Sunday, June 5, 2016

‘Doc’ Williams at the Indianapolis ‘500’
Part four- from 1941 to 1949

Doc's 1941 qualifying photo

In early 1941, Merrill ‘Doc’ Williams was nominated as the driver of the Race Car Corporation of Indianapolis’  Offenhauser-powered Cooper front-wheel drive machine entry for the 29th edition of the International 500-mile Sweepstakes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the ‘Indiana Fur Special.’

Joseph Davidson founded the Indiana Fur Company in downtown Indianapolis during the eighteen nineties and after his death the company was operated by his widow before she turned over the operation of the business to her two surviving sons Herbert and Fred. The Indiana Fur Company first sponsored a car at the Indianapolis in 1938 with car owner Paul Weirick and driver Frank Wearne. In 1939, Indiana Fur sponsored a car scheduled for Louis Tomei which never arrived, and in 1940, sponsored the car owned and driven by 1935 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner Cavino “Kelly” Petillo.

On the windy first day of time trials May 17 1941, “Doc’s” red #36 was the first car to make a qualifying attempt and he shocked the railbirds by posting an average qualifying speed of 124.014 miles per hour (MPH) in a car that debuted at the Speedway thirteen years earlier. With a strong wind blowing north to south, many veterans elected to wait to make their timed run, and only twelve cars qualified the first day.  Williams’ time held up as the day’s fifth fastest, and ninth overall, so on Decoration Day 1941, the ‘Indiana Fur Special’ started the ‘500’ from the middle of the second row.    

In an informal poll conducted during the annual Champion Spark Plugs 100 MPH Club banquet, attended by 16 of the 21 surviving members,  ‘Doc’ was not mentioned as potential ‘500’ winner, as six members selected Mauri Rose, while two each selected Rex Mays and Wilbur Shaw to win the 1941 500-mile race. In a nationwide newspaper article published on the eve of the ‘500,’ famed United Press International sports editor Harry Ferguson picked Shaw as the 5-to-1 favorite, Mays 6-to-1, Rose 10-to-1, while Ferguson gave ‘Doc’ 15-to-1 odds of winning.

Williams’ 1941 500-mile race was disappointing as the crew fought to fix a leaking radiator before the car was retired with just 68 laps completed. The 100 MPH club odds makers were partially correct as Rose won the 1941 ‘500,’ but not in the car he started, as he had replaced Floyd Davis in the “Noc-Out Hose Clamp Special” on lap 72 after his original entry retired.  At the driver’s party held the next night after the race, “Doc” who had won $620, requested Speedway management increase the minimum award for race starters from $500 to $1000. “Doc’s” demand was supported by race co-winner Floyd Davis and Frank Wearne, but the Speedway paid no additional money.  

On December 7 1941, the Japanese military attacked United States forces on Pearl Harbor, and 22 days later, under pressure from local labor unions due to sabotage concerns, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner and President Eddie Rickenbacker canceled the 1942 running of the ‘500.’ Racing at the big oval would remain suspended for the duration due to the consumption of rubber and gasoline.    

On January 6 1942, Speedway vice president and general manager Theodore E. “Pop” Myers resigned his position as he told the Associated Press that he “had no more active duties with the Speedway.” Eddies’ brother, Al, took over Myer’s management duties. Eddie Rickenbacker, a former fighter pilot reportedly offered the 1,025 acre Speedway grounds to the government for use as an aircraft testing grounds as it had been used in the First World War. The offer was not accepted, likely because the Speedway’s infield was not large enough to accommodate a runway longer enough for the larger and faster aircraft then being used.  

The Speedway remained padlocked and an Associated Press article published over Memorial Day weekend in 1943 described the Speedway as “a ghost area,” as “grass grows in the track and the grandstands show the effects of two years of disuse.” On August 29 1943 Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company used the Speedway to conduct a 500-mile test at a maximum speed of 35 MPH of experimental Celanese passenger car tires.

In February 1944 the Speedway was used to record the first 5000 miles of a test of tires recapped with synthetic rubber as part of an overall 25,000 mile test that was mostly conducted on public roads in a fleet of three well-marked passenger cars. In August 1944 Howard Chown, chief of the Indianapolis American Legion voiture #145 announced that his group had an obtained an option to buy the Speedway and its assets, and that a post-war committee would be formed to discuss financing, but nothing ever came of this proposal.

