Thursday, December 4, 2014

Major Carpenter – an important racing innovator

photos that accompany this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection of the IUPUI University Library Center of Digital Studies

During the early days of auto racing, major events were held on closed public roads, with local police and militia tasked with maintaining order. Despite the authorities’ best efforts, many of these races were plagued by crowd control problems that often led to spectator injuries, or deaths, which gave the young sport a black eye in the press.

The William K. Vanderbilt Jr. Cup Race in 1906, held over the public roads of Long Island is one example. At one corner, crowds broke through protective fences onto the course and a spectator, Kurt Gruner, was struck and killed. The press and public outcry led to the cancellation of Vanderbilt Cup races until a private course, the Long Island Parkway was built.

The Portola Road Race held over the public roads of Alameda County California suffered a similar fate. The 1909 race saw several spectator injuries and one death of Peter McKiterick, struck down by a flying tire carcass, and the race was not renewed the following year. 

The second running of the Portola race in 1911 was marred by crowds of fans that outnumbered civilian guards and broke through barricades.  Miraculously there were no deaths from the racers speeding through the gauntlet of spectators, but no more races were held on the Portola course.

Due to expenses and problems of staging races on public roads, race promoters and organizers persuaded the AAA (American Automobile Association) to sanction races on smaller closed courses, but there are countless incidents in the early history of our sport of spectator injuries and deaths on fairgrounds tracks because of inadequate crowd control and security.  

The four men who created the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler- understood the importance of spectator safety to a successful racing enterprise. The Speedway established its own independent group of security officers that drew upon the state militia.

Major Carpenter stood at attention outside his office 
posed next to his official 1935 Ford V8 

In 1910, Major William P. Carpenter of the Indiana National Guard was nominated as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Director of Public Safety a role he would hold for many years until at least 1936.

Major Carpenter, a brigade adjutant who assisted the commanding officer in the details of administration at nearby Fort Benjamin Harrison, created a quasi-military organization of ‘Speedway guards.’ Under Carpenter, the guards were divided into sections, with squads detailed to different parts of the huge 328-acre facility. 

Men who had served as officers in the militia were selected to command the sections with each officer responsible for the management of his section. Carpenter’s plan resulted in a national reputation for the Speedway in the successful handling of big crowds.

As a member of the Indiana National Guard, Major Carpenter missed the 1916 running of the International 300-mile Sweepstakes as he served along the southern United States border during the Mexican Expedition. After the Indianapolis 500-mile race was suspended by James Allison due to the war in Europe, in September 1917 Major Carpenter led a group of Indiana soldiers to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg Mississippi, and established and operated the Army’s 38th division machine gun school. 

Carpenter's assignment in Mississippi was difficult, as training equipment for training was in short supply, which forced Carpenter and his staff to fabricate dummy artillery pieces from wood and iron scrap, while the soldiers drilled with pieces of wood simulating rifles and machine guns.

Major Carpenter resumed his role as Director of Public Safety when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway re-opened in 1919 with the Liberty ‘500.’ The command of the guards continued to be Major Carpenter’s part-time job until early 1923, when he suffered ill health and retired to his winter vacation home in St Petersburg Florida to live full-time. At the time of Carpenter’s 1923 retirement, press reports commending Carpenter  stated that through the 1922 race, nearly a million people attended the races at the Speedway without a serious mishap.

Major Greene posed next to his 1927 LaSalle Series 303 
Official Car in front of the Pagoda

Command of the Speedway guards passed to Carpenter’s long-time lieutenant, Major George S. Greene who continued to use and perfect what was termed the “Carpenter system.”  The Indianapolis News reported in 1924 that “military men who have observed the handling of the Speedway crowds say the Carpenter - Greene system is a well-devised plan, which the race going public has no idea of the vast amount of detail required to produce safety on the day of the great motor marathon.”  Major Green explained that what he sought most for new Speedway guards were “men of judgment and a calm demeanor.”   

In 1930, Major Carpenter resumed his role as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway director of public safety. An extended pre-race article in 1931 noted that “aside from the conduct of the race itself, there is no more important service at the grounds than that of the department of public safety.” During his second stint in command, Major Carpenter’s immediate assistants were Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Axtell, Captain Roy Carter and Captain Bart McGuire.

A mid-nineteen thirties Indianapolis News article reported, “The safety force begins in a small way several weeks before the race with eighteen men.” During time trials, the staff increased to 100 men and then on the day of the race the number of security men neared 800, augmented by 125 city policemen to handle traffic outside the Speedway. In addition to directing traffic and protecting the safety of the spectators, the guards patrolled the track and garages before the race and during the race worked with the AAA officials to remove wrecks from the track surface.

To assist stalled cars among the spectators, five wreckers, furnished by the Hoosier Motor Club were stationed around the grounds, and besides those crews, there were four emergency wreck crews and four fire trucks earmarked for track duty. Major Carpenter had an office on the third floor of “the Pagoda” control tower and throughout the race maintained constant communication with his khaki-clad staff via twenty telephone stations placed around the facility.

In 1947, Joe Quinn examines an RCA 'Snooperscope' developed during
World War 2 for night vision as his secretary and an Army officer look on

It is unclear how just how long Major Carpenter served as the Director of Public Safety, but after Anton Hulman purchased the Speedway in 1945, he nominated long-time Hulman C Company employee Joe Quinn as the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway Safety Director. Quinn, who served in this role until 1977, established the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Safety Patrol to replace the pre-war quasi-military Speedway Guards organized by Major Carpenter.

Initially Speedway Safety Patrol members wore dark blue uniforms with pith helmets with those uniforms later replaced by the yellow shirted Safety Patrol members we know today. By comparison, to the staffing levels in 1931, today the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a full-time staff of 25 security professionals supplemented by a part-time staff of 1500 Safety Patrol staff during racing events.


Although Major William P. Carpenter never turned a wrench, owned, or drove a race car, his contributions in the field of race track security, previously overlooked, ensured the growth of our sport.   

No comments:

Post a Comment