LOUIS MEYER, INDY'S FIRST THREE TIME WINNER by Legacy Brand ,John G. Printz and Ken M. McMaken.
Louis "Louie" Meyer, Indy's first three-time winner (1928/1933/1936) and the first three time winner of the U.S.' (AAA) National Driving Title (1928/1929/1933), has been involved continuously with American automobile racing since the early twenties. He came to it somewhat naturally because his elder brother, Eddie, was racing stripped-down and souped-up Model T Fords (the poor man's racing car during during that era) on California's various dirt ovals during the first half of the roaring twenties. Louis used to tag along with Eddie and thus came to meet and know many important personalities like Ed and Bud Winfield, Riley Brett, Dale Drake, Frank Elliott, Frank Lockhart, etc., which would later play a big role in Louie's subsequent success.
Eddie Meyer never quite made it into the AAA National Championship circuit proper (he was entered in the Fresno 150 of 1 Oct. 1921, but did not qualify in a "Redlands Special") but Louie during 1926 worked as a mechanic for driver Frank Elliott, who was then campaiging a rear drive Miller on the AAA National Championship board track circuit. During the period 1924-26 Louie may have tried to drive in couple of minor California area dirt track events. There was no doubt that by 1926 Lou himself wanted to be a driver.
Meyer's first important start as a driver occurred at Charlotte, NC on 11 Nov. 1926 in a 50 mile sprint ranked by the AAA as a National Championship Race. Louie retired early to finish 10th out of the 12 starters. The Charlotte meet of 11 Nov. 1926 was the last championship AAA outing for 1926 and Louis now had to wait for the opening of the 1927 campaign at Culver City on 6 March 1927. Lou entered but failed to make the lineup. Meanwhile Louie was working with Frank Elliott preparing Frank's rear-drive Miller for the upcoming 1927 "500". But Frank was soon offered a ride in what he thought was a much better bet, a front drive model 91 Miller. So Elliott put his former and more prosaic rear drive Miller up for sale, but Elliott told Louie that he could drive it at Indianapolis on a percentage basis if he couldn't find a buyer. Unfortunately another new Indy rookie, Wilbur Shaw, found a sponsor who purchased Ellott's old Miller. Meyer, however, was retained as a mechanic, pitman, and possible relief driver. During the 1927 "500" Lou relieved Shaw for 41 laps and the two new Indy rookies finished in 4th place. Elliott himself, in the front drive Miller, rode home in 10th.
After the 1927 Indy event Meyer appeared with a Duesenberg at both Altoona (June 11) and Salem (July 4) but had no luck at either contest. At Altoona he failed to qualify and at Salem he fell out of the 200-miler with no oil pressure after just 26 circuits. However, later in the Salem race Louie got back into action by relieving the old veteran "Grandpa" Eddie Hearne, who had been racing autos since 1907. That concluded Louie's rides for the 1927 season in the AAA big time. Meyer had a total of 41 AAA Championship points for the year (38 from Indy and 3 from Salem, both obtained in relief roles) and was ranked 17th in the 1927 AAA National Standings.
The first AAA National Championship contest for 1928 was Indianapolis itself. Meyer thought that he had lined up a ride on the famous Duesenberg team. But the two Duesenberg brothers, Augie and Fred, were very hard pressed for money and in dire straits, so when driver Ira Hall came up with some real cash, the car was sold and Lou, now found himself without a car to drive. Meyer soon voiced his plight to truck manufacturer and racing enthusiast Alden Sampson. Sampson soon came to the rescue by purchasing for Meyer a 1926 model rear-drive Miller which Wilbur Shaw had thought that he had lined up. Thus 1928 was the reverse of 1927 when Shaw had obtained the machine that Meyer thought he was going to drive! Meyer qualified the Miller at 111.352 mph to start in the 13th position. Meyer was still a complete unknown as a driver and was certainly not among the group of pilots expected to win or given even the remotest chance of victory. But Louis, with the help of his father, put the Miller together as best they could for the long 500-mile brickyard grind.
The 1928 "500" proved to have another upset winner and was the third one in row for the big Speedway. Many of the top pilots such as Cliff Bergere, Leon Duray, Wilbur Shaw, Babe Stapp, and Russ Snowberger were using the exotic front-drive model Millers. But the experience of the Indy races of 1926-1929 tended to show and prove that at Indy the front drive Miller 91 1/2 cars were out of their element. The Indy bricks were now very rough and the 500 mile distance seemed to conspire to break up and eliminate the fragile and the more delicate front-drive Millers over their rival, but more stoic rear-drive models. It all led to upset winners at Indy in 1926 (Lockhart) and 1927 (Souders). 1928 was much of the same.
Leon Duray, the heavy favorite, led the first 64 laps before being eliminated from contention, because of engine overheating maladies. After the initial Duray leadership George Souders, Babe Stapp, Jimmy Gleason, and Tony Gulotta all took turns, at the front of the pack. And all came to grief. Likewise, the very fast pace maintained in the early going (106.1 mph at 100 miles and 103.2 at 300) suddenly began to decline as the race leaders ran into trouble. And as they fell out of the event, Meyer, the unknown, began to fall into the front positions. On the 181st lap, Gulotta's Miller, then in the lead, developed a clogged fuel line. Meyer, who had moved up to 4th place at 200 miles, took the front position after Gulotta's misfortune on lap 182, and continued on to win at 99.482 mph. The 24 year old Meyer led only the last 13 circuits of the contest.
Immediately after the 1928 "500", Lou convinced his sponsor, Alden Sampson, that he should sell the winning Indianapolis Miller machine and immediately purchase one of two former rear-drive Millers, still up for sale in the Frank Lockhart estate.
