Sunday, August 9, 2015

Lee Gehricke – “old time racer”

Recently while researching  for another automobile racing history story, the author stumbled across a small article published in the November 17 1939 issue of the San Jose Evening News newspaper headlined “Lee Gehricke, famed old time racer, dies at Los Angeles.“ 

The article noted Gehricke’s career achievements included victories at the first Santa Monica road race in 1907, the 1909 Portola Exposition race, and in 1912, a 24-hour endurance race held the “old” (meaning the original) Ascot Speedway. 

Lee Gehricke’s name and exploits were unfamiliar to the author, and subsequent research provided an important lesson about accuracy in journalism and a connection to another interesting racer and aviation pioneer.

Lee Gehricke was born in Los Angeles on August 15 1885, the middle child and first son of Mary and Henry Gehricke, who had married in Los Angeles in 1882. Mary born in 1855 was a clerk for The Broadway Department Stores chain, while Henry, born in 1857 in Germany, was a bookkeeper at Isadore Eisner’s Sun Realty Company. Henry was also a tinkerer and inventor, and in 1900, patented the ‘Gehricke Strap Lock,’ a system of locking adjustable straps for luggage security, the drawing of which is shown below on the patent #665,204 documentation. 

The Gehricke family lived at 750 South Los Angeles Street near the Flower Market District of Los Angeles and eventually the household grew to five members with daughter Ethel born in 1883 and son Earl born in 1887. In 1904, 19-year old Lee still lived at home and worked as a machinist for the Mills & Chick machine shop located at 1932 Magnolia Avenue.

Two years later, in 1906 Lee was employed as an “automobile repairer” at the Leon T. Shettler Auto Agency in Los Angeles, the West Coast sales representative for Reo and Apperson automobiles. In the early days of the automobile, dealers were keen to use racing to prove the durability of the cars sold through their agencies. Shettler, originally from Lansing Michigan, moved to Los Angeles in 1902 and quickly established himself in the retail automobile business

Throughout 1905, the local press was filled with stories of Colonel F.C. Fenner’s December 1904 7 hour and 25 minute dash in his steam-powered White motor car from Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Mountains. Fenner’s historic 103-mile route took him across the San Fernando Valley up to Fenner’s Big Horn Mine, 6900 feet up North Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains.  

Leon Shettler became sick of reading about the superiority of the White automobile sold by the local White steam car dealer (and his former employee) Harmon Ryus, and Shettler challenged Ryus to a 1906 race over the same mountainous course.

Shettler wagered Ryus $1000 that his driver, Harris Hanshue, behind the wheel of a 2-cylinder Reo could defeat Ryus driving Colonel F.C. Fenner’s White. For the race held on August 25, 1906, each car carried a mechanic and it is not unreasonable to assume that Lee Gehricke was the mechanic who rode with Hanshue.  Although the Reo was the faster of the two cars, it lost a wheel near the halfway point in Soledad Canyon, crashed and thus handed the race victory to Ryus and the White.

The “match race” up Mount Baldy became an annual event for Ryus and Shettler. In 1907, the prize increased to $2000, and was a match between Fenner’s White and an Elmore, a car built in Clyde Ohio which Shettler briefly represented on the West Coast. Harmon Ryus again drove the White, while the Elmore was driven by its owner A.J. Smith, and for the second year in a row Ryus was victorious.

The Mount Baldy race in 1908 featured Fenner’s White against Shettler’s KisselKar driven by Bert Latham, and Shettler’s entry lost for the third straight year. Publicity about the Mount Baldy race had grown and the race became known as the “most dangerous race in the world.”

The event grew to three cars in 1909, then five entries in 1910. By the time of the final “Mount Baldy run” in 1911, Shettler passed on posting an entry likely because he was involved in the site selection for a major new race at a new venue in Southern California. Shettler continued to represent the Apperson, Reo, and Kisselkar automobile brands at his dealership located at 633 South Grand Avenue in Los Angeles.

The reader will recall that the 1939 Gehricke obituary stated that he won the first Santa Monica Road Race in 1907 - an example of the inaccuracy of the article, as the first Santa Monica Road Race was not held until 1909. The book Real Road Racing, written by Harold Osmer and Phil Harms, considered the preeminent source of information on the Santa Monica races, does not list Lee Gehricke as a driver in any of the races held between 1909 and 1919. The author’s research uncovered newspaper reports that Gehricke participated as a riding mechanic in the 1909 Santa Monica Road Race. 

Leon T. Shettler served on the site selection committee for the Los Angeles Auto Dealers Association with fellow automobile dealers Ralph Hamlin and William Ruess. After much deliberation and study, the trio recommended that the races be conducted on an 8.4-mile long D-shaped course in the resort town of Santa Monica.  

