Monday, February 22, 2016

Stories behind the early Indianapolis ‘500’ radio broadcasts
The basic facts concerning the early history of radio broadcasts of the Indianapolis 500-mile race are well-known- the first broadcasts of the race took place on local area radio stations in 1922. The two stations were WLK, Indianapolis’ first radio station, run by Purdue electrical engineering graduate Francis Hamilton from his parent’s barn, and WHO, Indianapolis’ second radio station, which was owned by electric equipment and radio manufacturer, Hatfield Electric Company.

Chances are that those brief radio updates in 1922 were not very clear or the signals carried very far considering the low power of the stations’ transmitters.  Throughout the middle nineteen twenties, Indianapolis station WFBM, owned by the Merchants Heating and Light Company, and Chicago radio station WGN carried updates during those races.

The major step forward came in 1928 when the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) provided a nationwide radio broadcast of the last hour the 16th annual International 500-mile Sweepstakes. NBC’s ‘Red’ network only covered the United States as far west as Denver, Colorado, so NBC added in their year-old ‘Orange’ network, comprised of seven stations up and down the West Coast, which received the broadcast via shortwave relay from Denver.  

The broadcast on May 30 1928 was sponsored by the John Warren Watson Company of Philadelphia Pennsylvania. The purpose of the company’s sponsorship, stated in the May 26 1928 issue of Automotive Industries magazine was to “honor the race drivers and bring home to Americans a higher appreciation of the work of the drivers in contributing to the advancement of the modern automobile.” There was of course another motive in sponsoring the broadcast – to sell more of the company’s main product, the Watson “Stabilator.” We’ll get into the details of the broadcast later, but first let’s learn about John Warren Watson and learn about “Stabilators.”

The Watson ”Stabilator” is simply described an automatic friction brake which acted to limit an automobile’s suspension spring recoil. Early shock absorbers, which were being developed, worked well on large bumps, but were not very effective in controlling minor motions.  Watson claimed that the “Stabilator” checked the spring’s recoil in proportion to the recoil force and prevented the car’s wheel from unloading and coming off the road which made for an uncomfortable ride, tire slippage and increased tire and brake wear.

The manufacturer, the John Warren Watson Company advertised that “Stabilators” were for everyone; “the poor man insists on Stabilators because of the hundreds of dollars they will save him,” and “the rich man insists on Stabilators because of the luxurious comfort and safety which they provide.”  Watson’s literature stated that without “Stabilators,” wheel unloading occurred 20% of the time, while with “Stabilators” installed on all four corners, the uncontrolled bouncing happened less than 2% of the time.

The Watson device was relatively simple with just four parts – weatherproof front cover, shoe and strap assembly, spring assembly and the brake attached to the weatherproof back cover.  The John Warren Watson Company held sixteen patents, all which related to the basic design of their device, which was tailored to each particular automobile manufacturer and model.

To install on each corner of their customer’s car, a Watson licensed dealer followed a detailed 14-step installation procedure followed by a 6-step adjustment process that used a special “Stabilator” wrench.  Once their cars were outfitted, car owners were instructed to never grease or oil the “Stabilators” and to carefully monitor their tire pressures for best performance.  

John Warren Watson stock certificates had a precise drawing of the factory
The John Warren Watson Company’s manufacturing factory, built in 1927 by William Steele & Sons Co., engineers & constructors alongside the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near the intersection of Harrison Street and Tulip Avenue in Philadelphia stretched over six city blocks, with its own powerhouse and 125-foot high red brick smokestack.

The company’s namesake and President, John Warren Watson, started his business career around 1906 as the chief investor and President the American Bronze Company which produced non-granular bronze bushings and bearings for leading automotive manufacturers which included Packard, Locomobile, Maxwell, and later Stutz and Duesenberg, as well truck manufacturers Case and Mack. During World War One, American Bronze cast bearings and bushings which used an alloy of 86 ½ % copper, 11 % tin and 2 ½ % zinc were used in Curtiss and Duesenberg airplane engines.