"I thought that my winning Indy Miller was a very good car but I was convinced that Lockhart's two Millers were better," declares Louie. Lockhart had been killed at Daytona Beach on 25 April 1928 in a land speed record attempt. Lockhart, who was just a 25 year old kid at the time of his death, had had for the 1927 and 1928 seasons two rear-drive 91 Millers which had incorporated all kinds of special Lockhart features and parts. They were, in fact, superior to the originial cars and parts manufactured by Harry A. Miller himself.
Frank's two cars were the fastest 91 1/2 cubic inch vehicles in the States. They were both equipped, of course, with a Lockhart type intercooler, the best in the business. So Alden took Meyer's advice and purchased one of them for Lou. The other Lockhart Miller had already been sold to M. A. Yagle of Philadelphia for Ray Keech's use at Indy in 1928, (Ray was 4th to Meyer in the Indy race) and elsewhere. With his new Lockhart-type Miller, Lou won the Altoona 200 (August 19) and placed 2nd in the Salem 185 (July 4). 1928 ended with the 24-year old Meyer being declared the AAA National Driving Champion over many a more seasoned veteran of the boards and bricks.
Meyer was now at the top of his class in 1928/29 but it was a very sad time to break into racing. All the AAA championship board tracks were losing money, rotting and falling apart. Only Miller built cars were capable of winning the big AAA sanctioned contests now and the complete absence of any real competition from the other marques, of which Duesenberg had been the foremost, made for public apathy toward the AAA championship trail. The 1929 AAA championship season saw a great diminution of activity because of the disappearance of the previously existing board saucers. Only five AAA championship level races were held all year; i.e. (1.) Indianapolis 500 (May 30), (2.) Detroit 100 (June 9), (3.) Altoona 200 (June 15), (4.) Syracuse 100 (Aug. 31), and (5.) Altoona 200 (Sept. 2). The June 9 Altoona 200 was shortened to 148.75 miles, because of a wreck which killed Ray Keech.
Lou continued to use the ex-Lockhart Miller 91 for the 1929 campaign, the last year for the vest pocket 91 1/2 cubic-inch racers. Indianapolis was again the first AAA championship contest of the year and Meyer qualified at 114.704 mph to start 8th in the lineup. Lou looked like he was going to win the five century grind again, for the second time in a row, when he pitted on the 157th circuit with a large lead over the second placed Miller of Ray Keech. Meyer, however, had accidently killed his engine on the stop and it took all of seven minutes to get it running again. By that time both Keech and Lou Moore had snuck past the stalled Meyer. Keech went on to win at 97.585 mph while Moore's Miller threw a connecting rod on lap 198, while he was in a solid second place. That helped Lou to salvage the runnerup position, six minutes and 44 seconds behind the victorious Keech. The two ex-Lockhart rear drive Millers had finished one-two. Meyer, with the help of two championship division wins later in the year at Altoona (June 15 and Sept. 2), captured his second AAA National Driving Title in a row, i.e. 1928 and 1929.
Eddie Rickenbacker, a former AAA Championship driver (1916) and the U.S. World War I flying ace, had become the Chairman of the AAA Contest Board in November 1926 and the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August of 1927. Eddie felt that the U.S. passenger car industry should be encouraged to re-enter racing and pushed through a series of new regulations which now allowed large displacement stock block powered racing cars to complete against the genuine throughbred type racers. These new rules, which included no supercharging for four-cycle engines, were first introduced at Indianapolis in 1930 and were soon dubbed the Junk Formula. This was because the Speedway was soon deluged with a large number of cheap, overweight, huge, and stock block powered cars, which had little or no chance of winning. The new 1930 Junk Formula forced everyone to either build new cars or modify the old ones.
So Meyer and Sampson decided to construct a new throughbred type race car which would conform to the new rules. The mechanic, Riley Brett, was intimately involved with this project. For an engine they took two 91 1/2 cubic inch Miller straight 8 blocks and mounted them side by side, creating a U16, rather than a V16. Each of the two Miller blocks were enlarged to 100.5 cubic inches so the total piston displacement was 201. At the front of the two parallel crankshafts was a spur gear which meshed with a central gear attached to a central drive shaft which ran between the two crankcases. Meyer qualified this car at Indianapolis in 1930, at 111.290 mph to start in the middle of the first row. Meyer managed to pass pole sitter Billy Arnold and led the first two circuits before Arnold sailed into the lead, to remain there for the next 198 laps! By the 23rd lap, Meyer was already in deep trouble and he had to pit for 4 1/2 minutes to correct carburetor and throttle linkage problems. At the 100 mile mark, Meyer was running 13th but steadily improved his ranking to finish 4th overall at the end.
Lou also drove this Miller/Stevens U16 creation at Indy in both 1931 and 1932. In the 1931 chase, Meyer lay 10th at 50 miles but an oil leak put him out after just 28 circuits. This vehicle was the most successful 16 cylinder car ever to compete at Indianapolis and finished in 4th place there in both 1930 (Meyer) and 1933 (Chet Gardner),
Later in the 1931 race, Lou relieved Myron Stevens in a different machine owned by Meyer, on the 73rd round and while the entry lay buried in the 20th position. Meyer then hustled the car up to 4th at the finish. Meyer later in the year drove this same car, the Jadson Special, to an AAA Championship win at the Detroit Fairgrounds (June 14) in a 100 miler.
