Wednesday, May 18, 2016


'Doc’ Williams and the Indianapolis '500'
Part one - his early life and first attempts


An early photo of Doc Williams and his riding mechanic 
Location and photographer unknown
Author's Collection



We will continue our theme of persistence as we review the career of race car driver 'Doc' Williams who competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway thirteen times between the years of 1933 and 1949 but only made the starting field four times, all in the same front -rive machine that Earl Cooper built in 1927.

Merrill Henry ‘Doc’ Williams was born on October 26 1912 near Franklin Indiana, a small community in in south central Indiana. “Doc,” whose childhood nickname grew out of the profession of his father, Walter Williams a veterinarian, graduated from Clark Township High School in 1930 according to an interview given by his son Johannes published in the June 7 1994 edition of the Franklin Daily Journal.

‘Doc’ Williams had a meteoric rise through the racing ranks, with “great success on the dirt tracks in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and California” at least according the May 2 1936 issue of the Franklin Evening Star newspaper although the author has found no results to corroborate these claims. At the young age of 20, ‘Doc’ attempted to qualify for his first Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1933 as the driver of the ‘C.O. Warnock Special,’ the first Ford ‘flathead’ V-8 powered machine to attempt to qualify for an Indianapolis race.

Clarence O. Warnock claimed that he built racing cars for Ray Harroun before he joined the Ford Motor Company as a traveling supervisor of service in 1914.  Warnock opened the Barber-Warnock Ford agency in partnership with Hale Barber In 1917, which meant that the agency located at 819 East Washington Street was the oldest Ford dealer in Indianapolis.

The dealership had previous racing history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as in 1923 they entered the “Barber-Warnock Ford Special” a race car built by the three Chevrolet brothers. The tiny machine was  powered by an engine that featured a Frontenac SR (special racing)  head on a 122- cubic inch four-cylinder Model T block fed by two carburetors.   
L.L. Corum in 1923 Ford
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
Hoosier native Lora ‘L.L’ Corum, a long-time associate of the Chevrolet brothers, started the Barber-Warnock Model T racer in the ‘500’ from seventh starting position after posting a qualifying time of 86.65 miles per hour (MPH) during time trials.  Corum and the Barber-Warnock Model T finished the 11th annual International 500-mile Sweepstakes on Decoration Day in fifth place just 34 minutes behind Tommy Milton’s winning HCS-Miller and averaged 82.58 MPH over the 200 laps.

A Frontenac SR head and exhaust


The Barber-Warnock team expanded to three Model T racers built by the Chevrolet brothers for the 1924 Indianapolis ‘500’ with Fords claimed to be 75% stock except for Frontenac cylinder heads with racing intake and exhaust manifolds. The team’s drivers were three dirt track veterans - Indianapolis native Bill Hunt, Michigan’s Fred Harder, and Dr. Alfred E. Moss, a British student at the Indiana Dental College and the father of the great Grand Prix driver Stirling Moss.

All three of the team cars qualified for the 1924 ‘500’ starting field in 19th, 20th, and 22nd and last position, and all three ‘Barber-Warnock Ford Specials’ were still running when they were flagged at the finish. Bill Hunt finished in 14th place, nine laps in arrears, followed by Moss and Harder in 16th and 17th place, both 23 laps behind the race winner started by last year’s Barber-Warnock driver, L.L. Corum but relieved by Joe Boyer on lap 112.

The Barber-Warnock Ford agency business partnership was dissolved in 1925, and the dealership continued as C.O. Warnock Ford. The 1930 Indianapolis 500-mile race had ushered in the era of the “Junk Formula” rules package pushed through the American Automobile Association (AAA) Contest Board by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker. The new rules package was designed to encourage more participation by automobile manufacturers to compete with stripped down passenger cars which Rickenbacker believed would lead to larger starting fields and more paying spectators.  
'Doc' Williams after his 1933 qualifying run
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies


The 1933 ‘C.O. Warnock Special,’ was a typical example of a “Junk Formula” machine,  a stripped-down 1932 Ford V-8 with a stock chassis and running gear, riding on knock-off wire wheels fitted with Firestone Balloons tires and a racing body finished in plain white. The car was prepared for the race by Robert Roof, the renowned designer and builder of multiple-valve cylinder heads for the Model T Ford engine, with engineering assistance from Don Sullivan, a Ford engineer that had helped develop the flathead V-8.   The engine of ‘C.O. Warnock Special’ was stock except for a pair of Detroit Lubricator model 51 carburetors atop a hand built manifold and a racing exhaust.

