Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bill Cummings 
the hero of Indianapolis – part one

William C. ‘Bill” Cummings Junior was a hero to Central Indiana racing fans as he grew up on Indianapolis’ near west side two miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he found glory in 1934. Cummings spent his life in the city of Indianapolis, then died and was laid to rest there.  

Bill Cummings the son of a race car driver, began his racing career on motorcycles but switched to racing big cars during 1926. The following year Cummings began to experience some success as he raced the ‘Deluxe Taxi’ Frontenac Ford ‘big car’ on the dangerous “Hoosier outlaw circuit” with such legends as Frank Sweigert, Ira Hall, Francis Quinn, Bill McCoy, and George “Bennie” Benefiel (often misspelled Bennefield) on Hoosier tracks such as Sunflower Park located between the towns of Brazil and Terre Haute and Jungle Park north of Rockville billed as “the fastest oiled track in the world.’

By 1929 Cummings was a consistent winner as he drove a factory supported Frontenac on the Hoosier circuit that included the Linton race track, Huntington Motor Speedway, and George Rogers Clark Speedway in Vincennes. Bill began to expand his travels to tracks in Dayton and Hamilton Ohio and as far away as St. Paul Minnesota. Bill captured the 20-mile race for the “National dirt track championship of the United States” at an unidentified track in Louisville Kentucky at the end of September after he was injured in a crash at Roby Speedway in the Chicago suburb of Hammond Indiana in early August.
An aerial view of Langhorne Speedway
the site of Bill Cummings first AA victory

In 1930, Cummings got his shot at the big time and in his first race in an AAA championship car he started from the pole position and won at the one-mile circular Langhorne Pennsylvania Speedway behind the wheel of the car that Michael Ferner identified as Karl Kizer's “Century Tire Special” 91-cubic inch Miller. Cummings’ next stop was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a member of the factory Duesenberg team managed by 1925 Indianapolis ‘500’ champion Peter DePaolo.

Cummings drove a Myron Stevens built chassis powered by a 242 cubic inch straight-8 single overhead camshaft (SOHC) engine sourced from a Model ‘A’ Duesenberg passenger car. With  36 laps of mid-race relief help from teammate Fred Winnai, the #6 Stevens/Duesenberg completed all of the 200 laps around the rough 2-1/2-mile brick surface and Cummings scored a fifth place finish.

Cummings was entered in the same factory Duesenberg for the 100-mile race held on the Michigan State Fairgrounds dirt mile in Detroit and he finished third.  The 23-year old driver then followed up that result with a fourth place finish in a rain-shortened race on the 1-1/4 mile Altoona Pennsylvania, his first appearance on a board track. 
Cummings closed out his rookie AAA season with a win on the New York state Fairgrounds “Moody Mile” in Syracuse.  With two wins to his credit as a rookie, Cummings finished third in the 1930 AAA championship behind ‘500’ winner Billy Arnold who had notched three wins during the season. With his aggressive driving style, Bill Cummings had quickly become an established racing star.  

During the winter of 1930-1931, Cummings traveled the West Coast circuit and raced on big dangerous high-speed tracks that included Bakersfield and Legion Ascot Speedway where his nickname “Wild Bill” first came into popular use. Cummings drove for the team of Paul Weirick and Art Sparks and competed against such established West Coast stars as William ‘Stubby’ Stubblefield, William ‘Shorty’ Cantlon, and Ernie Triplett and finished eighth in the 1931 AAA Pacific Coast Southwest big car championship.  

For the 1931 AAA championship season, Cummings drove East coast car owner Floyd Smith’s ‘Empire State Gas Motors Special’ a Miller-powered Cooper front drive creation. The car was one of three originally built in 1927 with Buick factory support by Earl Cooper, the three-time American Automobile Association (AAA) national champion in 1913, 1915, and 1917.  

The transmission in Cooper’s cars, created with the design assistance of Miller designer Leo Gosssen, used a Grover Ruckstell planetary gear set and two-speed axle to achieve four forward speeds. Originally powered by a Miller supercharged engine, with the introduction of the AAA ‘junk formula’ which outlawed pure racing engines and required a riding mechanic, the Cooper chassis was widened, the engine supercharger removed, and piston stroke lengthened to increase the engine’s cubic inch displacement. The car was topped off with new bodywork built by local craftsman Floyd “Pop” Dreyer.

Cummings started the 1931 Indianapolis 500-mile race from the middle of front row but retired early with a broken oil line and finished poorly. Over the course of the season, Cummings scored three second-place finishes and one third place to go along with two top ten finishes to wind up 10th in 1931 AAA points. Cummings returned to the West Coast over the winter to close out his 1931 season. Bill won the forty-lap Thanksgiving Day feature at Legion Ascot Speedway ahead of Bryan Saulpaugh and Chet Gardner, then followed that up with a second place finish behind Saulpaugh in the Legion Ascot 100-lapper on December 20.  

Cummings opened 1932 on the West Coast behind the wheel of one of three new Miller 16 valve DOHC Miller ‘big car.’ In May at Indianapolis he drove one of 1931 ‘500’ winner Louis Schneider’s widened Miller chassis rebuilt by metalworking wizard Myron Stevens. Cummings was eliminated on lap 151 when the Miller 122-cubic inch engine broke its crankshaft. This was Bill’s second ‘500’ start alongside his friend and riding mechanic Earl Unversaw a World War I veteran who was born in Perry Township south of Indianapolis.