On November 29 1944 Wilbur Shaw ran a 500-mile test in the former Boyle Valve Miller front-drive two-man car in order to test new synthetic rubber Firestone tires. During the test, Shaw noticed the alarmingly bad condition of the Speedway and grounds and after talking to Rickenbacker, Shaw began his search for buyers of the Speedway. 

Shaw realized his dream to save the Speedway when on Wednesday, November 14, 1945, in Parlor D at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, Terre Haute Indiana grocery executive Anton Hulman Junior signed papers which completed the purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Rickenbacker.  “Pop” Myers, now over 70 years old, immediately rejoined the Speedway Corporation as vice-President and General Manager and in that role, reopened the Speedway’s office at 444 North Capitol Avenue on November 19 1945.

In the run-up to the first post-war Indianapolis 500-mile race, the April 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine mentioned “Doc” Williams as the “tentative driver” of the supercharged 500 horsepower overhead valve V-8 race car that was being developed by W.C. “Bud” Winfield and Leo Goossen to be known as the “Novi Governor Special.”   Apparently based on this speculation, the Race Car Corporation of Indianapolis entrusted the Copper front-drive machine to Clarence “Chet” Miller for the 1946 ‘500,’ with Merrill Williams listed as the entrant.  

Chet Miller in the Cooper FD in 1946

However, at the May 1 filing deadline, “Bud” Winfield entered the “Novi Governor Special” with no driver listed, with “Doc” entered as the driver of a “four-cylinder Offenhauser” powered car owned by the Hughes brothers of Denver Colorado who had entered a Miller front drive for Louis Tomei in the  1941 ‘500’ as H-3 Racing.  “Doc” did not make the 1946 starting field, but Ralph Hepburn set new one and four-lap qualifying records in the “Novi Governor Special” and Chet Miler made the field in 17th position in the Offenhauser-powered Cooper front-drive. Neither car finished the race; Hepburn stalled in the pits on lap 121, while Chet retired with a broken oil line on lap 64.

For the 1947 ‘500,’ Merrill “Doc” Williams got the opportunity of a lifetime as result of the American Society of Professional Auto Racers (ASPAR) controversy. Before the May 1 deadline for ‘500’ entries was reached, a “drivers’ union” had been formed, led by car owner Joseph Lencki with veteran Ralph Hepburn as the group’s nominal president. ASPAR demanded that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway double the 500-mile race’s total purse to $150,000, a demand which Wilbur Shaw, as President of the Speedway Corporation flatly refused. The entry deadline passed with ASPAR claiming to hold 35 entries. When the Speedway opened for practice neither Lencki nor Shaw had changed their original positions. 

As the first weekend of qualifications approached “Novi” car owner Lew Welch, who had promised Tony Hulman that his popular pair of cars would appear, replaced his drivers. Ralph Hepburn and Sam Hanks were replaced by veteran Cliff Bergere and “Doc” Williams. 

This was an ironic turn of events, since “Doc” had voiced complaint about his share of the purse in 1941, and now he became the beneficiary of the ASPAR driver walkout over the low purse.  Welch probably would have preferred someone besides “Doc” but many veterans such as Chet Miller were ASPAR supporters, and “Doc” did have extensive experience at the Speedway with front wheel drive race cars.   

"Doc" in his trademark red helmet receives 
instructions form the Novi crew

The pair of ‘Novi Governor Mobil Specials’ were among the seven cars that qualified on May 17 the first day of time trials but not without some drama. Bergere spun in the morning practice session and wound up in the turn one creek, and then after repairs, qualified with an average speed for the ten mile run of 124.957 MPH. That speed was fast enough to start from the middle of the front row, but was 2 MPH off Ted Horn’s pole speed in the former Boyle Maserati.

Before he took the green flag to qualify, "Doc" spun into a drainage ditch 

“Doc” spun out during his warmup laps and the #54 ‘Novi Governor Mobil Special’ wound up with its nose partially into the drainage ditch at the north end of the track. The car was not damaged, and after a quick cleanup, “Doc” qualified for fourth starting position at 120.733 MPH. 

Car owner Welch was angry with both drivers, as he claimed the “Novi” was capable of laps that averaged 140 MPH, a speed which would not be recorded at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for seven years.  Welch tried to wave off “Doc” on the final 2 laps of his 4-lap qualifying run, but ‘Doc” claimed not to have seen Welch and completed his time trial.  Legend has it that Welch fired “Doc” on the spot after qualifying, but the legend is not true.

