Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fred Agabashian
from the Bay Area to Indianapolis glory
Part one 1947 to 1952  


All photographs appear courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

San Francisco Bay Area midget driver Levan “Fred” Agabashian achieved great success in local midget racing before he made it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In his years at the Speedway which coincided with the early part of the roadster era, "Doctor" Agabashian was highly regarded for his ability to diagnose and solve the problems with ill-handling race cars.

Born in Modesto California in 1913 to Armenian immigrants Levan and Nevart Agabashian, legend has it that Fred drove his father’s car at age five and tinkered with cars as a youngster. Fred participated in his first race with a jalopy at age 17 in 1931 while still a student at Berkeley High School. One of Fred’s three younger sisters, Alice Elcano, became a famed Bay Area radio Big Band singer. 

During his career, Fred drove stock cars and ‘big cars’ but he made his name in midgets and won his first midget racing championship in 1937 with the short-lived Northern California Racing Association. Fred raced with such midget legends as Herk Edwards, “Lucky” Lloyd Logan, Ted Ayers, 3-time STAR midget champion Al Stein, and Tony Dutro on long-lost tracks such as the 1/5-mile dirt ‘Motordromes’ in San Francisco and San Jose and the 1/6-mile dirt Neptune Beach Speedway which was next to the amusement park of the same name in Alameda.   

In 1946, Agabashian won his first Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) championship for car owner Jack London and the following year Agabashian made his first visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the rookie driver of the “Ross Page Special” a supercharged Miller-Offenhauser powered Kurtis chassis owned by one the promoters of the San Jose Speedway.

Fred and the Ross Page Special shown in 1947.
Note the clear Plexiglas fairing behind Fred's head 

Though many observers were drawn to the clear Plexiglas fairing behind driver Agabashian’s head, the maroon and white Ross Page car with gold trim is considered to be the forerunner of Frank Kurtis’ later roadster designs as it featured an offset engine and driveline. After he finished ninth in the 1947 ‘500,’ he returned to the Bay Area, and Agabashian won the BCRA title again in  1947, this time for car owner George Bignotti.      

Agabashian was one of 25 drivers who took part in the February 1948 “Aztec Championship” a series of 15 races that the BCRA club staged in Mexico City. The tour organized by Damon Miller and Art Driefer led by BCRA starter Hank Madeiros and Floyd Busby who filled in for “Boots” Archer the BCRA business manager.

The venue was the new Ciudad de los Deportes stadium which reportedly held up to 65,000 fans. The Mexican promoters guaranteed the club $18,000 for six nights of racing, with three nights of racing each of the planned two weeks with an option to extend the contract for up to two months.

A group of nearly 100 people (wives and mechanics) left the Bay Area aboard a Southern Pacific train on January 20 1948. The rail line promised to arrive at the stadium in Mexico City in five days for a cost of $205 per car but five teams elected to tow their cars and equipment to Mexico.

Once there the teams learned that their cars did not run well at Mexico City’s altitude even with the use of high octane gasoline. Agabashian won the opening night race before 20,000 fans over Andy Guthrie. Johnnie Parsons won the trophy dash and finished third in the feature ahead of Jerry Piper.

The author could not find any more race results in period newspapers, but thanks to Bay Area racing historians, the author pieced together a few more details. BCRA historian Jimmy Montgomery provided his copies of the results of the seven non-points races in Mexico City. The first race was held on Thursday February 5 with 26 cars entered.

Woody Brown set quick time of 13.58 seconds in the Jack O’Brien owned Ford V8-60 powered midget which stood as the track record for three days until Johnnie Parsons reset the track record of 12.92 seconds three nights later. The Mexico City racing programs featured time trials each night followed by a trophy dash, four 5-lap heat races, and two 6-lap “finals” for the top finishers in the heat races. After a break the BCRA racers ran a 15-lap semi-feature and a 25-lap feature.

The second night in Mexico City, February 7th, Parsons won the Trophy Dash and the feature, and Woody Brown captured the third night 25-lap feature on February 8. After a night off, racing resumed on the tenth and Parsons won his third trophy dash and Agabashian his second Mexico City feature race. Marvin Burke won the fifth feature over Agabashian on February 12 over Agabashian and the racers took a few days off before their next race.

On February 15 in the penultimate Mexico race the car count dropped to 24 midgets, and fast qualifier Jerry Piper won the Trophy Dash, while Vic Gotelli won the feature over Parsons. The last Aztec race was run on February 19 as Woody Brown won his second feature over Marvin Burke and Agabashian.

The tour was not extended beyond the original contract and Al Slonaker in his February 24 “Speedway Sparks” column in the Oakland Tribune reported that “midgeteers are drifting home from Mexico City” and that   Agabashian won the Aztec Championship.   The tour ended after the contracted two weeks because according to the recollections of Floyd Busby, Sr. the size of the crowds steadily declined over the six nights.

Slonaker later reported in March that “Mexican publicity billed our boys as ‘suicide pilots’ and ‘death defying drivers.’ Somehow our sensible speedway sportsmen began to believe this nonsense, and overnight they became madmen. Mexico City saw two weeks of the craziest and downright wildest driving ever witnessed.” There seems to be a measure of exaggeration in Slonaker’s article as Floyd Busby, Jr. remembers that his father told him that despite the local press hype, none of the ‘death defying drivers’ even turned a midget over while they raced in Mexico. This second-hand recollection was confirmed by historian and writer Tom Motter.  

Agabashian returned to Indianapolis in May 1948 to reprise his roles as the driver of the ‘Ross Page Special’ and bumped his way into starting field but the 183-cubic inch Leon Duray-designed supercharged engine broke an oil line with just 58 of the 200 laps completed.  In October Agabashian was crowned the BCRA champion for the third consecutive year, after his chief competitor Jerry Piper broke his arm in a crash during a BCRA midget race in Santa Rosa late in the season which ended Piper’s season early.   

