How Veterans Shaped The Indianapolis 500

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Yesterday was Veterans Day in the US. Today is the day that it is observed, but it was really yesterday. It is one of the few holidays left that has not morphed into a Monday three-day weekend holiday, such as MLK Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day and of course Memorial Day. Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Independence Day are about the only other ones left that are celebrated no matter which day of the week they fall on. The only reason we are observing it today is that it fell over the weekend. The actual celebration was yesterday, but many offices are closed today in observance of the holiday.

There is a racing component to this, so please bear with me.

Many people confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. There are two main differences. First of all, Veterans Day honors anyone that has served in the US Armed Forces; while Memorial Day honors those that gave their lives while in military service. The other main difference is that the greatest race in the world is not run on Veterans Day.

I am not a military veteran, nor were my brothers. If you’re old enough to remember the lottery system in place for the Vietnam War, both of my brothers had high lottery numbers and were not called to serve. I happened to be born in 1958. Those born in 1958 and 1959 never even had to register for the Selective Service. Men born after 1960 know that it is now a federal law that you must register if born in 1960 or later.

Our parents grew up during the depression. My father had an identical twin brother. The two were shipped off to Fort Jackson in South Carolina to be inducted into the Army in 1944. My father had asthma, which had not flared up in years. The night before their physicals, the weather turned very cold. There was an old wood stove used to heat the barracks, which had been freshly painted, that happened to be right next to my father’s bunk. They fired it up that night for the first time after painting it. The paint fumes sent my father into a raging asthma attack. By the time he got in front of the doctor for his physical the next morning, he was wheezing so bad he could hardly breathe. The doctor immediately marked him 4-F – meaning he was not acceptable to serve due to medical reasons.

They shipped him home, but took his brother (my uncle). Unlike those of a generation later, my father was crushed because he could not serve. But the ruling was final. He returned home to Jackson, Tennessee as one of the few seemingly able-bodied men of that age left in town. People today don’t understand what a total commitment was made to the war effort back then. Everyone went. If you were a young male, you served in the armed forces and you did your duty. For those left behind, everything from sugar to gasoline was rationed. All manufacturing was retooled for the war effort. As soon as a young boy became old enough, he was drafted into the service. Many lied about their age in order to go fight. Can you imagine that happening today? It was always amazing to listen to my parents go through their high school yearbooks and point out the dozens and dozens of people that were killed in the war.

My father felt shame to still be in town. While his classmates and even his brother were being shipped off to war, he was back home. The only young men left in town were those that were physically unable to serve (like my father) or those that felt the sudden call to enter the clergy after December of 1941. My father said it was amazing the amount of young men back then that suddenly found religion and received “The Call”. He knew how people laughed at the new-found clergy behind their back for not going off to war. Since he had no visible physical impairment, he felt like people looked at him with raised eyebrows as well. His father had fought in France during World War I and his twin brother had now gone off to war, but there he was in Jackson, Tennessee; as many young men just a year or two older had already given their lives.

He felt the need to explain to everyone he came across why he was still in town and not serving. Even when I was a kid growing up – my friend’s fathers had all gone off to war as young men. They had stories to tell about what their dad did in World War II, pictures of their fathers in uniform and even artifacts brought back from Europe, North Africa or the Pacific. I didn’t understand why I had no similar stories to share. Being told “it’s because I was 4-F” meant nothing to me as a kid.

It wasn’t until I was older that I understood. My father was a very proud man and grew up in a time when a man’s honor and reputation was the most important thing to him. Although it was completely not his own fault, I think that not serving in the armed forces may be the one thing he would have liked to undo in his life more than anything else. I think it bothered him until the day he died.

The war affected racing too. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway voluntarily shut down during World War I. There was no Indianapolis 500 in 1917 or 1918. Eddie Rickenbacker drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times between 1912 and 1916, with a best finish of tenth in 1914. But he achieved far greater fame as America’s flying ace in World War I. He had twenty-six aerial victories and won the Medal of Honor. Rickenbacker came back from the war and founded Rickenbacker Automobile, which was a high-end innovative car but his business plan was flawed and the company went broke.

But in 1927, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Carl Fisher and the original ownership group. He oversaw many changes, including reinstating riding mechanics as well as introducing the “junk formula”. Rickenbacker still owned IMS when racing was banned in the US during World War II.

When IMS was closed during the first World War, it served as a training airfield for pilots. With the outbreak of World War II, Rickenbacker offered the track up again to the war effort, but it was deemed unusable for the high-speed aircraft of the day. Rickenbacker then shuttered the track for the duration of the war.