(The name Jadson was an acronym derived from "J. A. Drake & Sons", a valve manufacturing company located in Reedley, CA. The firm was founded back in 1887 by Dale Drake's father and was at first devoted mostly to the repair of farm equipment. J. A. Drake made his first "hand forced valves' in 1916 and by late 1922 all the better Miller 8 engines used Jadson valves. Dale was one of six sons.)
In 1932, Meyer loaned the Jadson Special to Bob Carey for use on the AAA Championship circuit and Carey responded by winning the 1932 AAA National Driving Title. In the 1932 "500" Lou, again in the big U16, was riding in 6th at 100 laps but ten circuits later, he skidded, with the result that both crankshafts broke.
After the 1932 season, Meyer and Sampson split up an alliance which had lasted five years (1928-1932). For the 1933 "500" Lou switched to a 1931 straight 8 built Miller (named the Tydol Special) and won his second Indy at a record pace of 104.162 mph. Lou's chief competition that year came from Bill Cummings, Fred Frame, and Babe Stapp. All these three opponents had eventually run into trouble and all failed to finish. Meyer took the lead on lap 130 for the first time and never relinquished it. At the end, Meyer was 6 minutes and 42 seconds ahead of Wilbur Shaw, who was the runner-up. Meyer now joined Tommy Milton as the only two-time Indianapolis victors. Meyer was 10th at Detroit in a 100 mile (June 11) and that's all Louis needed to win his third AAA Driving Title in six years (1928/1929/1933).
The period 1930 to 1933 saw the Great Depression deepen and AAA National Championship activity greatly declined. The whole 1933 AAA scheduled contained only three races, i.e. the Indy 500, and the Detroit (June 11), Syracuse (Sept. 9), 100 milers. After 1931, all the board ovals were gone and most of the AAA championship contests, outside of Indianapolis, were now staged on one mile dirt ovals at a usual 100 mile distance. It was dangerous racing for little money and many of the top drivers like Bill Cummings, Louie Meyer, and Wilbur Shaw became very inactive in the late 1930's on the AAA Championship Trial, except for the great mid-western Indy classic. In truth, the AAA National Title, didn't really mean that much in the late thirties anyway. And, with regard to safety itself in the late twenties and early thirties, everything was still in a very primative state; i.e. there were no crash helmets, roll bars, seat belts, or fire-proofed driving suits back then.
During the winter of 1933/1934, Meyer, with the help of Dale Drake, Frank Brisko (on the engines), Myron Stevens and Charley Voelker built a completely new Indy car. Meyer and Brisko rented the engine patterns from boat racer Dick Loynes, for the 1932/33 Goossen designed Miller 255 cubic inch 4 motor (the immediate precursor of the Offenhauser 255) and built their own engines because Harry A. Miller himself had gone bankrupt in June/July 1933. Dick Loynes apparently had bought at auction, the patterns for the 255 Miller 4 engine, at the Miller bankruptcy and equipment liquidation sale.
Lou's new car suffered at Indy in 1934 from teething problems which are always rampant among completely new and redesigned racing cars. The oil tank was mounted in the front of the machine and whenever the car was accelerated, oil surge problems occurred. Meyer qualified at 112.332 mph to start 13th. In the race itself, Lou never got into the top ten places and retired after 92 laps with oil tank problems.
Louie returned in 1935 with the oil tank now moved to the rear. Meyer qualified at a fast 117.938 mph to start on the inside of the 2nd row. He ran among the leaders for most of the race and at 150 laps was riding in third place. But Meyer's car had been using fuel at an alarming rate and Louie had to slow his pace just to finish at all. "We drove the last 25 laps on the fumes in the fuel lines", says Lou. (Note: The cars in the 1935 "500" were limited to 42 1/2 gallons of fuel. Fuel restrictions at Indy are not new.) By the 200th circuit, Meyer had faded all the way down to the 12th position. Later however, on 7 September 1935, Lou won an AAA Championship 100 miler at the new 1 1/8 mile dirt track, i. e. the "Altoona-Tyrone Speedway", constructed inside the old Altoona 1 1/4 mile board track oval area. It proved to be the only AAA Championship event held at this track but auto races continued to be staged there until World War II put a halt to all American racing in early 1942. Meyer's AAA Championship wins were now up to seven, with Championship victories on board, brick, and dirt surfaced tracks.
For the 1936 "500", Meyer extensively modified and rebuilt his 1934/1935 car but Lou had nothing but problems before the race. Louie ruined three new engine blocks before he located the source of the problem. The new engines used nitrided iron sleeves which had an expansion rate different from the untreated cast iron blocks and the resultant forces generated split the blocks! At the last possible moment, a fourth block was flown in from Los Angeles and Lou managed to put the car into the starting field at 114.171 mph to start 28th. Later that same day, the car was taken out for a routine test run and it developed that the pistons were tagging the valves. Meyer walked away from the car in disgust and even refused to work on the vehicle further. Meyer's friends, Dale Drake, Lawson Harris (Lou's riding mechanic), and ex-driver Frank Elliott rebuilt the motor the night before the big race.
Race day itself saw everything go Meyer's way. Meyer quickly moved up through the field and was running in 4th place by 80 laps. Wilbur Shaw, with probably the fastest car, had a loose hood problem, which put him out of contention. Rex Mays and Babe Stapp retired with various ills and Lou found himself the race winner at a new record speed of 109.069 mph. Lou was also now the only three time Indianapolis winner (1928/1933/1936).