For 1949, Piper and Agabashian started the BCRA season as teammates for George Bignotti, with Piper taking the wheel of the 1948 championship car while Fred drove the brand-new Kurtis-Kraft #154 “Burgermeister Special.” Fred set the quick time in the first race in the BCRA winter indoor championship held January 8 on the 1/10-mile oval laid out on the concrete floor of the Oakland Exposition building.

Agabashian set quick time on three occasions during the 8-race series and eventually lowered the track record to an amazing 8.22 seconds. Fred won the penultimate feature race, but Hayward’s Bob Sweikert won the inaugural BCRA indoor championship.

In May 1949 at Indianapolis, Fred was again nominated as the driver of the ‘Ross Page Special,’ but the Miller-Offenhauser supercharged engine broke its crankshaft during a practice run on Friday May 27. The next day, Fred jumped into the Indianapolis Race Cars Inc. (IRC) Maserati 8CL chassis number 3035 and posted a four-lap qualifying average speed of 127.007 miles per hour (MPH) which bumped Henry Banks from the field.

IRC was a group of three Indianapolis businessmen led by investment banker Roger Gould Wolcott that purchased the assets of the Boyle Racing Team after the 1948 death of Boyle chief mechanic Harry “Cotton” Henning. Evidently the IRC team mechanics lacked the understanding of the complexities of Italian engineering that Henning had possessed as both of the IRC team’s Maserati entries retired from the 1949 ‘500’ early.

Agabashian’s car dropped out first, with terminal overheating on lap 38 and teammate Leland “Lee” Wallard retired the 1939 and 1940 winning Maserati 8CTF 17 laps later with gearbox troubles.  Near the end of the 1949 AAA season, Agabashian substituted for injured driver Johnny Mantz in JC Agajanian’s Kurtis 2000 in the 100-mile race at the old California State Fairgrounds in Sacramento. Fred started from the pole position and led 99 of the 100 laps to post his first (an only) AAA championship victory. 

Fred’s entry for the 1950 Indianapolis ‘500’ was announced very early, in mid-January with Fred as the teammate to Johnnie Parsons, the defending American Automobile Association AAA National Champion in the Kurtis-Kraft “house cars.”

Fred in his #28 car to the left of his teammate in #1 Johnnie Parsons

Parsons drove the same Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser that he drove in 1949 for St. Louis car owner Ed Walsh, Frank Kurtis’ partner and the President of Kurtis-Kraft Inc. while Fred was assigned the team’s “new” Kurtis 3000, one of five built for the 1950 ‘500.’ What made Agabashian’s “Wynn’s Friction Proofing Special” different was that it was powered by an experimental 179-cubic inch supercharged Offenhauser engine.

“I always liked research and development, new stuff," Agabashian said in an interview at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1987. "I could've probably had better luck if I drove something conventional." Never was that statement truer than in 1950.

During May Fred turned some of the fastest laps in practice, and he coached rookie driver Walt Faulkner, a fellow midget driver who struggled with JC Agajanian’s #98 Kurtis 2000 upright chassis. On “Pole Day” May 13 Agabashian’s #28 “Wynn’s Friction Proofing Special” was the first car out and posted a 10-mile qualifying average speed of 132.792 MPH much to the delight of the more than 50,000 fans which held up through the day as the fastest average speed. 

Just before time trials closed at 6 PM local time, Faulkner in the #98 ‘Agajanian Special’ took to the track. After a “slow” first lap of 132 MPH, Faulkner’s best lap was his second, recorded at 136.013 MPH before laps of 134.8 and 133.8 MPH for a four-lap average of 134.343 MPH. Faulkner’s last second run not only knocked Agabashian off the pole, but set new track records and nudged Fred to start from the middle of the front row for the ‘500.’

On Memorial Day, Fred ran in third place at 40 laps, but the yellow #28 Kurtis 3000 fell out on the 64th lap with a broken oil line while his teammate’s conventional Offenhauser-powered Kurtis chassis won the rain-shortened race. Fred drove the supercharged ‘Wynn’s Friction Proofing Special’ for Ed Walsh for the rest of the AAA season and appeared in nine of the twelve 1950 AAA championship races and wound up 14th in points.  

In October, Fred received special permission from AAA’s West Coast Supervisor Gordon Betz to participate in the BCRA midget portion of the Bert Moreland Benefit race held on the ¼-mile oval at Oakland Stadium. Moreland who had driven Agabashian’s midget in BCRA competition had been paralyzed in a crash at Contra Costa Speedway earlier in the season and would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life until he passed away in 2001. 

In January 1951 it was announced that Fred had assumed the responsibilities of the manager of the BCRA club but his reign was a short one, as he resigned on April 8 under pressure from the AAA following Bill Holland’s suspension for “outlaw (non-AAA) activities.” 

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Fred in the “Granatelli Bardahl Special” was the fastest of only three drivers to complete a qualifying run on the second day of time trials and his 135.029 MPH four-lap average earned him the 11th starting position. The clutch on the Granatelli Kurtis 3000 failed as Fred left the pits on his 109th lap and he was placed 17th in the final standings.

Fred’s 1951 AAA racing season was a difficult one, as Agabashian failed to qualify for two other AAA races with Andy Granatelli and he drove for three other car owners – Ray Brady, Pat Clancy, and JC Agajanian for a total of six AAA race appearances with a best finish of sixth recorded twice during the season. After the 1951 AAA season, Fred now 38 years old, cut back on his racing appearances and focused his energies on success in just one race a year- the Indianapolis 500-mile race.