Although racing was banned, Wilbur Shaw went to IMS to do some testing for Firestone near the end of the war. He was shocked to see how the track that he had conquered three times just a few years earlier was now in a state of disrepair and dilapidated. He found out that Rickenbacker had gone on to found Eastern Airlines and had lost interest in the track. It was assumed by Rickenbacker that the Indianapolis 500 had had its day and that IMS would fall to the wrecking ball to make way for a housing development.

Shaw was hooked up with Tony Hulman by a mutual friend named Homer Cochran. Hulman bought The Speedway and made Shaw president – a title he held until his untimely death in a plane crash in 1954. Had it not been for World War I, Eddie Rickenbacker may not have achieved the fame and resources to enable him to buy IMS. It took World War II to put IMS in such a bad state that Rickenbacker gladly unloaded it to Tony Hulman.

We see each Memorial Day the ties between IMS and the military. But it goes well beyond the military presence we see each May and how the two wars affected the ownership of the track through the years. It’s been a while since there has been a driver in the Indianapolis 500 that served in the military, but it was common in earlier times.

Many drivers lost the last years of their racing careers when The Speedway was shut down after the 1941 race. When racing resumed in 1946, age had caught up with many of them and they subsequently retired; while others went off to war and did not pick up their racing helmets when they returned. Others were probably poised to come to Indianapolis for their first time in 1942, but put those plans on hold until the war was over. Some of them may have lost their lives, but we’ll never know who they were.

As far as I can tell, there was no driver that went to war and lost their life. I think all Indianapolis 500 drivers at that time that went to war all came back safely – although I could be mistaken. Donald Davidson says that as far as he knows (which is quite a lot); there was only one driver that drove in the race prior to World War II, served in World War II and then returned to drive in the “500” after the war – Sam Hanks, the 1957 winner.

Veterans Day is one of those holidays that has gotten shoved to the back burner. Unless we work in government business, most of us are working today. The first reminder that will jog our memories that today is a holiday is when we realize that we’ll get no mail today or that the banks are closed. Other than that, most of us will give little, if any, thought to the meaning behind the day today. Memorial Day is when we offer our thanks to those that paid the ultimate price for our freedom, because they paid with their lives. But there are many veterans among us that have endured hardships and had their lives changed forever, so that we can live the lives we live today.

My father would have given anything to have been a World War II veteran, but fate intervened. I know he was always appreciative of his contemporaries that went to war while he stayed behind. Some came back, while some did not.

On this day, please remember all of the veterans that have sacrificed for all of us, including those of us that are not veterans. They make it possible for us to fret over mundane things like the IndyCar championship, title sponsors and the like. Without their sacrifice, we may be worrying about things much more important than racing.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “How Veterans Shaped The Indianapolis 500”

  1. Thanks for blogging. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  2. Once again the Phillips-apedia guy comes up with a very timely post. The local PBS channel ran a special yesterday about the D Day invasion of France at the Omaha Beaches. The conditions for our fighting men who were there (without bone spurs) were terrible and casualties for the 89th Infantry were sadly extremely high. Such brave men they were. Thank you for posting this today George. You have added a lot to the quality of my life with your thrice weekly posts. You have become as admired as that Miller cat.

    • Hey Ron, that was the 29th Infantry Division there, not the 89th.

      And bone spurs? Okay, I’ll take the bait: tell us all what branch of the service did Bubba serve in? And what about the previous’s phony draft card? What branch did he serve in? Live by the straw man, die by the straw man, lol!!!!

      Your old buddy,

      Phil Kaiser
      Indianapolis

      • You are correct. The 89th landed at Le Havre, France.

        • Yes, and over seven months AFTER D-Day, January 21, 1945, then they trained for a few weeks before seeing combat. They had absolutely no casualties on D-Day or any other day they were on those beaches.

          The 29th and the 4th ID were the US divisions that assaulted Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

          My Bachelor’s degree is in US Military history, by the way (chuckles)….

  3. Thanks George for you posting. We need to remember and respect our Vets and advocate for them. I wish the men in our family would have talked about their experiences in the Pacific, but we were not allowed to ask and my father was mum about it. My mother’s older brother was a Pearl Harbor survivor and I regret I did not ask him later in life about his memories both at Pearl and aboard a minesweeper. I salute all the Vets’ service on this day of remembrance.

    • As in your family, I was discouraged from asking my Dad and uncles about their wartime experiences. One had his feet frozen in Korea. Now I wish I had asked them anyway.

      • I totally agree, Ron. I minded my elders in those days. LOL. When I went to the Arizona in 2015 I was so sorry I didn’t make the effort before my uncle passed.

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