George P. Marshall, the famous football magnate, tried to introduce and promote European Grand Prix racing in the U.S. during 1936. A very tight four mile twisting labyrinth, "Roosevelt Raceway", was constructed at Westbury, Long Island (New York) on almost the same exact spot where Charles Lindbergh took off on May 20 1927, on his epoch making solo flight across the Atlantic. The 1936 inaugural event on the new circuit was christened the Vanderbilt Cup and was the most important American auto race in both 1936 and 1937, with the exception of the Indianapolis 500. The Enzo Ferrari managed Alfa Romeo Grand Prix team, using Tazio Nuvolari, Antonio Brivio, and Giuseppe Farina as the drivers, came over from Italy.
All the top American pilots were on hand including Meyer. Lou, who had been dickering for a Maserati finally, as time ran out, made a last ditch effort to qualify a Bugatti. On a practice run, Louie spun and the Bugatti hit the guard rail. Meyer said that it was his unfamiliarity with the car that had caused his wreck. He had stepped on the gas pedal when he had intended to step on the brakes! So Meyer remained a spectator at the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup race, instead of a participant.
On the eve of the 1937 "500" Lou sold his 1936 winning machine, built in 1934, to Ralph Hepburn. Meyer elected to run a modified straight 8, 268 cubic inch Miller, owned by the Mike Boyle racing stable, with Cotton Henning as the chief mechanic. "It was a fast car," says Meyer, "but it wouldn't hold water. I would run some very fast laps, then lose all the water and my motor would get red-hot. I the would have to stop for more water and then repeat the process all over again. It was a shame because the machine was a fast one." Even with all the time lost in the pits, Meyer placed 4th. Hepburn, in the ex-Meyer 1934 car, placed 2nd to Wilbur Shaw, in what proved to be a very close finish. Shaw in a crippled car (no oil pressure), beat Ralph over the finish line by just 2.16 seconds.
For the 1938 "500", Lou gained the sponorship of the Bowes Seal Fast Company and built a totally new Indy Car for the new international Grand Prix formula (i.e. 4 1/2 litres or 274.59 cubic inches unsupercharged; and 3 litres or 183.06 cubic inches supercharged), now adopted also by the AAA for all its Championship level races. Meyer's new racer incorporated a supercharged straight 8, 179 cubic inch engine designed jointly by Leo Goossen, Meyer himself, and Fred Offenhauser.
(This engine is usually listed as a Winfield in most modern reference books but that is hardly correct. Neither of the Winfield brothers, Bud or Ed, had anything to do with its basic or original design. The Winfields were called in and consulted in 1939 and 1940 to help sort out some carburization problems with it. When Meyer retired from driving in 1939, Bud Winfield took over, in 1940, as the the chief mechanic and developer of this engine. Hence the confusion.)
The chassis was put together by Myron Stevens. This new Bowes machine was built for specific use in both the upcoming 1938 Indianapolis and Vanderbilt Cup events, but the Vanderbilt Cup race was quickly cancelled. In early 1938 it was announced, that the Roosevelt Raceway was totally bankrupt.
With this new machine Meyer qualified for the 1938 Indy event with a speed of 120.525 mph, good enough for the 12th starting position. Lou was running in 4th place at 350 miles (lap 140), but an oil pump failure eliminated him and the car nine circuits later.
Meyer returned with the same car for the 1939 "500". Close friends of Meyer noticed that Lou was perhaps, not in the best physical condition now, as he did no competitive driving except for the annual 500 mile sweepstakes. In any case, Lou qualified extremely well with a clocking of 130.067 mph to start in the middle of the first row. Only hot shoe Jimmy Snyder, was faster at 130.977 mph, in an Art Sparks designed car. The 1939 "500" proved to be a struggle between Meyer, Shaw, and Snyder. Overly long pit stops put Snyder out of contention by the 400 mile (lap 160) post.
Meyer now had the lead but was beginning to tire and Shaw began to close in on Lou, using his new, easier handling 1939 Grand Prix 8CTF type Maserati. On the 183rd round, Shaw passed Meyer on the front straightaway and took over the lead. Meyer immediately tried to fight back, only to lose control of his car in the very next turn. Lou didn't hit anything, but had to pit because he had shredded the right front tire; which gave Shaw a two minute lead. A few laps later, Shaw discovered that the Maserati was almost out of fuel and that he too, would have to make an unscheduled, emergency stop (lap 191).
Lou was now driving as hard and as fast as he could and soon, after Shaw returned to the track, Meyer managed to move up on Shaw's tail. On lap 198, Meyer made the supreme bid to get by Shaw, but Lou had momentarily forgotten about an oil slick located in that portion of the track. Meyer spun and then crashed into the inside guard rail, just off the second turn. After Lou's wild spin into the infield grass (Lou was hurled out of the car, but was basically unhurt), Shaw went on to win his second "500", with an average speed of 115.035 mph, in the first foreign car to win the "500" since a French built 1914 EX5 type Peugeot had done so, 20 years earlier in 1919.
Having made two driving errors in one race ("two, too many" says Louis), Meyer decided he had had enough as a driver and called it quits. The importance of Meyer however, after his competitive driving career, for U.S. Championship racing, can hardly be overestimated.
After Meyer retired from driving, Rex Mays was assigned the big supercharged Bowes Seal Fast Special. Both in 1940 and 1941, Rex placed second in it at Indianapolis. Although Lou advised the non-use of this car on the dirt surfaced tracks, it proved to be eminently successful on them when driven by Mays, recording seven AAA National Championship wins in 100 mile distance dirt contests, during the next three AAA seasons, i.e., 1940, 1941, and 1946.