In our next installment we’ll continue to tell the story of Fred Agabashian’s Indianapolis ‘500’ career.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The forgotten ‘500’ champion- L.L. Corum

Part three

1924 Indianapolis ‘500’ race co-winner LL “Slim” Corum qualified the #17 supercharged Duesenberg straight-eight  for the 1928 ‘500’ on Monday May 28 at 86.172 miles per hour (MPH). Scheduled to start near the rear of the field, Corum crashed the car in practice on Memorial Day morning and was forced to withdraw from the race.

In 1929 Corum was not entered for the 17th annual International 500-miles Sweepstakes but served as a relief driver for the Duesenberg team and drove just four laps in place of fifth-place finisher Freddy Winnai during the middle of the race.      

The 1930 Indianapolis 500-mile race ushered in the era of the so-called “Junk Formula” rules package pushed through the AAA Contest Board by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker in 1928. 

Backed by a group of Detroit investors, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November 1927, but the lack of entries and poor attendance at the 1928 International 500-mile Sweepstakes led to Rickenbacker’s demand for rule changes. 

Based on the success of the 1927 AAA stock car races, Rickenbacker believed the semi-stock formula would lead to larger ‘500’ starting fields and more paying spectators at the Speedway.

The new AAA rules package published in January 1929 allowed competitors to race with stripped down “semi-stock” passenger cars was designed to encourage more participation by automobile manufacturers but effectively killed  the nascent rebirth of stock car racing.  There were an increased number of entries received for the 1930 ‘500’ and all 38 entries made the starting field.  

LL “Slim” Corum was entered as the driver of a “semi-stock” Stutz owned by Milton Jones of Cleveland Ohio. Jones purchased the Stutz Vertical Eight Torpedo Speedster from Cleveland dealer Walter Weidley on March 15 1930 and it was prepared at the Stutz factory by vice-president of production and former racer Bert Dingley. 

The car powered by a 322-cubic inch straight eight engine was fitted with Firestone balloon racing tires, stiffer springs and a 42-gallon fuel tank with its windshield, top, fenders, and headlights removed for the race.

Corum and the riding mechanic, his car owner Milton Jones, qualified 27th for the 38-car starting field and finished the 500-mile grind in tenth place and made just one pit stop at the 250-mile point to add 30 gallons of gasoline. The “Jones Stutz Special” averaged 85.34 miles per hour (MPH) over the race distance with a reported average fuel consumption of 8.8 miles per gallon and won $1,400. 

On April 23 1931 Corum was named the driver of the Stutz Bearcat roadster entered for the ‘500’ by the Stutz Motor Car Company of America. Stutz President Edgar S. Gorrell stated in an interview published in the Circleville Herald newspaper that “we don’t expect to win the race, it is not reasonable with a stock car. We believe the public will appreciate the fact that if Stutz makes a good appearance in the race it can be attributed to the soundness of our engineering and construction principles.”

The car was powered by the new eight-cylinder 322 cubic inch Stutz DV-32 with four valves per hemispherical cylinder and double overhead camshafts. Gorrell added that the new engine construction “has resulted in increased horsepower which is reflected in higher speed with consequent acceleration in the touring ranges.”        

Despite the build-up, the semi-stock Stutz Bearcat while fast in a straight line, handled poorly and failed to make the 40-car starting field as Corum could only average 98.38 MPH for the ten-mile time trial run. Although his average was faster than the slowest car in the field, the Cummins Diesel Special driven by Dave Evans, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had issued a special exemption that guaranteed that a diesel-powered car would start the race provided it averaged over 80 MPH.

The Cummins entry, the first car to post a qualifying time posted an average of 96.871 MPH, fast enough to “lock” it into the field. Corum’s qualifying speed was insufficient to “crowd out” the second-slowest qualifier Harry Butcher, whose Butcher Brothers Buick semi-stock entry qualified at 99.343 MPH.  Stung by the failure, 1931 marked the final entry of a factory Stutz race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

L.L “Slim” Corum was entered for the 1932 Indianapolis 500-mile race as the driver of a car powered by a Duesenberg Model ‘A’ engine fitted in a chassis and body built by Herman Ringling but failed to qualify for the 40-car starting field. With over 70 entries received for the race, three years into the “Junk Formula” and Eddie Rickenbacker was beginning to see the results of his rule change.

In 1933 Corum was a member of the five-car Studebaker racing team, along with Tony Gulotta, Zeke Meyer, Luther Johnson and Cliff Bergere. All his teammates returned from the 1932 Studebaker effort, and Corum replaced Peter Kreis, who left the team to drive Fred Frame’s Miller marine-powered entry in the 1933 ‘500.’

One of the 1933 streamlined Studebakers
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Mechanically the Studebakers were the same as the year before, but Studebaker hired Herman Ringling to build new streamlined bodies with higher cowls and enclosed cockpits for four of the five machines. 

In general the streamlining increased the Studebaker’s lap speeds during qualifying by two miles per hour, but turned the cockpits into ovens during the race. The Studebaker crews doused driver and mechanic with water on pit stops and eventually used a borrowed hatchet to chop holes in the aluminum bodies to allow the entry of cooling air.

 Tony Gulotta’s car which was unmodified from 1932 finished the 500-mile grind in seventh, 15 minutes behind winner Louis Meyer while the other four factory Studebaker entries finished in order from ninth through twelfth positions. 

Corum and his riding mechanic, hometown boy James “Jimmy” Lowden, soldiered on through the race and brought the #47 Studebaker home in 12th, just seven seconds behind teammate Cliff Bergere, who had received relief mid-race. Based on his 1924 experience, one can believe that it would have taken a tire iron to persuade Corum to allow a relief driver in his car.