For the next 1932 AAA championship race at Detroit, Cummings moved into the seat of Chicago labor organizer Michael J. Boyle’s ‘Boyle Valve’ Stevens chassis powered by a Miller 268 cubic inch engine. After his steering broke at Detroit, Cummings scored two third-place finishes at Roby and Syracuse, a second place at the second Detroit race and closed out the 1932 AAA championship season with another win from the pole position in the 150-mile race on the one-mile oiled dirt Oakland Speedway. Cummings finished fifth in the 1932 AAA national championship standings.

Bill Cummings would spend the rest of his racing career as a member of the Boyle Racing Team for mechanic Harry “Cotton” Henning, a former riding mechanic who prepared cars in the Boyle team headquarters, located less than three miles east of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Bill won the coveted pole position for the 1933 International 500-mile Sweepstakes with an average speed of 118.53 miles per hour (MPH) for his ten-lap run.

Cummings and Unversaw led the first 32 laps of the 1933 ‘500,’ but the car retired on lap 136 with a terminal radiator leak and Bill finished 25th in the 42-car field. Despite winning two of the 1933 AAA season’s three races from the pole, Cummings finished seventh in the AAA standings as a result of a his nineteenth place 1932 Indianapolis ‘500’ finish. Cummings earned 120 points for each of his 100-lap wins not nearly enough to overcome Louis Meyers’ 600 points for winning at Indianapolis.
Cummings and Unvershaw posed for their official qualifying photograph
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital studies
For the 1934 Indianapolis ‘500,’ cars were limited to just three gallons of fuel to complete the ten-lap qualifying run, and only 45 gallons for the entire 500 miles. Cummings and Unversaw qualified the white #7 Boyle Products Special, a widened 1927 front-drive Miller chassis powered by 221 cubic inch four-cylinder Miller Marine engine in tenth position in the 33-car field. 

Cummings worked his way through the field and took the lead on lap 72, and then battled Mauri Rose for the win the rest of the way after early leader Frank Brisko’s FWD Special faded.  Cummings led 57 laps to Rose’s 68 laps, but Cumming led the one that counted as before a crowd of 135,000 fans he led Rose across the finish line by 27 seconds the closest finish in the Speedway’s 23-year history.

Cummings completed the race one minute and 54 seconds faster than Louis Meyer’s winning time from the previous year’s ‘500,’ to set a new speed record for the 500 miles of 104.863 miles per hour which earned him membership in the Champion Spark Plug 100-MPH club. The four-cylinder Miller marine engine was the first four-cylinder engine to win the ‘500’ since Gaston Chevrolet’s Frontenac in 1920.    

Cummings’ win was not without controversy as Rose’s car owner retired driver Leon Duray filed a post-race protest with the stewards. Duray claimed that Cummings had built up an unfair advantage of ¾ of a lap during one of the caution periods to remove a wrecked car from the track. The race stewards led the chief steward W.D. “Eddie” Edenburn reviewed Duray’s protest but denied it. In those days yellow flags were displayed around the track, and the stewards admitted that there had been a delay in the display of the caution flag at all the locations around the track.

Leon Duray immediately filed an appeal with the AAA Contest Board and it was not until July that Cummings was officially ruled the Indianapolis ‘500’ winner.

Despite Duray’s pending appeal Cummings was publicly acclaimed as the 1934 Indianapolis ‘500’ champion although he had not collected a large portion of his winnings for the victory as the combined prize money of $44,075 for first and second places was withheld by Speedway officials until the final ruling. To prevent a reoccurrence of the controversy, for 1935 Indianapolis Motor Speedway became the first track install signaling light, six sets of green and yellow lights installed around the 2-1/2 mile oval.
Cummings posed on his Harley Davidson motorcycle in 1934
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital studies

Three days after his ‘500’ victory on June 3, Bill appeared in Dayton Ohio at a ‘big car’ race held at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds after he rode in from Indianapolis on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Cummings had previously committed to race in Dayton that day but Bill told reporters that his doctor had forbid him to enter. According to historian Rick Patterson Cummings made a few ceremonial laps on his motorcycle around the ½-mile oval to the cheers of the crowd of 3000 fans.   

Cummings returned to Dayton again in mid-August 1934 to attend the first annual All-American Soap Box Derby as the event was sponsored by Chevrolet for which he was a spokesman.  Bill also attended the Soap Box Derby, along with the legendary retired driver and car owner Harry Hartz in 1935, 1936, and 1937 after the Derby moved to its permanent home in Akron Ohio.  

Cummings’ results for the rest of the 1934 AAA racing season were not spectacular with a pair of top ten finishes despite starting from the pole position at Syracuse and Springfield Illinois. The Boyle Miller engine broke a crankshaft in practice and Cummings missed the season finale at Mines Field (now the site of Los Angeles International Airport)  but the 600 points earned at the ‘500’ were enough for Bill Cummings to be crowned the 1934 AAA National Champion and the right to carry the number ‘1’ through the 1935 season.

Our next installment will cover “Wild Bill” Cummings later career and untimely death.

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