When, in early 1946, Fred Offenhauser decided to retire, Meyer, and his long time friend, riding mechanic, and partner Dale Drake, bought Fred's racing engine business. Lou and Drake then formed the Meyer and Drake Engineering, Corporation, which continued to manufacture the famous unsupercharged Offenhauser, 270 cubic inch, 4. Thus, all the post World War II Offenhauser motors were built and further developed by the Meyer-Drake company until 1965, when Meyer sold his half of the firm to Drake. Offenhauser (i.e. Meyer-Drake) powered cars won the 18 straight Indianapolis contests between 1947 and 1964! So dominant did the Meyer-Drake Offenhauser motor become, that in the Indianapolis races of 1954, 1955, 1959, and 1960, every starter used a Meyer-Drake Offy. The nameplates on the Offenhauser 4 engines read "Offenhauser Engine built by Meyer-Drake Engineering".
After selling out to Dale Drake in 1965, Meyer formed a new company called "Louis Meyer, Inc.", located in Indianapolis. Meyer was now the sole agent and parts supplier of the newly introduced, in 1964, four-cam Ford Indy V8 racing engine. At the time (1965), it looked like a very smart move as the old Offy looked pretty dead in 1965 and 1966. Meyer remained the sole Ford agent until Ford got completely out of USAC Championship racing, as an engine supplier, in late 1969.
Meyer had the first option to purchase the remaining Ford stock of racing engine parts and Lou talked over with his son, "Sonny", about a complete takeover of the Ford V8 project. But the Ford Motor had allowed a great depletion of the part stocks to occur and the wooden patterns necessary for casting more blocks were lost or completely destroyed. Meyer and his son decided against the purchase of the remaining Ford V8 parts supplies.
On the other hand both, A. J. Foyt and the combination of Holman-Moody, the stock car racing entrepreneurs, were very anxious to secure the existing stockpiles of the Ford parts. Less than 24 hours after Meyer informed Ford Motor that he was not interested in taking over the Ford V8 Indy engine project and program, Foyt bought the existing Ford stocks and formed the A. J. Foyt Engine Corporation, located in Houston, TX. Howard Gilbert became Foyt's developmental engineer on Foyt's new Ford V8 program.
In 1973, ace mechanic George Bignotti, after four seasons (1969 to 1972) with the Vel Miletich/Parnelli Jones team, joined up with Michigan oilman U. E. "Pat" Patrick. The Patrick team rented Meyer's Indianapolis located job/work racing facility, an arrangement which lasted as long as Bignotti remained with the Patrick team (1973 to 1980). For the 1981 season, Bignotti and Patrick split and Lou's Indianapolis shop was then sold to the Patrick interests.
Meyer (whose daughter Kay is married to Bignotti), though nominally in retirement since 1970, has been able to follow the sport closely through his son-in-law and his actual son, Louie, Jr. "Sonny", who is a top engine man. Thus Mr. Meyer has been in very close contact with the AAA/USAC/CART Indy Car scene for over half a century.
The first supercharged cars to appear at Indianapolis were the two-man Mercedes vehicles of 1923, driven by Christian Lautenschlager, Max Sailer, and Christian Werner. They faired rather poorly with their best final placement being 8th, as piloted by both Max and his nephew, Karl Sailer. However 2 litre (i.e. 122 cubic inch class) supercharged Duesenbergs won both the 1924 (Corum/Boyer) and the 1925 (DePaolo/Batten) Indianapolis classics. As soon as the Lora L. Corum-Joe Boyer Duesenberg won at Indianapolis in 1924, everyone immediately began to put blowers on their engines.
At first, the Harry A. Miller expedient was to run the supercharger off the camshafts, the then existing Miller engines obviously being not designed to run a supercharger from the gear train proper. Soon Miller offered a "kit" you could buy to supercharge the older 122 cubic inch Miller motors from their camshafts, but this was a mere temporary makeshift.
Using the ends of the camshafts to power the supercharger was very inconvenient because the cams now acted as torsion bars during actual racing use, and it was now found impossible to fine tune and/or precisely time the engines. The newest Miller engines now, of course, had the blowers run by the gear train off the crankshaft. (This information was first conveyed to me in a conversation with Anthony "Tony" Gulotta.)
Certainly by late 1925 everyone running on the AAA National Championship circuit was using a car with a supercharger. Thus when Louie Meyer moved into the AAA Championship division (i.e. 1926-1929), all the cars were supercharged and I think this greatly affected Lou's thinking ever thereafter. For instance, when the new 1938 International Grand Prix formula was adopted by the AAA for its National Championship division also in 1938, Meyer leaned toward constructing a supercharged 3 litre car, rather than a vehicle powered by a unsupercharged 4 1/2 litre motor.
Beginning with the 1930 Indianapolis 500 all supercharging was totally banned on the AAA Championship trail on all four cycle motors, until 1936. For the 1936 Indianapolis race the ban on blowers was removed but then existing 37.5 gallon fuel limit for the 500 miles, made the use of supercharging quite impossible. For 1937 supercharging was legal in all three of the AAA Championship events staged, i.e. Indianapolis 500 (May 31), Long Island 300 (July 5), and the Syracuse 100 (Sept. 12).
Meyer's continual interest in supercharging led to a very interesting experiment during the 1949 AAA Championship season. The Meyer-Drake company ran a special and enlarged midget style chassis built by Frank Kurtis, with power provided by an enlarged (up from the normal 97 cubic inches to 107 cubic inches) supercharged midget Offenhauser engine! The car , the "Mighty Mite", first appeared at the Milwaukee 100 on June 5, 1949, as the Meyer-Drake No. 99. This remarkable vehicle, when driven by Tony Bettenhausen, actually won two 1949 AAA Championship events, i.e. 1. the DuQuoin 100 (Sept. 3) and 2. the Detroit 100 (Sept. 11).