The May 20 1947 issue of the Rushville Republican newspaper reported that the day following his spin, “Doc” complained of severe pain in his side. On Monday May 19, “Doc” Williams gave the American Automobile Association (AAA) stewards a written statement that was he “convinced I am not in shape to drive such a fast car.” AAA officials accepted his resignation in “the interest of safety,” and authorized Welch to nominate a new driver. Unfortunately, many newspapers nationwide reported only that Williams said he was quitting the race because the car was "too fast." 69 years later, it remains open to speculation whether “Doc” made the decision to quit or was coerced by Welch.

After Marv Jenkins was considered and rejected as a replacement, Jimmy Jackson and Herb Ardinger each tested the ‘Novi Governor Mobil Special’ and Ardinger had a front tire come apart on the front stretch at speed. Welch selected Ardinger who had driven Welch’s supercharged Offenhauser powered ‘Chicago Rawhide Special’ in the 1937 and 1938  500-mile races   Ardinger with Chief Steward Jack Mehan's approval was allowed to keep the car’s original fourth place starting position (nowadays he would have to go to the back of the field). Meanwhile, on May 21 the ASPAR standoff ended, but because of the delay an additional qualifying period was held on May 29 which added two car and brought the starting field to thirty cars.

At the drop of the green flag on race day, Bergere shot in the lead with the new #18 Kurtis-chassis ‘Novi Governor Mobil Special’ and led the first 23 circuits until he had to pit for new front tires, but eventually retired on lap 63 with a burned piston. 

Ardinger in the meantime, was too conservative for Welch, who called him in on lap 69 with the #54 ‘Novi Governor Mobil Special’ nine laps behind the leaders and put Bergere in the car. Cliff drove the last 130 laps and finished in fourth place, seven minutes behind second-time winner Mauri Rose.

"Doc" poses with a monkey in the garage area
it was not reported whether the  monkey made any suggestions

For the 1948 Indianapolis ‘500,’ “Doc” Williams was back behind the wheel of the familiar Race Car Corporation of Indianapolis Cooper front-drive chassis that carried the #47 and was entered as the “Ford Moyer Special.” Car owner “Fritz” Holliday had apparently entered the car with Moyer’s name to honor a long-time Speedway personality who had been ill at home for over a year. 

Ford Moyer born in Findlay Ohio in 1897, started as a racer on the rough-and-tumble Hoosier dirt-track circuit in the nineteen twenties at tracks that included Hoosier Motor Speedway on what is now Pendleton Pike in Indianapolis and Funk’s Speedway near Winchester Indiana. In a 1950 interview with United Press International, Wilbur Shaw related that “when I broke in, my hero was a guy named Ford Moyer. He was a big handsome guy and it surprised me when later on he became my mechanic.”

In February 1931 Ford was one of three men along with Clessie Cummins and Indianapolis racer Dave Evans who drove the first diesel-powered transcontinental truck run.  The trio drove a Reo retrofitted with a Cummins diesel engine in shifts non-stop from Lansing Michigan to New York City a distance of 959 miles in the first diesel truck to make a long-distance service run.  

Working with Shaw, Moyer helped build the Shaw/Gilmore entry that won the 1937 Indianapolis ’500;’ Al Bloemker's 500 Miles to Go book related that “He (Wilbur) toiled side by side with Ford Moyer on body and chassis for many weeks.”  When Shaw joined the Boyle Racing Team, Moyer went along. In the 1950 UPI interview, Shaw related a timeless story "Moyer was my mechanic in 1940 when I went after my third Indianapolis victory. But a week before the race the old shoes of mine turned up missing. I'm not superstitious, but it jarred me. The day of the race, I went into the garage and there on a shelf was an exact duplicate of the pair of shoes that I had lost. Moyer had even rubbed grease and aluminum paint into that brand new pair of shoes to make them look like an exact replica of the shoes which had been stolen—or mislaid.”

In the victory lane “bull pen” in 1940 over the nationwide radio broadcast,  Shaw extended a "thanks-much" greeting to his crew: Cotton Henning, chief of the Boyle Valve racing team staff,  Bob Jackson,  Ross Hadley, “Pern” Cornelius and Ford Moyer, who did the behind-the-scene work in the pits. The Indianapolis Star said that his competitors described Ford Moyer as “a talented, skillful mechanic, an unsung hero behind the scenes in aiding many successful drivers always ready with sound mechanical advice,” and that “Moyer's practice was to wrap each disassembled engine part individually.”

