Friday, April 22, 2016

From mechanic to driver to death
the Ray "Red" Cariens story

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

Raymond Lloyd “Red” Cariens, the third of eight children born to George and Lura Belle Cariens, was born on a farm near the village of Cisne Illinois on December 20, 1899. As a young man, Ray trained as an apprentice mechanic at the Hudson/Essex factory in Detroit, and then he lied about his age enlisted in the United States Army Air Force and worked as an aircraft mechanic at Wilbur Wright Field near Dayton Ohio.  

According to an article in the August 9 1924 edition of the Altoona Mirror newspaper, Cariens first raced as Eddie Pullen’s riding mechanic in the factory Hudson at one of the five American Automobile Association (AAA) races held on the Beverley Hills board track during the 1920 season.  Cariens then reportedly worked in the Duesenberg Motors engine plant in Elizabethtown New Jersey perhaps on the Jimmy Murphy/Tommy Milton Daytona Beach land speed record car before the plant was closed and Duesenberg relocated operations to Indianapolis.

Driver Joe Thomas and "mechanician" R.L. "Red" Cariens
pose in their 1921 Duesenberg entry 

During 1921, the red-headed Cariens rode with in the 1921 Indianapolis ‘500’ with driver Joe Thomas in the factory Duesenberg 183-cubic inch straight eight powered machine which had been qualified by Joe Boyer. 'Red' miraculously escaped injury when the Duesenberg’s  and it crashed after the steering failed during the pair's 25th lap. Thomas and Cariens then finished eighth in the 100-mile AAA ‘Universal Trophy Race’ held June 18 1921 at the Uniontown (Pennsylvania) board track, and a few weeks later on July 4, Cariens also rode along as Joe Thomas captured a third place finish at the 2-mile long wooden Pacific Coast Speedway Tacoma Washington.  

At the start of the 1922 AAA season, Cariens, sometimes called “Big Foot” because of his size 14 feet, now used Los Angeles as his home base, and continued to work as a mechanic for the Duesenberg racing team. While in California he rode with Jerry Wonderlich on April 16 in the ‘Golden State Motor Derby’ at San Carlos and again on Thursday April 27 in the ‘Raisin Day Classic’ on the wooden one-mile Fresno Speedway. The pair finished sixth in both races which were dominated by the Duesenberg team. 

During May 1922 Cariens joined the Cliff Durant-Harry A. Miller factory team, a timely move as the Miller racing cars were soon to become the hottest vehicles in AAA racing. In September 1922 “Red” rode with Bennett Hill at the inaugural race at the Kansas City board track, but is listed in AAA records as “Leslie” Cariens.   The pair started on the pole and finished the tragic 300-mile event marred by the loss of Roscoe Sarles in sixth place.   

For 1923, riding mechanics became optional by AAA championship racing rules, and of course no one used them. Early in the season “Red” Cariens worked as a mechanic on Bennett Hill’s red #3 Miller but when the circuit moved east, he joined the Durant team and primarily worked on Harry Hartz’ second place '500' finisher, but chances are with seven Durant team cars entered at Indianapolis , Cariens worked on every one of the Durant Miller entries at one time or another during the month of May 1923.  Cariens continued to work as a mechanic on Hartz’ trio of Miller race cars throughout 1923 and the early 1924 AAA season.

Fall 1924 was a pivotal season for Ray Cariens, as he transitioned from his role as “the world’s best race car mechanic “(according to the writer for the Altoona Mirror) and became a race car driver.   Cariens debuted in the 200-lap “Fall Classic” held on the 1 ¼ -mile Altoona Pennsylvania high-banked board track, one of the country’s most deadly.  

Ira Vail 

Cariens' car owner was driver Ira Vail, who had first raced his new ivory-colored Miller double overhead camshaft (DOHC) 8 cylinders in-line 122 cubic inch engine chassis #2431 at the 1924 season opening race at Beverly Hills. Vail finished eighth in the car at Indianapolis and ninth in the AAA circuit’s first 1924 season visit to Altoona three months earlier. At the previous AAA race in Kansas City, Vail qualified the car but turned it over to rookie driver Lou Wilson for the race.