Bettenhausen's win at DuQuoin on September 3rd was the first victory for a supercharged vehicle in Championship racing since Rex Mays won the Milwaukee 100 on 22 Sept. 1946; if we except Louis Unser's win at the 12.6 mile Pikes Peak hill climb, in Richard A. Cott's blown type 8CTF Maserati on 1 Sept. 1947.
Here's what Mr. Meyer had to say in early May 1949 (Source: LOS ANGELES TIMES, 8 May 1949, part 1, page 20, quote), "Big motors soon will be obsolete. I expect within three or four years Indianapolis will announce a drastic reduction in maximum specifications. That'll put us out of business. So we're trying to be one jump ahead of the game. Our 270 motors are going about as fast as they can go."
"Our new motors, if successful will revolutionize the race game as we know it. We are going to build a new 122 cubic inch motor, four-cylinder supercharged, for next year at Indianapolis. This other deal we are now building will be a sprint car for the dirt races. Kurtis is whipping up a chassis to go with our motor. We hope to be able to test it at Milwaukee."
"It'll be a 107 cubic inch motor, supercharged and capable of kicking up 230 to 240 horsepower, maybe more. It'll cost about $2600 against the current $4600 for a 270. Frank's building a 98 inch chassis and the car will only weight about 1200 pounds. It may have too much power for the chassis, just like some of the 220s and 270s now. We'll have to wait and see."
Meyer's prophecies and prognoses here did not prove to be correct. Big, normally aspirated engines continued to win at Indianapolis until 1968, when Bobby Unser won in an Eagle chassis powered by a turbocharged 168 cubic inch Drake-Offenhauser motor.
But Louie Meyer and Dale Drake had to give up this unique experiment and their No. 99, in late 1949. This was due to the constant criticism of all the Meyer-Drake Offy buyers and users; that they shouldn't have to compete in the AAA Championship races themselves, against the Meyer-Drake company, which was using a special experimental and perhaps, superior motor. So Meyer and Drake were forced to sell their No. 99 car.
At first, the car was to be sold to Carmine George "Babe" Tuffanelli of Chicago IL (or Blue Island, IL?), a south side Chicago numbers racket mobster. Tuffanelli sponsored midgets after World War II but moved up to the AAA Championship ranks as a car owner in 1948. However Tuffanelli's mechanic, Charles Pritchard, thought the No. 99's chassis was too light for constant use on the Championship circuit and regarded the small supercharged engine as too complicated and perhaps, nothing but trouble.
So instead the car was sold to Murrell Belanger of Crown Point, IN immediately after the Detroit 100 race (Sept. 11, 1949); to become the famous No. 99 Belanger Special. This same car (i. e. Offenhauser/Kurtis) appeared at Indianapolis in 1950 with its supercharged 107 cu. in. midget engine still intact. Mr. Meyer told me that Firestone was suppose to make special and smaller tires for it's use at Indy, but none ever arrived at the Speedway. So all the gearing on the car was all wrong, when using standard size tires and wheels, and neither rookie Kenny Eaton nor the veteran Emil Andres could run fast enough in it to qualify.
Murrell Belanger had begun owning AAA Championship cars beginning in 1936, but didn't run each and every season, for instance Murrell sat out the 1946 season but Emil Andres and Tony Bettenhausen, got Murrell to start up again for 1947. Murrell's first wins as a Championship car owner occurred in 1947, with Bettenhausen, at the Goshen 100 (Aug. 17) and the Springfield 100 (Sept. 2). Belanger had purchased his first Champ car from Joe Marks of Gary IN, in 1936 and it was the same exact vehicle that Bob Carey had used to win the 1932 AAA National Driving Title. Louie Meyer had sold the car to Marks in late 1932 or early 1933. Belanger was a farm implement and equipment agent, had a Chrysler-Plymouth automobile dealership, and was a farmer as well.
In mid-1950, between the Milwaukee (June 11) and Langhorne (June 25) races, Belanger had the supercharged 107 midget Offy taken out and had Luigi (or Lujie?) A. Lesovsky install a standard 270 size block Offenhauser motor in it. Lesovsky himself was skeptical that the new combination would work. But by the end of 1950 the new Belanger No. 99 was showing its mettle. It won at the Springfield 100 on October 1 and the Bay Meadows (San Mateo) 149 on November 26. The Bay Meadows event was supposed to be a 150 miler, but the flagman brought out the checkered flag one lap too early. At Sacramento (Oct. 15) however, Tony had a bad wreck. He and Walt Faulkner tangled on the 11th lap and Tony plowed into a guard rail, injuring four spectators, one of which died. Bettenhausen also finished 2nd at Phoenix 100 of November 12, using No. 99, behind winner Jimmy Davies.
But 1951 was even better in positive results. The Belanger No. 99 won nine of the fifteen AAA National Championship events run that year; i.e. one at Indianapolis itself with Lee Wallard up, and eight others with the "Tinley Park Express", Tony Bettenhausen. Tony won the 1951 U.S. Driving Title going away with 2556.6 points to Henry Banks' 1856.6 in second, and Walt Faulkner's, in third, with 1513.6.
After all this success Belanger had Lesovsky construct another duplicate of the 1951 Indianapolis and AAA National Championship winner. At Indianapolis in 1952 Bettenhausen was assigned the original car, while Duane Carter got the new Offenhauser/Lesovsky. Bettenhausen wrecked the Belanger No. 99 on May 24 while on the third lap of his qualification attempt and the car was too badly damaged to be repaired for the "500". Carter, in the Lesovsky replica, placed 4th in the 1952 "500".
However Louis Meyer could take much credit for the No. 99 car's successes in 1949, 1950, and 1951.
