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SEPTEMBER 26, 2001

The ace of the Speedway


In these uncertain times it is sometimes good to look back in history at the lives of others who have lived through difficult times and emerged triumphant. One of the best examples of this is Eddie Rickenbacker, a racing driver who led an amazing life which included owning Indianapolis Motor Speedway, being the top scoring American fighter pilot of World War I, building his own automobiles, survived an air crash and on a different occasion spent days adrift in the Pacific Ocean after the plane he was flying on had to ditch.

Born Edward Rickenbacher in Columbus, Ohio in 1890, Eddie Rickenbacker (as he became in the early years of the 1914-1918 war) was the son of a poor Swiss immigrant. When his father was killed in an industrial accident Eddie had to support the family and went to work from the age of 13. He worked in a garage and eventually found a job with Lee Frayer, who was building his own automobiles. Frayer believed that the best way to sell cars was to race them and by the time he was 16 Eddie was a riding mechanic with the Frayer-Miller team, competing in such events as the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup. Soon afterwards Frayer joined forces with Clinton Firestone to create the Firestone-Columbus automobile company, and Eddie became a trouble-shooting mechanic. In his spare time Eddie modified a Firestone-Columbus for racing and made his driving debut in a race at Red Oak, Iowa. Legend has it that things were going very well until a wheel broke and the car rolled into a field. The car was repaired and Rickenbacker came back to win nine out of nine races during a speed week in Omaha, Nebraska.

In 1911 the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced a 500-mile race and Frayer was quick to enter a Columbus Red Wing in the exciting new race. Eddie was named as the relief driver. The car was under-powered but the pair finished 11th. The following year they were running fourth at the Brickyard when the car failed.

The ambitious Eddie then left Frayer behind and went to work for Fred and Augie Duesenberg, winning his first major race, a 300-miler at Sioux City, Iowa in April 1914. He joined Peugeot briefly and then moved on to drive for the Maxwell team, winning again at Sioux City and Providence, Rhode Island.

At the end of the year the Maxwell cars were bought by the Prest-O-Lite racing team, headed by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owners Carl Fisher and Jim Allison. The 25-year-old Rickenbacker was appointed team manager with a deal which gave him 75% of the team's prize-money. It made Eddie a rich man and he scored two more major race victories on the wooden board tracks of Sheepshead Bay, New York and Tacoma, Washington.

At the end of the year, driving a Duesenberg he won at the legendary Ascot oval in California. That same year, with money pouring in, he learned to fly and soon afterwards sailed to Europe where he had been offered work at the Sunbeam factory in Wolverhampton.

Europe was at war and when in 1917 America entered the war Rickenbacker sailed for home. He proposed to form a fighter squadron made up of motor racing people, but the US air force, probably wisely, reckoned that this was not such a good idea and assigned Rickenbacker to be General John 'Black Jack' Pershing's driver with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.

It did not take Rickenbacker long to convince the General that he might have a quieter life if he transferred his driver to the air force.

Rickenbacker went on to become America's top scoring fighter ace with 26 confirmed 'kills' and frequently made headlines leading his famous 94th 'Hat in the Ring' Aero Squadron.

The glamorous young racing driver-turned-fighter pilot returned to the United States a national hero - and a household name. Finding money for his ambitious ideas was suddenly not a problem. What Rickenbacker wanted above all was to build his own road cars. He quit racing and put everything into the Rickenbacker car company. Four years later, the first Rickenbacker rolled off the production line. Three years later a Rickenbacker Vertical Eight was the pace car at the Indianapolis 500.

But intense competition and the worldwide recession put the company out of business after just five years, with Eddie left US$250,000 in debt.

Undeterred he was bailed out by a group of Detroit investors, who were impressed by his methods, and he set about trying to buy the Allison Engineering Company off his former employer from the Prest-O- lite Racing days, Jim Allison.

Allison wouldn't sell, but in a curious side-step he convinced Rickenbacker to take the Indianapolis Motor Speedway off his, and Carl Fisher's, hands. In November 1927 Rickenbacker became the owner of Indianapolis for US$700,000.

Times were hard and entries for the 500 well down so Rickenbacker used his influence to have the formula changed to make it cheaper. The new rules stipulated the use of souped-up production cars with fuel restrictions and two-men crews. It was known as 'The Junk Formula' but it probably saved the Indianapolis 500 for it arrived just in time for the Depression.

It was not until 1938 that the Junk Formula was ditched and pure racing cars returned to the Brickyard.

Rickenbacker's chief preoccupation in this period was not Indianapolis for he had embarked on a new scheme to build up a American national airline. It was called Eastern and Rickenbacker was its president.

As the airline grew, Indianapolis deteriorated, becoming a killing field by the mid 1930s. In 1932 there were two deaths, the following year five, two more in 1934 and four in 1935. Something had to be done. Rickenbacker financed the rebuilding of the track in 1936 with the famous bricks being replaced by tarmac; all the outside walls being rebuilt and the inner wall removed o create a safety apron. That year no-one died racing at Indianapolis.

Eastern Airlines was taking off but in 1940, its president was nearly killed when one of the company's planes went down in Florida.

For days Rickenbacker was in a coma, but he slowly recovered from his injuries. In December 1941 America went to war. Rickenbacker closed the Speedway for the duration and at 51 volunteered to do whatever the war department wanted him to do. In October 1942, while on an inspection tour in the Pacific, the B17 on which he was flying went down in the ocean. An air search found no trace of the plane and newspapers all across America carried obituaries to the country's great WWI fighter ace.

But Rickenbacker was not dead. Twenty-four days later Eddie and six survivors were plucked from their life raft and flown home. Eddie had the disconcerting chance to read his own obituaries.

During the war Indianapolis remained closed, until one day racing star Wilbur Shaw went there to make a promotional film. The Indy 500 winner of 1939-40 found that the track was becoming overgrown and the wooden grandstands were falling down. He vowed to do something about it and sought out Rickenbacker, who was now too busy with developing Eastern Airlines to worry about the Speedway. Shaw organized the sale of the track in November 1945 to Tony Hulman for US$700,000 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway remains in the Hulman family to this day.

Rickenbacker went back to building up Eastern Airlines but he kept up an involvement in motor racing as Chairman of the American Automobile Association's contest board until 1955.

Six years later 'Captain Eddie' returned to the Speedway to drive a 1914 Duesenberg for a lap of the track in the course of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 - a race in which he had competed and a tradition which he had nurtured through most difficult days in the 1930s.

Rickenbacker lived another 12 years before he died, at the age of 83. A symbol of courage, determination and to many the embodiment of the American dream.