Ray Cariens started from the pole at Altoona on Labor Day 1924 and then ran into mechanical difficulties but hung on to finish in eighth place, 14 laps behind winner Jimmy Murphy in a race that saw Joe Boyer lose his life.  Two weeks later Murphy himself would lose his life in a crash on the "Moody Mile" at Syracuse New York.   At the end of the 1924 season, Vail sold the Miller and Cariens was out of a ride, and 'Red' closed out the year working as a mechanic for Bennett Hill.

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1925, Cariens was nominated to drive the red #3 Miller ‘122’ rear-drive chassis #2403 owned by Bennett Hill, who had great success with the car during 1924 with six top five finishes. Hill won the 1924 AAA season-ending 250-mile race at Culver City Speedway with a startling average speed of over 126 MPH after a supercharger had been added to the Miller engine to compete with the newest Miller ‘122’ race cars.  

In a continuation of a long-running Indianapolis tradition, Bennett Hill gave up his regular ride for one that he felt had a better chance of winning at the Speedway.  At the time of Jimmy Murphy’s death Harry A. Miller Engineering was building two front-drive cars that Murphy had ordered.  The two cars were subsequently known as “Front Drive # 1” for use at Indianapolis and the board tracks, and ‘Front Drive #2” that was designed and built specifically to set land speed records and which used outboard front brakes located inside the disc wheels to reduce the frontal area. After Murphy’s death, Harry A. Miller had completed both cars and entered them himself for the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500.’

Bennett Hill in 1924

Veteran Dave Lewis drove ‘Front Drive #1,” while Hill drove the red #21 “Front Drive #2.” After qualifying, the diminutive Hill was apparently spooked by its handling and Harry Miller withdrew the car from the race on the eve of the ‘500.’ Hill returned to drive his rear-drive Miller ‘122’ which Cariens had qualified for the field in 21st starting position with an average of 104.16 MPH. Ray Cariens was out of the ‘500,’ though he did relieve Hill from lap 57 to lap 68 before the car was retired with a broken rear spring. After his car was eliminated, Hill relieved Dave Lewis and drove the last 26 laps on the way to “Front Drive #1’s” second place finish. 

It is unclear precisely what Ray Cariens did after the 1925 ‘500,’ but presumably he continued to work as a mechanic, probably for Bennett Hill. On October 3, at the Fresno 1-mile board track “Red” drove Tommy Milton’s #14 Miller ‘122’ which earlier had rear wheel brakes and truss rods to stiffen the frame added for Indianapolis. Cariens replaced driver Norm Batten who had been injured in the car in a crash during the Syracuse race weeks earlier.  The Fresno track owned by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors had nearly burned down in September of the previous year, and only by working day and night had a team of 200 carpenters rebuilt the track and grandstand in time for the 1924 ‘San Joaquin Valley Classic.’

The sixth annual “San Joaquin Valley 150-mile Auto Classic’  held on October 3, 1925 featured some of the top drivers of the time – Peter DePaolo, Leon Duray, ‘Doc’ Shattuck, and Bennett Hill and drew a crowd estimated by officials to be 30,000 people.  Cariens started on the front row of the Fresno eight-car field alongside veteran Jerry Wonderlich, with whom he had ridden just three years earlier.  The 150-mile race was completed is less than hour and half, with the victory going to Kansas’ Fred Comer for his first and only career AAA win with Cariens finishing in third place.

After he won the race at the circuit's October 26  stop at Laurel (Baltimore) Maryland, Bob McDonough crashed the Milton Miller at Charlotte on November 11, so Cariens was back in the car for the season-ending race scheduled for Thanksgiving Day at “the fastest track in the West” Culver City Speedway.  The race was re-scheduled to Sunday November 29 at the request of the drivers, and “Red” and Jerry Wonderlich again started side-by side, but this time they made up the third row in the 15-car field, as four drivers had withdrawn before the race for reasons unknown.   