In 1937 the final year that riding mechanics were required at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jimmy Lowden had a close brush with death in a practice crash on Friday May 28. Driver Overton “Bunny” Phillips with Lowden alongside piloted the “Mannix Special” entered by James Kemp and James L Mannix at full speed down the front straightaway when the crankshaft broke in catastrophic fashion and punctured the car’s gasoline tank. Fully engulfed in flames, the Mannix Duesenberg careened out of control and crashed into the ‘Ray 8” Studebaker parked in the pit area and receiving service. Both cars burned and were destroyed.

The horrific aftermath of the Phillips 1937 crash
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

The crash fatally injured one man, George Warford, who was pinned against the pit wall and severely burned, and Phillips, Lowden and three others - Otto C. Rohde, Anthony Caccia, and Walter King were seriously injured.  Rohde a vice-president and the chief engineer for the Champion Spark Plug Company, who was changing the spark plugs in the engine of the “Ray 8” received critical injuries when he was thrown over the pit wall.  

Warford, 42, was pronounced dead upon arrival at City Hospital, and Rohde, 60,  one of the originators of the Champion 100 MPH Club, died of his injuries at City Hospital six days later on June 2

King, a Cornell University medical student initially erroneously identified as Phillips’ riding mechanic, and Caccia, the brother of the late driver Joe Caccia were spectators seated on the pit wall next to Warford a former Indianapolis fireman who reportedly sought a mechanic’s job with the Ray Brady team when the accident unfolded.  

Practice was suspended for four hours while the injured men and the wreckage of the two destroyed cars were removed. When the track reopened for time trials Frank McGurk in Murrel Belanger’s straight eight Miller powered machine crashed and rolled over. McGurk was injured but his his experienced riding mechanic Albert Opalko died of his injuries.

On June 4 Caccia filed a a personal injury lawsuit against the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation in Marion County Superior Court #2 which asked for $100,000 ($1.7 million today) in damages. On June 8 Warford’s widow Adeline filed a $10,000 suit in the same court, which was withdrawn after she settled for an undisclosed amount on June 24 1937.  In November 1938, Caccia who suffered a broken pelvis and left leg accepted a $3,000 pre-trial settlement from the Speedway after a jury was seated.

The others injured apparently recovered from their injuries, though Jimmy Lowden never appeared at the Speedway again. Phillips entered a Bugatti chassis powered by a Miller engine which failed to qualify for the 1940 ‘500’ but was successful in 1941 and finished thirteenth. Phillips later became an expert restorer and acknowledged expert on Bugatti cars before he passed away in Southern California in 1999.  

 LL "Slim" Corum made a final appearance at the Speedway as a late addition to the hastily-assembled 10-car Miller-Ford team in 1935 which used Harry Miller-built front drive chassis powered by a reversed 220-cubic-inch Flathead Ford V-8 engine. The lack of preparation or testing severely hampered the Ford factory effort, the cars arrived late and only nine of the Miller-Fords were actually ready to run during the month of May 1935.

By the time Corum took his first laps behind the wheel of a Miller-Ford on May 24, two of the team’s original “big name” drivers, Peter DePaolo and Cliff Bergere had already quit the team due to the myriad of problems.  With the struggles with sorting out the handling of the 4-wheel independent suspension and a lack of horsepower, only four Miller-Fords made the 33-car starting field, while the qualifying runs of two cars – those of Billy Winn and Dave Evans were too slow. Three cars - rookie Johnny Rae in #47, Wesley Crawford in the cream-colored #48 and Corum in the blue-and-white #49 never attempted to qualify before the track closed for time trials.  

As bad as qualifying had been, Memorial Day turned into a public relations disaster for the Ford Motor Company.  As the red 1935 Ford V-8 Convertible Sedan led the field to the green flag, one of the Miller-Fords driven by George Bailey still sat in the pit area, though Bailey joined the race after the first lap was completed.  On the 47th lap Bob Sall retired his gold-colored #46 car followed on lap 65 by George Bailey. 

Seymour’s blue and silver #42 entry with relief driver George Barringer behind the wheel was out on lap 71 then finally Ted Horn’s black and white #43 dropped out on lap 123 after several long pit stops. All the Miller-Fords were eliminated in 1935 by frozen steering gears, because of a design flaw which placed the aluminum steering box too close to the flathead Ford engine exhaust manifold. 

L.L. Corum disappeared from the public eye for three years but resurfaced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in April 1938 “on the comeback” working for Harry A. Miller as a mechanic on Miller’s entry for Billy Winn. The construction of the pair of radical machines originally started by Miller for former driver Ira Vail was taken over by the Gulf Research Development Company in Harmarville Pennsylvania when Miller went to work for Gulf a longtime supplier of 80-octane No-Nox fuel and Gulfpride lubricants for race cars in February 1937.

These two radical front engine-rear wheel drive cars featured new “aviation style” Miller 255-cubic inch double overhead camshaft 4-cylinder engines designed to produce 235 horsepower connected to a four-speed transaxles that used Cord 810 gear sets.  The engines used Coffman cartridge style starters typical on aircraft with an exploding blank shell which drove a piston that engaged a screw thread to turn over the engine   

The 95-inch wheelbase chassis was a wonder of engineering with features that included streamlined four-wheel independent suspension, driver-adjustable hydraulic shock absorbers, and 360-degree (not spot) hydraulic disc brakes. When shown to the press in April 1937, Miller predicted lap speeds of 126 MPH more than two miles per hour faster than the standing Speedway one-lap track record.

The most striking features of the cars drafted by Everett Stevenson were visible at a glance; instead of a radiator, the cars featured a series of externally mounted chrome plated copper tubes wrapped around the nose and the car carried mid-mounted shaped “pontoon” fuel tanks shaped like inverted wings. 

In early tests conducted at Langhorne Speedway the engines overheated then the brittle tubing broke, so when the cars arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the tubing had been replaced by small square conventional radiators mounted on either side of the car mounted parallel to the wind stream.    