 ‘Doc’ and riding mechanic Milton Totten posted an average speed for their ten-lap time trial run of 104.538 MPH on Tuesday May 28th, but ultimately that speed was 45th fastest with the field capped at 42 starters.   Although he failed to qualify the flathead Ford, during the month ‘Doc’ had generated extra cash through the sale of autographed copies of photographs of himself and his car. For $5 more, buyers of the photograph would get his or her name actually painted on the body of the car, according to the 1994 Franklin Daily Journal interview with his son.
The restored 1933 'Doc' Williams Ford on display at a car show


Given the level of the clandestine Ford factory support for the racing debut for the Ford ‘flathead’ V-8 engine, the failure of ‘Doc’ Williams to qualify for the 1933 ‘500’ starting field was a disappointment. The race car was later sold (or given) to Williams who also became a Ford Motor Company employee. Ford returned to the Speedway in subsequent years with much stronger quasi-factory supplier entered entries - in 1934 with the Bohn Brass & Aluminum Company and 1935 with Lew Welch before the disastrous 1936 full-blown Ford factory effort with Harry Miller.

1933 sponsor Clarence Warnock died on Monday December 13 1943 of a heart attack in his home at 4324 Park Avenue in the Oliver Johnson’s Woods area on the city’s near north side.  Just 57 years old, Mr. Warnock had returned just weeks before from a trip to Mexico, as he was an authority on Mexican archeology, with a large collection Mexican pottery and archeological relics.  The C.O. Warnock Ford dealership was purchased by the C. T. Foxworthy Company in February 1944, and continued to operate as Foxworthy Ford at the East Washington Street location until the building was demolished during the nineteen seventies to make way for Interstate 70. 

Over the winter of 1933-1934, the Williams flathead Ford V-8 racer was rebuilt at the Baker Motor Service Company the Franklin Indiana Ford dealership, and ‘Doc’ Williams entered it for the 1934 Indianapolis ‘500’ with sponsorship from Lloyd H. Diehl’s Detroit Gasket and Manufacturing Company. Before practice opened at the Speedway, Williams accepted an offer to drive the #36 ‘Highway Truck Parts Special’ an Earl Cooper built front-drive machine owned by the Goldberg brothers.

Now that he had another ride, Williams signed  Charles Crawford to drive his 221 cubic inch flathead Ford powered racer, but then for reasons that are unknown more than eighty years later, Williams’ ‘500’ entry in the Cooper front-drive was rejected and ‘Doc” wound up a spectator for the 1934 ‘500.’  Two other drivers, Harold Shaw and Orville Smith were also rejected; could this have been for competing in “outlaw”(as the AAA deemed anything but AAA sanction) races or some other reason?

Charles Crawford, the 35-year old rookie driver from Nashville Tennessee qualified the ‘Detroit Gasket Special’ for the race with a qualifying average speed of 109 MPH with Milton Totten again the riding mechanic, but the month was not without problems. During practice a steering knuckle snapped as the car went through the north end of the track and the car hit the wall. The driver and riding mechanic were only slightly injured and the car was repaired in time to qualify for the race.

Crawford started the 1934 ‘500’ from 28th starting position and was forced into the pits for one hour and sixteen minutes when another steering knuckle broke.  Without spare parts, but unwilling to give up, the pit crew stole a steering knuckle off a Ford Model A parked in the infield. They reinstalled the knuckle on the race car and Crawford returned to the race until his 110th lap when the flathead engine’s head gasket failed on ‘Detroit Gasket Special.’

Having the flathead Ford eliminated by a blown gasket was ironic since the Detroit Gasket Company was the lead supplier of their patented "Steelbestos" steel-reinforced asbestos head gasket for the Ford four-cylinder Model B production engine.  Crawford was scored in thirteenth position, and Crawford and Williams split the $860 purse. Crawford unsuccessfully attempted to qualify for the ‘500’ in 1938 and 1947.

‘Doc’ Williams was back in the AAA Contest Board’s good graces for the 1935 running of the Indianapolis ‘500,’ entered to drive his car with sponsorship from Detroit Michigan car dealer Harry Henderson  with the rebuilt flathead V-8 engine now fitted with four carburetors.  During a practice run on May 25 1935, Williams’ Ford V-8 racer suddenly hit the outside wall, then out of control smacked the inside wall and ‘Doc’ was thrown out of his #64 car.

Williams miraculously avoided the same deadly fate that had befallen Wilburn “Stubby” Stubblefield, Leo Whittaker, and Johnny Hannon earlier in the month and escaped with a broken ankle. From his hospital bed, Williams reportedly sold the wreckage of his race car which had all four wheels torn off for $100 according to the May 2 1936 issue of the Franklin Evening Star.

‘Doc’ Williams returned for his third attempt at Indianapolis glory in 1936 assigned to drive the ‘Superior Trailer Special,’ a Miller-powered front drive car originally built in 1927 by Earl Cooper. Before we continue with the ‘Doc’ Williams story, we’ll share the history of the Cooper front drive cars from 1927 through 1935.

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