Mr. Watson left the presidency of American Bronze to form his eponymous company in 1919, although he remained on the Board of Directors of the American Bronze Corporation. John Warren Watson was considered by automakers as an authority on the engineering required for a smooth ride in an automobile. For the 1927 model year, Watson “Stabilators” were standard factory equipment on Cadillac, Chrysler, Duesenberg, DuPont, Franklin, Hudson, Isotta-Fraschini, Jordan, LaSalle, Locomobile, McFarlan, Nash, Packard, Peerless, Studebaker, Stutz, and Willys Knight automobiles.

John Warren Watson's Duesenberg Convertible Victoria

Watson and his wife Mary had a large home in Wayne Pennsylvania, 30 miles west of Philadelphia, and a 776-acre estate near Pinehurst North Carolina that included a 70-acre artificial lake that Watson had created by building a dam. Watson owned several exclusive luxury cars which included a 1931 Duesenberg Model J long-wheelbase Rollston-bodied Convertible Victoria and a custom bodied 1927 Chrysler Imperial Sportif (sport) Convertible built by Locke & Company of Rochester, New York. Both the Duesenberg and the Chrysler were donated to the Henry Ford Museum after John Warren Watson’s death.   

John Warren Watson, described in the press as 'movie-star handsome,' counted most of the leaders of the automotive industry as his personal friends, including Edsel Ford and Fred Duesenberg. In a 1989 interview conducted 
for the Edsel B. Ford Design History Center, Gordon Buehrig, the chief body designer for Duesenberg Motor Company, related Watson’s role in the preventable death of Fred Duesenberg.

Duesenberg was headed home to Indianapolis from New York and stayed overnight at Watson’s Pennsylvania home. Before Fred left the next morning, July 2, 1932, in a Murphy-bodied Duesenberg, Watson went out to the car with Fred and Watson observed that the car’s tires had a lot of miles on them. Watson later related to Buehrig that he told Fred, "You shouldn't drive that car with those slick tires.” 

Fred did anyway and later that day Duesenberg lost control of the car and crashed on the Lincoln Highway in the mountains outside of Jennerstown, Pennsylvania. Fred Duesenberg but while he hospitalized for his injuries following the accident he contracted pneumonia and died on July 26 1932.  

The John Warren Watson Company advertised heavily in the automotive trade magazines and the highly popular Saturday Evening Post. In 1926, golfer Grantland Rice and race driver Harry Hartz appeared in a series of print advertisements endorsing Watson “Stabilators.” The text of the Hartz advertisement that appeared in the August 16, 1928 issue of the Saturday Evening Post entitled "RELAX" read in part:

“The smart race car drivers - those who win and last - seize every opportunity to relax - momentary pauses at the pit or even during the whirl of the race itself to soften the tension of over-tensed nerves. There must be relaxation in the wild whirl of race driving to insure rested steady nerves for the final effort. Either they relax of something cracks.

Harry Hartz stands out as probably the most consistent and dependable driver of the automotive race track. In more than four-fifth of all the championship events in which he has competed, he has been among the first three to finish.

Hartz attributes no small part of his success in his ability to relax. After having experienced the value of relaxed motoring in six other Stabilated cars, he recently refused to accept delivery of a new car for his personal use until it was equipped with Watson Stabilators.”

In 1928, Watson introduced Type AA “Stabilators” for ‘light’ cars which sold for $28 for a set of four ($388 today) plus installation. ‘Light cars’ were defined by Watson as including those made by Chevrolet, Dodge, Pontiac, Nash and Whippets. The advertisements claimed that with Watson “Stabilators” installed, “light cars can ride the roughest roads at forty.”   

The NBC broadcast of the 1928 Indianapolis 500-mile was anchored by legendary announcer Graham McNamee. McNamee, who always opened his broadcasts with his tagline "good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience," was voted America’s most popular announcer in 1925.