The Associated Press’ Harold Harrison in an article written during mid-April testing wrote that “Slim doesn’t look much a race driver anymore,” as his brown hair had “thinned considerably” and he wore horn-rimmed glasses.  Described as the “forgotten race winner,” Corum told Harrison “maybe I’ll drive again. I’m not so old, only 39, and it’s possible I can pick up where I left off. Racing has changed a lot since my best days but I’d like to drive the 500 miles again –just once.”

Corum recounted his version of his career after the 1924 ‘500’ win to sportswriter Bill Braucher of the Central Press Association wire service “I cracked up at Indianapolis in 1925 and never could do much after that. I joined up with the engineering department of an automotive firm (Stutz) and tried a comeback in 1933 but got no better than twelfth place.”  Stutz Motor Car Company was declared insolvent on April 3 1937, but as Corum described it “last November, the slump hit the mechanical end of the automotive business and I hooked up with Harry Miller to speed up the new cars he’s building.” 

During early Speedway tests, Billy Winn barely escaped injury on April 21 when he stopped the car in the pit area after the engine caught fire. Winn leaped out and mechanics put out the fire with extinguishers. Early in May, Winn, described as a “dirt track demon,” was listed as an early favorite to win the Indianapolis ‘500’ along with Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer and Bill Cummings.

Winn tried both of the Miller entries and made two qualifying attempts on the last day of time trials in the #24 Miller, but abandoned both of the ten-lap runs due to the lack of speed. Tragically, Winn who always raced in red shirt lost his life three months later in a crash during the “Governor’s Sweepstakes” at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

While the Vail cars were indeed radical Gulf and Miller launched another program in early 1938 to design and construct cars which would be suitable for both Grand Prix and Indianapolis competition. This car, with design features years ahead of its time, was powered by a 180-cubic inch six-cylinder, supercharged engine mounted in the middle of the car behind the driver in a chassis that used both four-wheel-drive and four-wheel independent suspension. The extremely complex car was rushed to completion arrived late at Indianapolis, and Ralph Hepburn was on track warming up the rear-engine Miller when the 4 PM deadline came on May 28 1938.

Gulf press photo of the re-worked 1939 Gulf/Vail cars

The Gulf/Vail Miller cars remain among the least documented of all the Millers built perhaps since they were overshadowed by the mid-engine Miller creations. After failing to qualify for the 1938 ‘500’ both cars were extensively reworked. The pontoon-style gasoline tanks were removed and replaced with a single spherical gas tank mounted high in the tail of the car. The noses of the cars were rebuilt with conventional radiators but after testing at the Altoona Pennsylvania dirt track the cars did not appear for the 1939 Indianapolis 500.

Later Gulf sold the “Vail” cars, which never raced, to Preston Tucker who removed the engines for their use in a failed high-speed landing craft project. Years later the rolling chassis were reportedly found in a Chicago basement and after multiple sales and trades, one of the cars was rebuilt with a Miller ML-510 engine a development of the original 255 cubic inch engine.

The Miller mid-engine four-wheel drive cars although ground-breaking technologically, were also failures. Three Gulf-Miller cars appeared at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1939 but only one, driven by George Bailey, made the race and retired after just 47 laps. Bailey died in a fiery practice crash at the Speedway in May 1939 and the other two Gulf entries were withdrawn.

The two much-revised mid-engine cars returned for the 1941 Indianapolis ‘500’ and both qualified, but the car qualified by George Barringer was destroyed in the Race Day morning garage fire, and the remaining car, driven by Al Miller, was out after 22 laps. In 1946 and 1947 the remaining car now known as the “Tucker Torpedo Special” dropped out early each year and failed to qualify in 1948.

LL Corum worked for the Studebaker Corporation during 1939, but his later history remains unknown. Lora of course was too old for service in World War Two, but his son Robert enlisted in the US Army and rose to become a Sargent in the 147th Combat Engineers Brigade. Unfortunately, while stationed in England he contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalized in February 1944.

Robert returned stateside in May 1944 and remained hospitalized at Billings General Hospital on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison northeast of Indianapolis. It was there that Robert passed away on March 23 1945 at age 21, and he was interred at Memorial Park Cemetery on Indianapolis’ east side. 

Lora was despondent over the death of his son, and frequently left home for days at a time. On Monday March 7, 1949 his mother Margaret found Lora hanging in the garage behind the family home at 33 North Keeling Avenue. Marion County Deputy Coroner Joseph Hewett determined that Lora had likely hung himself on Friday night while his parents and wife were away. Lora was buried in the family plot near his son and was later joined there by his father who passed away in 1950 and his wife and mother, who both died in 1973.     

LL “Slim” Corum never received the credit he was properly due for his accomplishments at the Indianapolis Speedway; he qualified for nine starting fields but he only started six, and in those six races Corum has an enviable record as he went the full distance three times unassisted. 

Corum drove the first 111 laps of the 1925 ‘500’ and was running in third place when he was relieved. In the history of auto racing at Indianapolis there is only one other driver who accomplishments sadly remain as overlooked as those of LL Corum- the 1941 ‘500’ co-winner Floyd Davis.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Kevin Triplett's Racing History
scan of a card from Paul Oxman Publishing
Thanks for all your support

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The forgotten ‘500’ winner - L.L. Corum
Part two -  stock car racer

1924 Indianapolis ‘500’ co-winner L.L. “Slim” Corum failed to qualify a Duesenberg for the 1927 ‘500’ starting field, through that year Corum made a name for himself in the world of American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned stock car racing.
After he joined the Stutz Motors “experimental department” in 1926 Corum, along with race car drivers Ralph Mulford, Tom Rooney, Bert Dingley, and Gil Andersen competed in races with factory-entered Blackhawk Vertical Eight Speedsters. Frederick E. Moskovics the Stutz president, understood the publicity value of automobile racing, having been involved in the management of the 1910 Los Angeles Motordrome board track in Playa del Rey California.