During the period he worked with Shaw, he owned and ran the Ford Moyer Garage at 409 North Talbott Street in Indianapolis near the Indianapolis Star office at 307 North Pennsylvania Street. The Indianapolis Star article described Moyer’s shop as “a popular hang-out for big-time race drivers, and it was there that Moyer tinkered on Shaw's car for many long hours.” Before he became too ill to work, Moyer had last worked for the Century Tire Company on 933 North Capitol Avenue.

“Doc” Williams qualified the 21-year old ‘Ford Moyer Special’ for the 1948 ‘500’ on Saturday May 15 with a four-lap average of 124.151 MPH to start from the sixth position.  Sadly, four days later, Ford Moyer died in his home at 5995 East 30th Street never having a chance to see “his car” in the race.

In the Star's Moyer obituary article, Shaw, a close friend for many years, paid tribute to Moyer as "one of the grandest men I ever knew and among the finest mechanics in the racing business who was noted for the meticulous care with which he nursed racing cars.” Moyer was survived by his wife and was interred in Washington Park East Cemetery.

"Doc" poses with his sponsors from Clarke Auto Company 

Before the 1948 ‘500,’the Race Car Corporation of Indianapolis # 74 Cooper gained a sponsor and started the race as the ‘Clarke Auto Company Special,’ with sponsorship from the two-year old company owned by Ed Clarke with a sales lot at 921 East Washington Street in Indianapolis.  Unfortunately, the ‘Clarke Auto Company Special’s’ day ended early when either the clutch or the ignition (sources vary) on the car failed on lap 19. At the driver’s banquet, “Doc” Williams got a check for $1300 for his 29th place finish.  This marked the end of the Cooper front-drive chassis at the Indianapolis; after 21 years it was not entered again.

"Doc" with Tom Saraffof

For the 1949 ‘500’ Williams drove Tom Sarafoff’ s  255-cubic inch Offenhauser-powered Miller front-drive car originally built in 1928 for Cliff Woodbury.  With a history similar to the “Fritz” Holliday Cooper, the car had been widened in 1930 for the AAA “Junk Formula” rules by “Cotton” Henning to create the successful Boyle two-man car.

In 1938, Henning narrowed the chassis and enclosed it in new bodywork and it was raced by the Boyle team through the 1941 season.  During the war, Mike Boyle sold the car to Jimmy Jackson, who raced it in 1946 and 1947 before he sold the car to Sarafoff.  Unlike the Holliday Cooper, the car was quite successful in its later career following its conversion back to a single cockpit car - in five appearances in the ‘500’ from 1939 to 1947, it never finished out of the top six.

Sarafoff born in 1893, described as “of Middle Eastern descent” built a chain of “greasy spoon” diners near defense factories in the Terre Haute area during World War Two, but by 1948 there were just two “Tom’s Diners” located at  1900 Maple Avenue  and  638 Cherry Street in Terre Haute.  In 1948, Sarafoff entered the white #10 eponymous car for veteran Louis Tomei crewed by his friend Bill Watts and his brother-in-law Steve Nyers, but it failed to qualify.

In 1949, “Doc” Williams was one of 15 qualifiers on the first day of time trials, May 14, and posted a four-lap average speed of 125.161 MPH.  Everything seemed to be on track until practice on May 21st. Veteran Chet Miller had originally been named in March as one of three drivers along with Leland “Lee” Wallard and Harold “Hal” Robson to drive for the three-car Indianapolis Race Cars Incorporated (IRC) a partnership of local men formed to buy the assets of the Boyle Racing Team after the death of Harry C “Cotton” Henning in December 1948. 

Chet Miller was slated to drive the “biggest money-winning car ever at the speedway” the ex-Boyle Maserati that Shaw won with in 1939 and 40 then Ted Horn had compiled a post-war record of two third place finishes and  a fourth place in three races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IRC named journeyman and former riding mechanic Ed Metzler as the chief mechanic but after numerous problems with all three cars, Metzler was fired and replaced by Peter DePaolo and Art Sparks after the first weekend of time trials in which none of the IRC entries participated.     