During his career, Graham McNamee’s name was synonymous with radio coverage of such major sporting events as the World Series, the Rose Bowl, and the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney 1927 boxing match (which earned him an appearance on the cover of the October 3, 1927 Time magazine) as well as national political conventions and presidential inaugurations.

Articles published in newspapers in the days before the race on Decoration Day 1928 explained that “continuous broadcasting from the historic track will be conducted during the last hour of the race.  Graham McNamee will be stationed at the microphone high above the track to describe the final hour of the famous race for the first time over a national network.” The program’s start time was advertised as 2 PM on the East Coast, with the provision that “the exact beginning will be governed by the speed of the racing machines.”

Assuming that the broadcast began on time, listeners would have tuned in around lap 160 and heard McNamee describe the action with Louisiana native Tony Gulotta in the race lead with the supercharged and intercooled 91-cubic inch Miller “Stutz Blackhawk Special” over rookie Jimmy Gleason in a factory Duesenberg entry, with fellow rookie Louis Meyer’s gold Miller in third place. On lap 181, Gulotta, whose Miller entry was owned by Frank Lockhart’s widow, was forced to pit with a clogged fuel filter, while at the same time the radiator in Gleason’s Duesenberg began leaking water onto the magneto.

The misfortunes that befell Gulotta and Gleason handed the lead to Louis Meyer who went on to lead the final nineteen laps to post his first of three 500-mile race victories.  Donald Davidson relates that Graham McNamee later stated quite emphatically that the start of the Indianapolis “500” was the most spectacular sight he had ever witnessed.

McNamee and the NBC network returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway through 1931 with similar “last hour” coverage. In 1931, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company sponsored the program with Raymond Firestone as a guest during the broadcast.   

There was no radio coverage of the Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1932. In an article published in the Indianapolis News two days before the race, General Manager T.E. “Pop” Myers stated “radio in competition with newspapers….is unwilling to compensate financially for entertaining its listeners. It has been decided to permit the newspapers of the world to tell the complete and exclusive story of the race.”   NBC Radio returned the following year, 1933, and NBC coverage continued until 1938, in some years in addition to the finish, the network carried live segments at the start with updates during the course of the race.  

After 1932, NBC returned but did not hold an exclusive, as the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network also covered the Indianapolis ‘500’ in the late 1930’s. The CBS programs were anchored by Ted Husing, who like McNamee, had covered political events, World Series games, track and field events and horse races. Later in his career, Ted Husing briefly appeared in the MGM (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) automobile racing film “To Please a Lady” which starred Clark Gable and Barbra Stanwyck as the Speedway public address and radio announcer.

From 1939 to 1950, the Mutual Broadcasting System transmitted coverage of the Indianapolis ‘500’ nationwide.   This was a monumental achievement because before December 1936, the Mutual network consisted of just four stations - WGN in Chicago, WLW in Cincinnati, WXYZ in Detroit and WOR in Newark New Jersey but that changed when the twelve-station Don Lee Broadcasting System, the leading regional network on the West Coast, changed its affiliation from CBS to Mutual, and Mutual became a nationwide network.

Don Lee, with 46 General Motors Corporation dealerships up and down the West Coast, had expanded into radio in 1926. Lee’s dealerships took orders for custom-bodied Cadillacs which were built by Don Lee Coach & Body Works which employed a promising young metalworker named Frank Kurtis. Don Lee died in 1934, at age 53 and his estimated $9 ½ million business empire was inherited by his 28-year old bachelor son Thomas Stewart Lee. “Tommy” inherited but only after an extended 14-year legal battle with Don Lee’s 24-year old wife, Geraldine, to whom Don had been married three months and had omitted from his will.
Under Tommy Lee's leadership, the Don Lee brand sponsored a pair of United Racing Association (URA) midget racing cars with bodies built by Frank Kurtis and was an entrant in four Indianapolis 500-mile races.  Tommy Lee entered his 1932 Alfa Romeo P3 ‘monoposto’ (single seat) in the 1946 Indianapolis 500 as the “Don Lee Special.” 