The city of Santa Monica,  for its part, agreed to bank the corners and close the public roads for 10 days of practice by the racers before the races on Saturday July 10, 1909. Leon Shettler stepped forward to provide the trophy and prize money for the ‘light car' race.

Shettler entered a bright red 519-cubic inch powered Apperson ‘Jackrabbit’ for the Dick Ferris Trophy ‘heavy car’ race, one of two events to be staged on July 10, 1909. Several weeks before practice opened on the Santa Monica course, Shettler’s driver, Harris Hanshue, probably accompanied by Lee Gehricke, traveled east to pick up the specially prepared racer at the Apperson Kokomo Indiana factory and then practiced for days on nearby Hoosier roads. With these well-publicized practice sessions and a claimed top speed of 85 miles per hour, the Apperson ‘Jackrabbit’ was considered the pre-race favorite to win the 1909 Dick Ferris Trophy.

Hanshue also made speed runs with the 'Jackrabbit' on the early Playa del Rey
board track, known as the Los Angeles Motordrome 

On race day, Harris Hanshue’s Apperson was the first of the 15 entries to depart from the start-finish line in the staggered start format before an estimated 50,000 fans. Bruno Seibel’s Chadwick took the early lead, but Hanshue, a Menden Michigan native transplanted to Southern California, nine days past his 28th birthday with his riding mechanic Gehricke, grabbed the lead on lap 10 of the 24-lap race. The Apperson led the rest of the way and finished the 202-mile distance in 3 hours and 8 minutes, with a 7 ½ minute margin over Bruno Siebel’s second place Chadwick.

Post-race newspaper reports claimed that by averaging 64.53 miles per hour (MPH) over the distance, the Apperson ‘Jackrabbit’ had established a new American record for stock cars.  The “second-hand” 1907 Apperson had bested the average speed posted by George Robertson’s Locomobile when he won the 1908 Fairmount Park race in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.

Three months later, Hanshue and Gehricke were in action again with the Apperson ‘Jackrabbit’ at the inaugural Portola Festival Road Race contested on closed public roads in rural Alameda County near the modern day cities of San Leandro and Hayward California. Although the race was staged in northern California, it was organized and sponsored by the Automobile Club of Southern California with 12 laps around a 21.2 mile course for a race distance of 254 miles. 

Hanshue and Gehricke started 12th, as the cars that started earlier in the staggered start program were lighter machines. The #13 Apperson “Jackrabbit” was one of only three cars to complete the full race distance, and finished second, eighteen minutes behind Jack Fleming’s lightweight 300-cubic inch powered Pope-Hartford. The reader will recall that the newspaper article published after Gehricke’s 1939 death incorrectly stated that he won the 1909 Portola Road Race.  

Hanshue and Gehricke raced again on November 6 1909 in the second annual Los Angeles-to-Phoenix point-to-point 480-mile road race known as the “Cactus Derby.” Rather than the trusty Apperson ‘Jackrabbit,’ the pair drove a KisselKar, another manufacturer represented by Hanshue’s patron, Los Angeles car dealer Leon Shettler. Kissel cars and trucks were built by Alsation immigrant Louis Kissel and his two sons in a factory in Hartford Wisconsin beginning in 1906 through 1931.

Hanshue, Gehricke, and the Kisselkar were the tenth and final team away from the start in Los Angeles for the 1909 Cactus Derby and they crossed the finish line in Phoenix with an elapsed race time of twenty-six hours. The Kissel was scored in fifth place, as it took the pair nearly seven hours longer to complete race than the winning Nickrent brothers, Joe and Louis, driving a Buick. During the course of the race, run over a period of three days, Gehricke had at times substituted for Hanshue as the driver.

The 1909 Santa Monica winning car was entered again for the 1910 Santa Monica Road Race this time with Harris Hanshue as part of two-car Shettler Apperson team, paired with relocated New York race driver Jimmy Ryall. Ryall, whose reckless driving had earned him the dubious honor of being known as “the man who had been in more automobile accidents than any man alive,” had recently purchased a home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale.  

Hanshue contracted typhoid fever in the weeks before the race and was replaced as the driver of the bright red entry by another New York driver, Ben Kerscher, fresh off a sixth place finish in the 1910 Wheeler-Schebler Trophy Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

On the day before Thanksgiving, in pre-race practice session on the fog-shrouded Santa Monica course Kerscher crashed. After the accident the frame of the Apperson racer was found to be twisted beyond immediate repair. The next day his teammate Ryall’s Apperson dropped out of both races early with unspecified mechanical troubles.

Harris Hanshue retired from automobile racing after the August 1913 Santa Monica Road Race when his Apperson caught fire on the 16th of 53 laps. Hanshue escaped uninjured but the car burned to the ground. 