For the 1927 season the AAA Contest Board, led by Eddie Rickenbacker created a stock car racing renaissance that harkened back to the earliest racing days of the early twentieth century. Unlike the modern-day NASCAR silhouette “stock car” races, the 1927 AAA races were open to strictly stock cars that displaced 300 cubic inches or less, and to ensure the stock nature of the cars, the AAA Contest Board reserved the right to select the cars at random and supervise their preparation.
Cars raced less the windshield, fenders, running boards and tops with the only mechanical adjustments allowed limited to “valve grinding, cylinder honing, relieving bearing clearances, and fine tuning.”  The races were scheduled, often in conjunction with AAA championship races on two East Coast board tracks - the Rockingham Speedway in New Hampshire and Atlantic City Speedway in New Jersey.

The “Eastern Stock Car Championship” for the "Atlantic City Trophy" 75-mile race was held on May 7 1927 at Atlantic City prior to the running of AAA 200-mile championship car race.  The one and half mile long year-old  wooden New Jersey track alternately known as Amotal Raceway due to its location on the site of the World War I ammunition plant, was roughly equidistant from Atlantic City and Philadelphia south of the town Hammonton.

Designed by Art Pillsbury and built by Jack Prince the construction was financed largely by Charles M. Schwab chairman of Bethlehem Steel and also a major investor in Stutz and a member of the Stutz board.   

Tom Rooney in a Stutz Vertical Eight 2-seat roadster won the May race at an average speed of 86.50 MPH in a time of 52 minutes and 10.54 seconds as the top three finishers could have been covered by a blanket. Wade Morton’s Auburn finished just a fender length behind Rooney in second place and Zeke Meyer’s Paige trailed just a few feet back in third place. 

Eddie Miller finished fourth in another Auburn roadster ahead of fellow Indianapolis veteran Fred Winnai who drove a Duesenberg Model A roadster to a fifth place finish. For an appreciation of just how fast the steeply banked board tracks were, Dave Lewis won the featured 200-mile race in a 91 ½ cubic inch supercharged Miller front drive at average speed of 130 MPH.

There were only six entries for the 100-mile preliminary stock car race held on July 4 1927 at the 1-1/4 mile wooden Rockingham Park Speedway, a venue opened in 1925 but which was already in financial trouble, Two days before the race, at the request of a group of investors United States District Court Judge George F. Morris in Concord placed the track in receivership and named Exeter attorney William Sleeper as the receiver.    
Frank Lockhart led the first 65 laps of the race in a Mercedes, but a blown tire forced him into the pits and he lost more than a lap to former AAA championship regular Wade Morton behind the wheel of 8-88 Auburn.  Once underway, Lockhart’s car suffered another blown tire which cost him another five laps to repair. Morton claimed the victory over Lockhart and Ralph Hepburn is a similar Auburn and posted a new United States stock car record as he averaged 89.17 mph over the 100-mile distance.  

Like all the board tracks, weather and the pounding of the cars took their toll on the Rockingham board track. The 1926 AAA champion Harry Hartz was severely injured and burned in a crash at Rockingham in October 1927 which left him in out of hospitals for two years and ended his racing career. 

The scheduled 200-mile International Motor Classic in October 1928 was halted after 50 laps due to the deteriorating track conditions led to the three crashes which included Fred Comer’s fatal crash on lap 25. 
The finish of the race was initially postponed for two weeks to allow time for planned repairs but was eventually cancelled. In the fall of 1929 the Lowell Building Wrecking Company razed the 1-1/4 mile facility and more than 3 million board feet of well-seasoned 2x3, 2x4, 2x6, 2x10, and 2x12 wood planking was salvaged and sold as scrap.

On September 5 1927 the AAA sanctioned a series of stock car races at Atlantic City which included a special preliminary event that offered a purse of $250 for the “oldest car capable of navigating the banked track.” Entries in the special race included an 1897 AutoCar, a 1900 Winton, and 1901 curved dash Oldsmobile.

In the days leading up to the race, there was some controversy as several teams alleged sabotage, and according to the Chester Times in Chester Pennsylvania “officials brought in huge flood lights to illuminate the long rows of garages and guards with bayoneted rifles patrol the section about the garages day and night to prevent anyone from approaching except those with official credentials.”

This AP photo shows Earl Vance with his trophy

The day’s first AAA-sanctioned race was a 25-mile or 20 lap event for 4-cylinder cars, won by Earl Vance of Philadelphia in a Dodge Sport Roadster entered by the Atlantic City Speedway Association. The 1928 Dodge Series 124 ‘Fast Four’ Sports Roadster powered by a  212-cubic inches L-head engine had been purchased by the Association ten days before the race to increase the size of the field,  averaged 67.35 MPH.  

The second race of the day, a 75-mile, 60 lap event for 6-cylinder cars priced below $2000 was won by 1919, 1921 and 1922 national motorcycle champion  and three-time Indianapolis ‘500’ starter Ralph Hepburn behind the wheel of a factory-entered Studebaker Commander Roadster. His Studebaker teammate Eddie Hearne finished second ahead of a Chrysler ‘70’ roadster, one of four entered by the Speedway Association, in third place. A Buick Master Six roadster and a Star Six built by Durant Motors rounded out the top five finishers. 

The third and final stock car race held at Atlantic City on Labor Day, the 120-lap 150-mile “Free-for-All” featured six factory Stutz entries – four roadsters and two sedans all which had been driven to New Jersey from Indianapolis  by the drivers which included Gil Andersen, Bruce Keen. Tom Rooney. and “Slim” Corum to “break them in.” There were a total of 14 cars entered, all either six- or eight-cylinder powered machines, including Hepburn’s, and the race was run at torrid pace with lap speeds that neared 100 MPH.