The Alfa Romeo, which had earlier competed in the 1939 and 1940 Indianapolis 500-mile races, was driven by ‘big car’ veteran Hal Cole. Cole qualified the screaming supercharged red car for the fourth starting position, but early in the ‘1946 500’ the Alfa Romeo lost a wheel and later retired with just 16 laps completed with a terminal oil leak and finished 32th.

The ‘Don Lee’ Alfa returned for the 1947 running Indianapolis ‘500 ‘with 40-year-old driver Ken Fowler whose only previous start at Indianapolis had come ten years earlier. Fowler’s teammate was Dennis 'Duke' Nalon behind the wheel of the mighty pre-war 1939 two-stage supercharged V-12 powered Mercedes W154.  Nalon posted the second fastest average speed in qualifying, over 128 MPH, but the Mercedes fell out on lap 119 when a replacement piston in the Mercedes engine broke and then two laps later, the Alfa retired with a broken axle.

The ‘Don Lee’ 450-horsepower Mercedes W154 returned for the 1948 Indianapolis ‘500,’ driven by 46-year old veteran of 14 ‘500s’ Chet Miller, while midget “hot shoe” and Indianapolis rookie Mack Hellings drove Lee’s new Kurtis Kraft 2000, chassis number 319 powered by a 270-cubic inch displacement 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine. Miller’s Mercedes retired on lap 108 with a terminal oil leak, but Hellings and the KK 2000 finished the ‘500’ in fifth place.

During the early nineteen forties, Tommy Lee suffered serious head, neck and back injuries in a passenger car accident and afterwards, either due to possible brain damage in the accident or the side effects of powerful pain medications, Tommy’s behavior became erratic. On August 28, 1948, less than a month after final settlement of his father’s will, Tommy Lee was declared mentally incompetent, with control of his financial affairs given to an uncle by marriage, and Tommy was placed under the personal guardianship of his aunt, Nora Patee. Tommy was institutionalized first in Pasadena, then later in Palm Springs.

Photo of Clark Gable in the "Mike Brannan Special" appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

The ‘Don Lee Special’ Kurtis Kraft entry was driven in 1949 ‘500’ again by Mack Hellings, but the Offenhauser engine broke a valve on lap 172.  During the 1949 filming of “To Please a Lady,” the MGM studio purchased the car from Tommy Lee and had it re-numbered to became the red #77 “Mike Brannan Special” driven in the film by Clark Gable’s character.   

On Friday January 13 1950 Tommy Lee was temporarily released from a Palm Springs hospital and flown by pricate plane to Los Angeles an appointment with his dentist, Dr. E.J. Thee. Tommy was dropped off in front of the Pellissier Building on Wilshire Boulevard, but instead of taking the elevator to the dentist’s office, he went to the twelfth floor, took a few puffs off a cigarette and leapt to his death through a fire escape window. Lee’s body was found on the roof of the adjacent Wiltern Theatre nine floors below moments later by his nurse Jeanne Shiffler. Tommy’s $8 million estate, spelled out in a 24-word will, was finally settled 18 months after his death.  

The Mutual System broadcasted the ‘500’ from 1939 to 1941 and from 1946 to 1950, all with anchor Bill Slater and sponsorship from the Perfect Circle Piston Ring Company of Hagerstown Indiana.  In 1951 Mutual wanted to increase their advertising rates, but after extended negotiations, Perfect Circle pulled out as the sponsor, and Mutual dropped the ‘500’ broadcast from their schedule.

Just days before the ‘500,’ Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials including President Wilbur Shaw scrambled to arrange coverage with the Indianapolis Mutual affiliate, WIBC-AM. The 1951 race updates were delivered by WIBC announcer Sid Collins with the feed then sent from the WIBC studios to 25 other Mutual affiliates. These 25 stations later formed the nucleus of the IMS Radio Network which debuted in 1952, which broadcast the first ‘500’ heard from start to finish in 1953, a tradition which continues through the present day. 


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