Legends and heroes

Start, United States GP 2002

Start, United States GP 2002 

 © The Cahier Archive

When I first went to Indianapolis 15 years ago to see the Indianapolis 500, I went there via Chicago and we drove south from the Windy City across the plains of Indiana. About an hour before you get to Indianapolis (if you are driving legally) you will pass a place called Battle Ground, Indiana.

It was there in 1811 that the Indians lost control of the fertile lands of the Mid-West at the Battle of Tippecanoe and were forced west on to the prairies and the badlands.

The world has forgotten Tippecanoe and the Shawnee chiefs Tecumseh and The Prophet and their ambition to turn this tiny part of Indiana into the Washington DC of a great confederacy of Indian nations, united against the settlers who were pouring west. Prophet's Town, as it was also known, was to be the training center for thousands of Indian warriors but those plans so frightened the local settlers that local governor William Henry Harrison got together an army of 1000 men and marched on Tippecanoe and there won a famous victory.

Twenty-nine years later "Old Tipp" stood for President. It was also there at Battle Ground, Indiana, where Harrison invented the modern political campaign with a huge political rally, which offered free food and wicked local cider. Brass bands, floats and speeches added to the color of the event and the first political advertising slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" was born. Harrison and his running mate John Tyler were duly elected although Harrison's final claim to fame was that having given the longest inauguration speech in US history he caught a cold and died a month after being sworn into office, thus ending the shortest tenure of the presidency.

Such funny historical asides, arcane though they may be, have always amused me and a place like Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just up my street as the world's oldest surviving race track (although Milwaukee likes to argue otherwise) is a place of great legends and heroes.

Originally a legend was a chronicle of the life of a saint (and there are not many of them in F1) but in time the word came to signify a religious story of an incredible nature and from there spread its wings to become any story from the past which was not verifiable by historical record; a myth in other words.

Somehow the world has now transformed the word into meaning someone or something that is very famous. It does not even have to be old. Listen to some and they will tell you that Michael Schumacher is already a legend.

Although I have heard Indianapolis described as "the armpit of America" there is no doubt that Indianapolis actually warrants the tag "legendary", if only because so much has been forgotten about the place. The Speedway has a full-time historian and even he has yet to find the full names of all those who have raced in the Indianapolis 500.

The people and events that he researches are all fascinating but my own particular favorite has always been Eddie Rickenbacker, who not only raced at the Speedway but also owned it between 1927 and 1945.

"Captain Eddie" was a wild car racer in the early years of the 20th century. A poor mechanic who managed to talk his way behind the wheel of a race car and a participant in the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. He made his name (and a fortune) in racing in the years leading up to World War I and then headed off to Europe as General John Pershing's driver with the American Expeditionary Force.

Once in France he transferred to the Army Air Corps, learned to fly and in the final months of the war shot down 26 German airplanes, thus becoming a national hero in the United States and the country's top fighter ace. This gave him the chance to raise money to build his Rickenbacker automobiles but the economic crisis of the 1920s put paid to that enterprise and he ended up working for General Motors, promoting Cadillac products.

In his spare time he borrowed enough money to buy the Speedway and began to transform it into a money-making operation.

And then in 1934 GM put him in charge of another of its subsidiaries, Eastern Airlines and after running the firm for four years he borrowed the money to buy the company.

To say that Rickenbacker was lucky is something of an understatement. Early in 1941 he was onboard an Eastern Airlines DC3 when it crashed in Atlanta. He survived and, perhaps, more miraculously, so did the airline. Eighteen months later, by then working for the War Department, keeping up the morale of the troops, he was flying across the Pacific in a B17 when the plane had to ditch and Rickenbacker spent 24 days adrift in a life raft with six other survivors before returning home to read his own obituaries.

When the war ended, keen to build up Eastern Airlines, Captain Eddie finally sold Indianapolis Motor Speedway to grocery millionaire Tony Hulman, who handed the place down to his grandson Tony George.

It is thanks to Tony that F1 began visiting Indianapolis in September each year. There is, I have found, something rather refreshing about the turning of the leaves and the slight chill in the evening air in Indiana. It means that the end of the F1 season is in sight. This year it also means that the World Championship is coming to a climax. It's a time of excitement and yet at the same time there is comfort in the knowledge that soon there will be some time to go home for the winter break.

In the old days they used to call this time of year harvest time and the average peasant would feel very merry thoughts as he lugged his final sheaf of wheat home from the fields in the knowledge that he had produced enough food to get his family through the winter. In those days it was a matter of life and death and so it is no surprise that they celebrated with a vast harvest supper and some wild revelry. There was a time when F1 ended the season in that fashion but nowadays blinkers are de rigeur in the sport. Perhaps this is understandable given the rewards and pressures involved, but it is also a great shame that there is never much time to stand back and enjoy what has been achieved and to celebrate that achievement.

...and to discover funny historical asides about the places we visit.

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