Early in the race, Keen lost control crashed his Stutz into the outer fence and was injured.  Two laps from the end of the Atlantic City race Hepburn’s second-place 353-cubic inch side-valve 85-horsepower Studebaker blew a tire, and the finish it was a 1-2-3 Stutz sweep. 

Rooney claimed the win and set a new world’s record as he finished in one hour 33 minutes with an average speed of 96.30 MPH. Corum finished second, two minutes and fifteen seconds in arrears with Andersen in third place, four seconds behind Corum while Hepburn recovered to finish fourth.  

In the fall of 1929, the 500-acre Atlantic City Speedway site was sold to the General Aero Corporation which announced plans to level the track and build an international airport, but the venture collapsed and the track remained intact.  At the end of May 1932 the assets of the Atlantic City Speedway Association were auctioned off to satisfy a legal claim.  The following year, the great Atlantic City board track was demolished and the lumber sold for its scrap value  

Stutz wins the Stevens Trophy

The Stevens Cup in 1927




In April 1927 Corum was a member of the Stutz team that set out to win the Stevens Perpetual Challenge Trophy, a traveling award established by Samuel Barron Stevens a wealthy stock broker banker and early automobile racer from Rome New York. Stevens had established a number of speed records on Ormond Beach in Florida in the original AAA stock car racing period from 1903 to 1908.

After his retirement from driving Stevens stayed involved in auto racing as he briefly served on the 10-member AAA Contest Board which developed and printed rules, registered cars drivers and mechanics, licensed tracks, issued sanctions, provided officiating staff and maintained records.  In 1916, Stevens was a member of the team that drove a stock six-cylinder Marmon 34 roadster cross country from New York to San Francisco a distance of 3,390 miles in five days 11 hours and forty minutes which beat Erwin “Cannonball” Baker’s existing record by 41 hours.   

The requirements to win possession of the Stevens Trophy spelled out in the deed of gift were simple - a totally stock closed production car had to average 60 MPH or better for 24 consecutive hours at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway as witnessed by officials of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and AAA. The 100% stock condition of the car had to be attested to by a three-man committee of the SAE and the AAA furnished the supplies of fuel and oil.

Stevens’ challenge required the endurance run be conducted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as opposed to a smooth board track because according to Stevens “it more closely replicates real road conditions to measure what the consumer finds in regards to performance, stamina and durability when he buys an automobile.”

Stutz Motor Company was the first automaker to accept the Stevens challenge in April 1927. The Stutz drivers for the attempt included Corum, Rooney, Andersen, and early Speedway drivers John Jenkins, Charles Merz, and Bruce Keen. There were three cars used, all equipped with the Stutz Vertical Eight overhead camshaft engine - stripped-down Stutz Blackhawk Speedster as the “pacemaker,” and the actual Stevens challenge machines, a five-passenger sedan and a Weymann-bodied five-passenger sedan.

Weymann bodies, made of painted synthetic leather fabric stretched over a wooden frame, were very popular during the latter part of the decade of the nineteen twenties. This patented system was less expensive and lighter in weight than a full custom steel body and its method of construction led to a quieter ride free of the squeaking typical in metal-bodied automobiles.

Invented and patented by Charles Weymann who held dual US-French citizenship but lived in Paris, the company established an American facility in Indianapolis in the old National Automobile plant on East 22nd Street with Stutz as its number one United States client. The Weymann American Body Company’s fortunes rose and fell in concert with those of Stutz, and by the end of the decade of the nineteen thirties, new Weymann bodies had all but disappeared from the American automotive landscape.   

The Stevens Challenge run began at 4 PM on April 21 1927 recorded by the Speedway’s head of timing and scoring Chester S Ricker with his assistant Odis A Porter and observed by officials from the AAA with JT Little of Marmon who represented the SAE.  A few hours after the run started rain, sleet, and snow began to fall but the Stutz team pressed on as the storm continued.

During the driver exchanges scheduled for every two hours, mechanics filled the cars’ gas tanks and radiators, made a safety check of the car and made tire changes or adjustments as needed.  The Stutz’ were equipped with standard Mason ‘Hylastic’ balloon tires and a total of three tires of were replaced during the 24 hours with two tires replaced on the standard sedan during the night as a precaution.    

On April 22 1927 after twenty-four hours, the five-passenger steel-bodied Stutz sedan took possession of the Stevens trophy having covered 1642 miles or 657 laps around the 2-1/2 mile oval at an average speed of 68.44 MPH. The Weyman fabric bodied sedan completed its 24-hour run at an average speed of 67.176 MPH having covered twelve fewer laps or 30 fewer miles. Though not eligible for the record, the Stutz “pacemaker” averaged 71.352 MPH.

The Match Race

After Stutz had won the 1927 AAA stock car championship and the Stevens Trophy, during his October 1927 visit to Paris, Stutz president Moskovics bragged to his friend Charles Weymann that the Stutz was not only the fastest car in America but perhaps in the world. Weymann was a fan of the French/Spanish Hispano-Suiza, considered at the time the fastest car on the European continent and the pair settled on a friendly wager of $25,000 (nearly $350,000 today) about which car was the fastest over 24 hours around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

After several days of practice the match race began at 1 PM on April 18 1928 before a crowd of 2,500 interested spectators. The Hispano-Suiza HC6 Boulogne powered by a six-cylinder 488-cubic inch engine rated at 144 horsepower was matched against the 125-horsepower 305-cubic inch straight-eight powered Stutz Blackhawk.  