Chet Miller climbs out of the burnt Saraffof Special

On the 21st, Chet Miller took the already qualified #66 “Tom Sarafoff Special” out for a carburetor test, the engine caught fire and damaged the car, but the 46-year old Chet escaped unharmed.  Chet did not drive in the 1947 ‘500’ due to his ASPAR membership, then in 1948 had quit the Lew Welch  “Novi Grooved Piston Special” along with teammate Cliff Bergere over handling concerns created by the Novi’s new huge fuel tanks. 1949 was not shaping up so well for Chet either, and on May 25 he resigned the IRC Maserati ride and was replaced by California midget champion Fred Agabashian.

The volunteer crew worked long hours to repair the fire damage to the “Tom Sarafoff Special” but in the end it didn’t matter. On May 29 the last day of time trials for the 1949 ‘500,’ Emil Andres in the “Tuffy’s Offy” Kurtis 200 owned by Chicago crime figure George “Babe” Tuffanelli, was one of five drivers, along with Agabashian, to “bump” their way into the 33-car starting field.  Emil’s run of 126.042 MPH knocked “Doc” Williams from the ‘500’ field

Tom Sarafoff entered his ancient Miller front drive chassis twice more at the Speedway. In 1950 rookie Cliff Griffith passed his rookie test in the car but never attempted to qualify and then in 1951 Norm Houser son of Thane Houser 1926 ‘500’ competitor failed to qualify.   Sarafoff bought the Agajanian “featherweight” Kurtis 2000 chassis which had started from the pole position in 1950 and entered it in the 1952 ‘500’ with Cliff Griffith and finished  ninth.

In 1953, Sarafoff entered the Kurtis for Bob Sweikert, but Bob quit the team before the Speedway opened and drove for Al Dean during the 1953 AAA season.   Dayton Ohio’s J. Carlyle “Duke” Dinsmore then tried the car but was too slow to make the field. In 1954, Cliff Griffith one the comeback from serious burns suffered in a 1953 Indianapolis practice crash, tried but on quit on May 12 as he explained “one hand doesn’t fully work and there’s no use kidding myself I don’t feel comfortable above 124 MPH.” After George Tichneor failed to make the 33-car starting field, Sarafoff sold off all his racing cars and equipment.

"Doc" poses with his wife Esther and their daughter

1949 would prove to be “Doc” Williams’ final appearance at the Speedway as a driver. Williams’ son Johannes reported in a 1994 interview with the Franklin Daily Journal that “he moved his family to Michigan where he worked as a test track driver and later purchased a motel in the Detroit metropolitan area.” 

Historical research shows however, the “Doc” Williams had a number of legal scrapes after his racing career ended. The first came in January 1950, as Williams and two other men were arrested in Michigan and charged with breaking and entering, larceny, and possessing stolen property after the theft of $4000 from a suburban Detroit area drug store the day before.

The outcome of that 1950 burglary charge is unknown but in May 1955, “Doc” was in Federal Court in Detroit, this time charged with concealing over $23,000 in assets during bankruptcy proceedings.  Williams’ estranged from his wife Esther, filed for bankruptcy in January 1955 and claimed $18,000 in debts and no assets. After filing, Williams disappeared and later the bankruptcy referee learned that his wife had sold a motel they owned and that he received $23,453 as his part of the proceeds on January 27. 

“Doc” was then indicted in March on fraud charges but did not appear. During the May 11 hearing, “Doc” explained to Judge Ralph Freeman that he had gone to Germany for his health and was unaware of the charges against him. Williams again claimed he had no assets and related that he had lost $4000 in “one fling at the gaming tables in Reno Nevada.”

Again, we do not know how the fraud case turned out, but “Doc” was indicted again for perjury in Federal Court in Detroit a year later. This charge resulted after an inventory of a safe deposit box in his name in a bank in Marion Ohio which he testified under oath contained nothing of value was found to contain $2000 in $500 bills.  Williams pled guilty to the perjury charge on August 14 1956 in front of Judge Frank A. Picard. 

Williams faced five years in prison and a $50,000 fine but on October 16 Judge Picard sentenced “Doc” to two years in a federal penitentiary.  In 1970, Williams returned to his home state of Indiana and operated a motel near Centerville, Indiana his death in nearby Richmond on April 28, 1982 at the age of 69.

Merrill “Doc” Williams stands as a shining example of persistence as a driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Consider that he entered the race thirteen times, qualified for the ‘500’starting field five times but only started four races. In those four races, all behind the wheel of the same Cooper front-drive car, he only completed a total of 340 laps in his Speedway career with his highest finish coming in his first race appearance in 1936.

All the photos that accompanied this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies. 

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