Frank Lockhart – Boy Genius (Part I)

By Tom Gahr

Note From George: I am pleased to welcome back guest blogger, Tom Gahr to this site. Tom wrote an excellent article in June regarding the rich open-wheel history in Iowa. Tom is back with an excellent article that focuses on the fascinating life of 1926 Indianapolis 500 winner, Frank Lockhart. It is so indepth that we have decided to divide it into two parts. Part II will run tomorrow. Tom is a 41 year-old husband and father of 2 living in Minnesota, with a passion for history. He grew up in Upstate N.Y., not far from Watkins Glen, but his formative memories of IndyCar racing are from watching the racing on ABC with his Dad. After drifting from the sport during college and young adulthood, he has taken up a renewed interest in it, and enjoys sharing his appreciation for it with his 8 year-old son. However, his wife and daughter are still perplexed by this male fascination with things that go “vroom”. 

His life story reads like a Hollywood script. Born into a poor family, he burst onto the racing scene, jumping into a car at Indy, and driving it to victory in his first attempt. A natural mechanic with a stubborn spirit, he was a technical innovator, working long nights with his engineering team, advancing the state of automotive technology, and pursuing his dream with a relentless focus. He dominated the Championship racing series for 2 years, and blazed across the landscape of the late 1920’s. In the end it was his stubborn pursuit of the land speed record in an innovative car of his own design that led to his tragic death. In 1927 he was famous, and as widely known as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, & Bobby Jones, but he is all but forgotten now.

Photo 1

Frank Lockhart was born in 1903 in either Dayton, or Cleveland, Ohio depending on which biography you believe. There is an apocryphal story about his growing up in a house in Dayton next door to the parents of Wilbur and Orville Wright, where he was supposedly inspired to pursue mechanics by the fatherly influence of Mr. Wright, but the facts supporting this are hard to find. Perhaps it is just the journalistic myth making of the early 20th century, an attempt to place the young Lockhart firmly in the pantheon of “Yankee Ingenuity”, alongside Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Franklin.

His father died when he was six years old, and his Mother moved the family Los Angeles. He grew up poor in Inglewood, his Mom doing other people’s laundry to support him and his brother. Frank struggled in school, but displayed his mechanical gift from an early age. He took apart everything he could get his hands on to see how it worked. In class he spent his time daydreaming, and drawing streamlined automobiles. He turned down an opportunity to attend Caltech, and found work as a mechanic, to help support his Mother. With money he saved, he bought an old Model T Ford, and built it up to race.

His mechanical talents were matched, if not exceeded, by his driving skill. He quickly became a wonder of the local dirt tracks like Ascot. He caught the attention of Harry A. Miller, who signed him to drive a 3.0-liter car on the Southern California dirt track circuit. In 1926, at the age of 23 years old, Miller brought him to Indianapolis as a relief driver for the Miller team. Hanging around gasoline alley, Frank persuaded Bennett Hill to allow him to take his car out and “warm it up”. It was Frank’s first time driving a real racing machine, and his first time out on a paved track. He turned heads immediately, by proceeding to lap the track at speeds faster than Hill’s practice times. Frank drove the bricks like a dirt tracker, keeping his foot on the gas and drifting the corners. Leading up to race day Pete Kreis, an independent Miller driver fell ill with the flu, and Frank was given the chance to drive. He set an unofficial record of 120.918 mph in his first qualifying run, but flatted on the second lap. Choosing to take a more cautious approach after another failed qualifying attempt, he put the car solidly into the field in 20th position.

The 1926 Indianapolis 500 mile race took place on May 31st, having been delayed one day due to rain. Earl Cooper was on the pole, Harry Hartz of the Miller works team in the middle and Leon Duray on the outside of row one. Hartz took the lead on the first lap, followed closely by Duray and Cooper. By the end of the third lap, Lockhart had moved up from 20th, to 5th position. Dave Lewis took the over the lead from Hartz, and Lockhart moved up from third to second position on lap 16. Lewis and Lockhart battled for the lead from Lap 20, until lap 50 when Lewis pitted, and Lockhart took over the lead. When the race was stopped on lap 71 because of rain, Frank was leading.

During the hour and a half rain delay his teammate Hartz hoped to ice the rookie by talking with him about the dangers of the slick brick track. But when the race resumed Lockhart quickly moved into the lead. He battled with Harry Hartz on the wet and oily brick surface, until Hartz flubbed a pitstop, mistakenly leaving his ignition turned off. From that point onward Lockhart ran away from the field. The conditions worsened and drivers began slowing. Frank was leading by two laps when the race was red flagged after 400 miles by another burst of rain.

Photo 2

At 24 years old, Frank was the youngest winner of the 500, a distinction he would hold for a quarter century, until Troy Ruttman won in 1952 at age 22. Harry Miller offered Frank a full time ride, but Lockhart astonishingly refused it. Instead he took his winnings, and bought the Miller car outright and began making his own modifications. After a broken connecting rod cost him a race, he replaced the connecting rods with ones of his own design. He also designed new valves, added a locked differential, and rear radius rods to his Miller. Harry Miller was infuriated by Lockhart’s tinkering, but other Miller owners were quick to copy Lockhart’s modifications.

Photo 3

Lockhart proved his Indy win was no fluke, by winning five more championship car races in the 1926 season, the 25-, 50- and 150-mile races at Charlotte, N.C., the 250 mile-race at Altoona, P.A., and a 25 mile race at Salem-Rockingham, N.H. He ended the season second to Hartz in the National Championship.

In 1926 and 1927 Harry Miller was successfully developing a front-wheel drive version of the famous straight eight Miller Championship car. The front wheel drive layout enabled the driver to sit lower in the car, and Earl Cooper, Dave Lewis, Leon Duray and Pete DePaolo won a dozen races between them aboard front drive Millers. However, Lockhart stuck with the earlier rear-drive cars modifying them with his greatest innovation to stay competitive. Working closely with his engineers, John and Zeinas Weisel, Lockhart designed an intercooler for his supercharged Miller engine that added 10 hp, and gave him a significant speed advantage over his competition. He kept it a closely guarded secret for over a year, hiding it under the hood, and passing it off as an external oil cooler.

Photo 4


Part II to follow tomorrow, Wednesday July 15.


Golden Age of the American Racing Car, 2nd Edition, by Griffith Borgeson, SAE, ISBN 0-7680-0023-8

The Racing Campbells:

Motor Sports Hall of Fame:

Al Blix Auto Racing History:

Photo 1 courtesy of the Florida State Library & Archives

Photo 2 courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Photos 3 & 4 courtesy of RM Auctions and The Miller/Offenhauser Historical Society.

One Response to “Frank Lockhart – Boy Genius (Part I)”

  1. Brian McKay in Panama City Says:

    I’d like more ‘history lessons’ like this!

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