The Stutz before the match race
the driver is unidentified in the IUPUI University photo part of the
Indidnapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the Center for Digital Studies

The Stutz driver lineup featured Tom Rooney and Gil Anderson with L.L. Corum as the reserve driver, while Weymann himself chose to drive the Hispano-Suiza paired with the 1926 24 hours of LeMans race winner Frenchman Robert Bloch. Both cars equipped with Mason balloon tires had their front fenders removed, and Weymann oddly chose to carry a spare wheel and tire.

As reported in the Indianapolis Star at the end of the first lap the Hispano-Suiza was eight seconds ahead, and over the first ten laps the Hispano-Suiza average 83.4 MPH to the Stutz’ 81.3 MPH. On its 57th lap, the Stutz pitted with a rough running engine diagnosed with the problem traced to a broken retainer on one of the engine’s thirty-two valves.  

By the rules mechanics led by Stutz machine shop foreman Michael Kirk could not use new parts and the Stutz sat motionless for one hour and 11 minutes before repairs were completed. Back underway, the Stutz completed just 11 laps before the problem resurfaced and additional repairs delayed the Blackhawk another 35 minutes.

With 147 laps completed, the Stutz broke a connecting rod in the straight eight engines and three hours were lost over to repairs (how the mechanics replaced a broken connecting rod without a new part in unclear to the author). The only saving grace for the Stutz team was that around ten o’clock a rainstorm moved across Indianapolis and the Hispano-Suiza stopped for 16 minutes. The Stutz returned to the track at 11:27 PM but at midnight stopped again with an oil leak.  At that point the Stutz was more than 300 miles behind the Hispano-Suiza having lost five of the eleven hours of running time.

At 7:56 AM on April 19 another connecting rod broke on the Stutz and 25 minutes later the Stutz camp conceded. The official record showed that the Hispano-Suiza completed 1357.5 miles to the Stutz’ 732.5 miles. Having won his $25,000 bet, Weymann suggested another match race against a similar Stutz. Run from 9:30 AM to 1 PM, the Stutz won with an average speed of 75.71 MPH to the Hispano-Suiza’s 73.57 MPH.

Despite the problems, Charles Weymann was sufficiently impressed by the Stutz Blackhawk’s performance that he bought one to race in the 1928 24 hours of LeMans. Driven by Edward Brisson and Bloch, the Stutz finished second just one lap behind the winning Bentley.

Stevens Trophy later history

a 1933 Marmon 16  "close coupled" sedan

The Stutz Motor Company held the perpetual Stevens Trophy until October 1931 when Marmon Model Sixteen five-passenger standard Sedan powered by an all-aluminum 16-cylinder 200 horsepower engine completed 1834 miles in 24 hours at a speed average of 76.425 MPH.  A second Marmon a LeBaron-bodied five-passenger close-coupled sedan completed its simultaneous run of 1800 miles at an average speed of 75 MPH. The driver’s identities were not revealed in the little-publicized 1931 effort which was a wasted effort as Marmon ceased auto manufacture after its 1933 reorganization.

The Marmon effort did however break the long-standing United States stock car record held by Ralph Mulford since May 1916. Mulford who finished second in the first Indianapolis 500-mile race completed his unassisted 24-hour run of 1819 miles on Harry Harkness’ wooden Sheepshead Bay Speedway in New York. The Hudson Super Six sedan made twelve pit stops during the run none of which took longer than 4-1/2 minutes. 

Samuel Stevens passed away at age 61 from a heart attack in a Greenville Texas hotel room in November 1935 during an auto trip from California to his home in Rome New York. Stevens’ will bequeathed his family home, a massive 4-turret Victorian mansion to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and deeded the future administration of the Stevens Challenge trophy to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation.

In June 1937 Bonneville speed and endurance champion  D. Abbott “Ab” Jenkins  and dirt track racing superstar James ‘Billy’ Winn led a group of drivers that won the Stevens Trophy for the Cord Corporation in a 1937 Cord 812 supercharged Beverley sedan. The wisdom of the entry of two cars was confirmed when during the night with Jenkins at the wheel one of the front wheel drive Cords broke a hub and lost the wheel.  

The run continued with the second Cord sedan which completed the 24 hours with 764 laps or 1910 miles completed at a speed of 79.577 MPH. The significance of the achievement was lost when the Cord Corporation filed for bankruptcy approximately six months later and the trophy was returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for safekeeping. The crème colored Cord 812 Stevens Trophy winner is presently on display in the National Auto Museum in Reno Nevada.

This 1951 photo of the Stevens Trophy Cup is from
 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
 in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Sixteen years passed before the Chrysler Corporation captured the Stevens Trophy in October 1953 with a superstar driver lineup that included 1951 AAA National champion Tony Bettenhausen, 1953 AAA ‘big car’ champion Pat O’Connor and California ‘big car’ racer and 1949 ‘Rounds Rocket’ pilot Bill Taylor.

This 1949 photo of Bill Taylor is from
 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
 in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

The trio drove a 1954 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe Coupe powered by the optional 331-cubic inch 235-horsepower Firepower “Hemi” V-8 with a ‘Powerflite’ fully automatic transmission that completed 2157 ½ miles or 863 laps in 24 hours. Unlike previous record holders, the Chrysler Corporation trumpeted its achievement across the country in ½-page newspaper advertisements which called the Stevens Challenge Trophy “the greatest stock car test in the world.”

On Tuesday December 11 1962, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Anton ‘Tony’ Hulman announced that the Stevens Challenge Trophy would be retired due to safety concerns, as the original rules laid out by Samuel Stevens banned the use of roll bars, heavy duty suspension and racing type tires. On December 17 1962 a luncheon was held and officials of the Chrysler Corporation returned the trophy to the Speedway and it remains on display in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

In our next installment of the Lora L Corum story, we’ll return to complete a look at his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and his tragic death.