This near-disaster came on the heels of Hanshue’s crash during the July 4 1913 Pan Pacific point-to-point road race from Los Angeles to Sacramento. Hanshue’s machine crashed into a drainage ditch and Hanshue was widely reported as having been killed although he suffered only minor injuries.

After he retired from racing, Hanshue served in several management positions with Apperson that included Pacific Coast district manager and manager of the Apperson factory sales branch at 1059 Flower Street in Los Angeles.

With creation of air mail service, in 1926 Harris founded Western Air Express (WAE) and won the contract to fly United States air mail between Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.  Five weeks after the company’s first air mail flight in April 1926, WAE installed two chairs in the mail plane for passengers who paid $90 to fly along with the mail; not surprisingly the passengers were required to wear parachutes. 

In 1928, WAE merged with Transcontinental Air Transport to form Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA).  By 1930, TWA passenger service had expanded to Dallas, Kansas City and Seattle but trouble was on the horizon. In 1931, a TWA Fokker airplane crashed in Cottonwood Falls Kansas and the crash killed famed football coach Knute Rockne and seven others.  

Still reeling from the negative publicity from the crash, in 1934 Hanshue was one of three air service owners who became entangled in an air mail contract investigation that involved Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics William P MacCracken. Amid claims of fraud and political nepotism, at one point Hanshue and his personal secretary were both arrested on charges of contempt of Congress due to alleged destruction of documents. Eventually two of the four aviation company officials involved were found guilty of the charges, but Hanshue his secretary were both found not guilty.

Before the Senate investigation began Hanshue had broken away from TWA, with his new Western Air Lines fleet was reduced to six airplanes and four pilots, but clouded by the investigation, Harris lost control of his company before he could rebuild. 

Three years later, ostracized by the commercial aviation industry, Hanshue took ill while he was in New York City as he sought financing for his last venture, a gold mine in Placer County California. Following an emergency operation, Hanshue suffered a stroke and he died on January 8 1937 leaving behind a widow, son, and a daughter. 

The reader will recall that the article that announced Lee Gehricke’s death claimed that he won a 1912 24-hour endurance race held at the original Ascot Speedway, a claim widely repeated in many places. 

An early photo of Ascot Speedway 
from the archives of the Library of Congress

The original Ascot Speedway, the first of four Southern California tracks to be so named, was a one-mile failed horse racing facility located at Central and Florence Avenues near modern-day Los Angeles which operated from 1907 to 1919 before it closed.  The land the track stood on later became the site of a huge Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company factory, complete with a blimp hangar, built in 1936, which at its peak employed 2500 workers.

There are no records of a 1912 Ascot Speedway 24-hour race, but the track did host a 24-hour endurance race in 1908 and Lee Gehricke did compete in that race. Lee was behind the wheel of Leon Shettler’s entry, a single-cylinder 10-horsepower Reo, known as the “Kiddo,” a nod to its small size compared to the other six machines entered.

Seven hours into the race, when the race was stopped by organizers for two hours to roll the track surface, Gehricke and the Reo “Kiddo” were scored in fifth place with 132 laps completed.  At the finish of the 24-hour grind at 4 PM on Sunday afternoon November 1, 1908, the winning Locomobile driven by San Franciscan J. Murray Page (or Paige)  had covered 916 miles, while Gehricke’s tiny Reo, the last car running, had completed 474 miles, credited with a fourth place finish

Newspaper post-race reports on Monday reported that Gehricke and the Reo “Kiddo” actually ran many laps faster than the winning Locomobile in the last four hours, understandable since Page was wisely “stroking it” to the finish, as his Locomobile held more than a 100-lap lead over the second-place Franklin. Gehricke and the tiny Reo had been delayed numerous times earlier in the race by a leaking fuel tank which broke repeatedly in the same location caused by the rough track conditions.  

Lee Gehricke later won a 6-hour endurance race held at Ascot on May 31 1909 behind the wheel of a 1907 Kissel 6 ‘60’ Speedster. Gehricke and the Kissel, powered by six-cylinder 505 cubic inch engine that developed an advertised 60 horsepower, reportedly ran countless laps timed at one minute and ten seconds a lap and eventually amassed 207 total laps during the 6-hour race.

While Lee Gehricke’s racing resume did not match up to the claims in his 1939 newspaper obituary, this article is not meant to minimize Gehricke’s accomplishments. It is impossible to overlook the racers that competed in the early part of the twentieth century, an era when drivers and their riding mechanic rode on, rather than in, rudimentary cars that rode 36-inch wooden spoke wheels without the benefits of any safety equipment. Without the bravery and skill exhibited by early racers like Lee Gehricke and Harris Hanshue, automobile racing as we know it today would not exist. 

The author extends his sincere appreciation to fellow Yahoo! Racing History group members Jim Thurman and Jim Taggert for their valuable research assistance on this difficult, elusive subject.            

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