A view of racing at the Culver City Speedway

Pole-sitter Earl Cooper, who had posted a lap of 141 ½ MPH in qualifying around the 1 ¼ mile track, shot into the lead with Ralph Hepburn and Leon Duray in hot pursuit as the leaders averaged 135 MPH over the first ten laps, before fourth place Earl Devore retired on lap 23 with a broken valve. Tragedy struck on the next lap when Wonderlich’s #10 car blew a tire as he raced down the backstretch in front of grandstand ‘B’, and Jerry’s car first careened up the 45-degree banking, then slid nose down towards the five-foot high inner wall.

Cariens who was close behind, swerved the #14 to avoid Wonderlich’s car, brushed Hepburn’s passing machine, spun twice, then the Miller smashed backwards into the inner wall which was backfilled with dirt.  After the impact, Ray’s car overturned and he was thrown onto the track surface. Meantime, Wonderlich’s car, perhaps 100-200 feet behind, crashed nose-first into the inner wall but stayed upright, though Jerry suffered scratches on his face and a stiff neck. The entire crash sequence was captured by photographer Ted Wilson, and the photos can be viewed at

One of Wilson’s graphic photographs shows the unconscious Ray Cariens lying on the track face down minus his shoes and cloth helmet but still wearing his trademark white gloves while another photograph depicts Cariens’ overturned car facing the wrong way on the track.  While the race continued, eventually won by Frank Elliott at a new world’s record average speed of over 127.87 MPH, Ray was removed to the Angelus Hospital, 10 miles away where he was initially given an “even chance at recovery.”

Newspapers the following day reported that Cariens remained unconscious in “very critical” condition. Ray “Red” Cariens, just days away from celebrating his 26th birthday, passed away just before midnight December 2 with his death attributed to a basal skull fracture and internal injuries.  Cariens’ body was transported to West Branch Iowa where his mother had relocated after his father George’s death in 1919. 

Ray rests in the Cariens family plot in the Municipal Cemetery alongside his mother, father, two brothers, and two sisters.  In those days, race cars were durable, and a fatality meant little to car owners; for example, the car that Frank Elliott used to win at Culver City in November 1925 had been the same car in which Jimmy Murphy lost his life.

Tommy Milton sold his Miller ‘122’  after the  damage to the fuel tank, hood, and cowling of the car from Ray’s fatal crash at Culver City was repaired. The car was re-numbered #15 for the 1926 and was driven by owner Peter Kreis for the first four AAA races while his new car was finished, then the Miller '122' was sold to Illinois garage owner Henry Kohlert. 

Peter Kreis bought a new Miller 91-cubic inch supercharged and intercooled front-drive machine which was delivered in time for the 1926 Indianapolis 500-mile race and easily qualified for the starting field in 20th position. Peter became ill with the flu days before the race and was replaced by a brash young rookie named Frank Lockhart, who drove Kreis’ car to victory in the rain-shortened 1926 Indianapolis 500-mile race.

Kohlert entered the former Milton Miller 122 at the “Elgin Piston Pin Special” for Legion Ascot Speedway veteran Fred Lecklider at Indianapolis in 1927, and then crashed the car during the race himself while driving in relief. The following year, Kohlert entered the “Elgin Piston Pin Special” for a young rookie, future 1935 ‘500’ winner Kelly Petillo who crashed the car in practice.  

Kohlert abd his crew reapired the damage to the Miller, and Henry squeezed into the field on the final day of time trials and finished in 13th place. Kohler then sold the car to a pair of Pittsburgh businessmen who raced it in the 1929 Indianapolis 500. The car disappeared with the dawning of the Rickenbacker “Junk Formula” era, as historian Michael Ferner believes the Milton Miller was cut up to build a two-man chassis.  

Ray "Red" Cariens quickly advanced up the racing ladder as every young man would have dreamed of as he advanced from a mechanic on the sidelines to become a riding mechanic and then ultimately a race driver. Surprisingly, given their hazardous nature ,"Red" was the only driver to die in a board track during the 1925 AAA season.    

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