In late 1949/early 1950 Meyer-Drake started marketing a 440 horsepower, supercharged 176 cubic inch Offenhauser 4. It was basically a blown 220 cubic inch Offy. Three starters at Indy used it in 1950, i.e. Walt Ader, Fred Agabashian, and Duane Carter. Only one entrant each, in the 1951 (Johnny McDowell) and 1952 (Andy Linden) Indy lineup however, had it. None of these five competitors placed better than 12th, by Carter in 1950. This project went nowhere, as everyone was seemingly quite satisfied with the 270 unblown Offenhauser and just kept buying and using it.
Here's a story Meyer told me about Tuffanelli...Tuffanelli who bought Offenhauser motors directly from Meyer-Drake in 1947 and 1949, told Louie that if he and his wife June, were ever in the Chicago area and/or on their way to a Milwaukee race for instance; that he and his wife were quite welcome to stay at their home as long as they liked and would be wined and dined as well. So Louis and June took Tuffanelli up on it. After a good dinner meal the two were escorted to a first floor bedroom, where they were to sleep. It was quite something, very elaborate, ornate, fancy, and expensive.
But Meyer and his wife soon wondered where the Tuffanelli's were going to sleep, they having obviously been given the master bedroom! They soon discovered that the Tuffanellis never slept on the first floor, but always slept in a basement bedroom, equally lavish and luxuriant. It now became clear that the first floor bedroom was a decoy, in case there was ever an assassination attempt on Tuffanelli and family. So Lou and his wife spent a sleepless night and the next morning took their leave, then and there, and never stayed at the Tuffanelli's home again. "People like that are ruthless!", concluded Meyer.
Emil Andres, who drove for Tuffanelli in 1948 and 1949, reported about being in a passenger car with some of Tuffy's men, and how guns were hidden under the dashboard. Emil won one AAA Championship race for Tuffanelli, the Milwaukee 100 of June 6, 1948. It was Andres' only AAA Championship win, although Emil won also the non-Championship Springfield 100 held on October 15, 1939. On this occasion Emil was using the ex-Miller chassis used by Lou Schneider to win at Indianapolis in 1931, but now its original in-line Miller 8 had been replaced by an Offy 4. Andres had started racing in the Chicago area, c. 1931, and moved into the AAA Championship ranks in 1935. Emil had his own car, an Offenhauser/Adams ex-sprint car, for the five 100 mile dirt Championship contests in 1946, but joined the Belanger team for 1947. Andres' Offenhauser/Adams sprinter, an old updated 1933 Sparks/Weirick Ascot machine, was sold to Murrell Belanger in early 1947. Emil had purchased it from Joel Thorne in 1938, while Thorne had bought it from Art Sparks and Paul Weirick at the Roby Speedway in 1936.
Johnnie Parsons, the 1949 National Champion and 1950 Indy winner, was sitting on a couch in the Old Timer's Trailer, reading a magazine. When Tuffanelli's name was mentioned by chance, Parsons without moving or changing his demeanor quickly said (quote), "Tuffanelli was a crook. Tuffanelli was a crook." And then kept reading, without ever having made a move or looking up!
Here are four comments that Mr. Meyer made about AAA Championship racing in the late twenties that may be of interest...
(1.) Meyer said that Harry Miller made the chassis on all his new 91 1/2 cubic inch cars much too light and frail, especially for use on Indy's rough bricks. The best combination, according to Lou, was to run a 91 1/2 motor in a 122 cubic inch Miller chassis, which was much heavier and stronger. In 1927, rookies Wilbur Shaw and Louis Meyer, drove just such a Miller hybrid at Indianapolis, to 4th place overall. In fact, its 122 cubic inch chassis was the actual death car of Jimmy Murphy, who was killed on lap 139 at Syracuse, NY, in an AAA Championship dirt 150 staged on 15 Sept. 1924. Murphy was in 2nd place at the time, chasing the race leader and ultimate winner, Phil Shafer who used a 2 litre Duesenberg. Meyer, in 1928, at Indianapolis may have used the same configuration, i.e., a 91 1/2 cubic inch engine in a 122 cubic inch Miller chassis, to score his first Indy win.
(2.) Louie stated that most of the board tracks were constructed with pine, but the Salem-Rockingham NH, 1 1/4 mile oval was made out of spruce. Spruce wood contains much more sap than pine, and on a hot day, it would rise and work its way quickly to the surface at Rockingham. This made the Salem speedway on many occasions, a very, very slippery surface to race on according to Meyer.
(3.) Meyer also asserted that the Salem-Rockingham track never "settled" properly. In one area the supposed support pillars did not even reach the ground level, but were suspended an inch or two above the earth. When a car ran over the board surface above these pillars, the track would dip and then rebound, to creat a virtual launching pad or spring board. So one had to be very alert and careful when running near or in this section of the Salem speedway.
(4.) Meyer believed that Harry Hartz, during the running of the October 12, 1927 Salem 200, found himself in the wrong place and at the wrong time, i.e. in the oscillating section of the Rockingham track, thereby causing Harry's famous and horrific wreck on lap 52. Hartz was riding in 2nd position at the time, trying to catch and pass the amazing Frank Lockhart. Hartz lost control, his Miller overturned and threw Harry out, 35 feet away. The race was halted after 52 laps (i.e. at 65 miles) because of Hartz's accident, but then an impromptu 75 miler was run later in the day, to make up for the lost milage. This accident put Harry's driving career at an end, but no one, including Hartz himself, knew it at the time. In a comeback attempt at Indianapolis in 1930, Harry decided to call it quits while practicing in his new front wheel drive Miller/Summers. Harry then turned the vehicle over to Billy Arnold who won the pole at 113.26 mph and then the race itself at 100.448 mph.
