machines that everyone had come to celebrate would be something sure to get tongues a-clucking. If the papers played it as a random accident that was one thing; plenty of car wrecks made the pages of the town’s four dailies each day, usually with too much information about heads sliced cleanly open and knees crushed to a papery translucence. But should the Littrell incident turn into some sentimental tabloid trope about how “Death had visited the race meeting even before the first cars were cranked up for competition” and so on, as it easily might—well, that no doubt would set off the biggest round of I-told-you-so’s since the day in 1897 when the first automobile arrived in Indianapolis (it was a Benz, shipped from Germany) and, against much good advice, carriage maker Charles Black took it for a trial spin and promptly smashed a horse cart parked outside the Grand Hotel and two plate glass shopwindows on Washington Street. More than that, Littrell’s death, should it occur, would provide political leverage to certain voices in the community who equated an auto racing track with the Seventh Circle of Hell, and wanted no such diabolical venue in Indianapolis.

WHILE SCIENTIFIC MARKET research was still in its infancy, it was clear from tavern-talk and newspaper stories that America was sharply divided on the subject of automobile racing. To put that controversy in context, let’s recall first, though, that the nation just then was palpitating through the first torrid stages of a love affair with organized sports. Entrepreneurs and politicians had established that horse racing, boxing, and baseball—the three most popular pastimes in the first decade of the twentieth century—could, if presented properly, stir civic pride, keep young men out of trouble, and enliven the local economy. The relatively new games of football and basketball were meanwhile coming on strong as school sports. Indiana, for its part, already had thriving men’s and women’s basketball leagues that mixed college and YMCA (and YWCA) teams, and a baseball club, the Indianapolis Indians, who in 1909 were the reigning champs of the American Association, eclipsing their cross-state rivals, the Muncie Fruit Jars. But Indianapolis—twenty-third on the list of American cities in terms of economic clout, and hell-bent on cracking the top ten—badly needed what today would be called a marquee event to attract out-of-towners and help the city overcome its image as a burg somehow both sleazy and dull.

Earlier that year, Mayor Charles A. Bookwalter, borrowing from the writings of Saint Paul, had ordered the proud phrase “I am a citizen of no mean city” inscribed on the cornerstone of the new city hall. Bookwalter, a practical politician known for his tolerance of downtown gin mills, whorehouses, and gambling dens, was also a strong believer in sports as a tool of urban advancement; a former president of the American Bowling Congress, Bookwalter had brought the titans of tenpins to Indianapolis for the ABC Tournament in 1903, and the event had attracted a fair-sized “family” audience to Tomlinson Hall. For those looking to burnish the city’s reputation as a place where Big Things happened, and crowds flocked, sports was obviously one way to go. But was an automobile speedway really the project around which the good citizens of Indianapolis wanted to rally?

Was auto racing, for that matter, really even a sport?

It was a fair question.

A large problem with auto racing for many people (then and now) was that machines, not athletes, provided the muscle and the quickness. A short stroll through the pit area at, say, the one-mile Indiana State Fairgrounds track, where car races in Indianapolis had previously occurred, could have told you that most professional autoists were not athletes in the conventional sense of the term. A star driver like Ralph DePalma believed in calisthenics, a balanced diet, and abstaining from alcohol while preparing for a race (he sometimes consumed nothing but bread and milk for several days before a competition), but DePalma was a singular driver in any number of ways. In terms of personal habits and physical presence, the cherubic, cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield and the ungainly, pear-shaped Louis Chevrolet were more the norm for...

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