(Some additional information obtained directly from Louis Meyer is contained in the McMaken/Printz USAC history covering the years 1956-1965, printed in the PPG Indy Car Annuals of 1983 and 1984.)
(May 30 (Tue), Speedway (IN))
Meyer Like Milton
For only the second time in 21 races, a former winner did it again! Louie Meyer joined Tommy Milton in the most exclusive club of US autoracing achievements as a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500-mile race. Californian Meyer, who had sold his own team to Hoosier Joe Marks last fall, and had to borrow a car from fellow driver Ralph Hepburn for the event, ran amongst the leaders all day, taking the lead for good on lap 130, and finishing with a new track record for the distance. Four other residents of the Golden State took the next four finishing spots, with (California-born?) Dave Evans making a comeback drive into sixth place, in the only front-drive car to finish the race. Overshadowed by five fatalities, the month of May in Indianapolis proved to be another humiliation for the defendants of the Speedway’s stock car philosophy, with Miller-engined cars of the four-, eight- and sixteen-cylinder variety finishing in the first four positions. Semi-stock racers took all but two of the other thirteen finishing positions, and had a much better finishing record than the thoroughbreds, but just not the speed!
Amongst the biggest news for Speedway patrons in 1933 was the announcement that, for the first time since 1916, alcoholic beverages would be allowed on the IMS premises this year, with “3.2 beer” on sale all through the month. Reacting quickly to the new situation, 1931 winner Louis Schneider managed to attract sponsorship from a beer manufacturer but, on a much sadder note, had not only the recent death of his father to live through, but also a suicide attempt by a younger brother! In other news, and to combat the worsening economic realities induced by the world-wide recession, the Speedway management had reduced general admission prices by 20 %, and the race purse by a whopping 40 %! Undeterred, sixty-three entries were sent in by the hopefuls, of which fifty-two were to be conventional rear-drive chassis, with ten front-drives and a single four-wheel-drive car entered, while forty-three eight-cylinder engines opposed sixteen four-cylinders, three 16-cylinder motors and a lone six-cylinder. The five-car Studebaker factory entry was yet again the biggest by far, although two of the (again) nine two-car teams were closely enough affiliated to perhaps count as one single team with four cars, those of Harry Hartz and driver/owner Fred Frame, who was hoping to repeat his 1932 win, still driving for the former. Meanwhile, he was also fielding two cars of his own, both incidentally purchased from Hartz, although his hopes of attracting 1930 winner Billy Arnold as a driver proved to be in vain. Slim Corum (1924) in one of the works Studebakers, and Louie Meyer (1928) in Ralph Hepburn’s Miller completed the number of former winners on the entry list.
To avoid having a single car in the last row of the starting grid as opposed to three in the others, the maximum number of starters was increased to forty-two, meaning that two out of three entries were to be allowed to start the race, given a successful qualification attempt at one hundred miles per hour average speed, but a new rule demanded that this would now have to be sustained over a run of twenty-five miles instead of ten, so that the time limit actually increased from six minutes to fifteen. With that, it was decided to allow qualifying trials to be held for nine consecutive days, beginning on Saturday, May 20, and for a total of approximately seventy-five hours. Other new rules stipulated a maximum capacity for oil tanks of 6 gallons (approx 23 litres), and further not to be replenished during the course of the race, also fuel tanks of 15 gallons (approx 57 litres), and minimum weight to be 1950 lbs (885 kg), up from 1750 lbs (795 kg). The track itself had been worked on as well, with the removal of a well known bump at the end of the home straight, close to the old gateway at the entrance to Turn 1, for which the drivers expressed their gratitude. All was ready for an early start to the proceedings on Wednesday, May 3, but the weather!
Sustained rainfalls had already led to floods in Northern Indiana, and severely curtailed activity at the track during the first two weeks. Intermittent periods of dryness were used to good effect, however, and on Friday, May 12, Ernie Triplett in the brand new White/Miller excited the “railbirds” by recording the fastest time ever for a two-man car at the Speedway, more than a full second faster than the previous “record” by Lou Moore: 1’14.8”, the first two-seater to average more than 120 mph! The next day the local White river scored another “record”, with a 20-year high that not only flooded many of the access roads, but the Speedway itself in Turn 1! Drivers were quick to see the funny side of it, with Triplett and Deacon Litz arranging a go in a canoe for a photo opportunity, while those more inclined to sarcasm might have blamed the impending repeal of the 18th Amendment for the end of the “dry period”…
By Tuesday, May 16, normality had returned, and Frank Brisko proved that by turning one lap at 1’15.2” in the four-wheel-drive Miller, with many onlookers believing him to be “sandbagging” still! Bill Cummings and Louie Meyer were next fastest at 1’18” each, driving the two mostly identical 1931 Miller eight-cylinders. Others were less lucky, with Howdy Wilcox ruining the transmission of his Meyer/Miller, the late Bob Carey’s Championship winning car, and Harry Falt’s front-drive HAF/Cord catching fire almost as soon as it was ready to take to the track for the first time, though damage proved to be minimal. Leon Duray finally stepped aside from driving his own car, now fitted with a Miller 220 engine in place of the troublesome 16-cylinder, and named Wilbur Shaw as his replacement. Kelly Petillo, on the other hand, had to go looking for another ride, since his car owner Harvey Ward had decided against pulling the engine from the successful single-seater, and left the two-man car in California! (Edited by fines, 14 May 2009 - 08:24.)