Monday, September 19, 2016

Bill Cummings

An Indianapolis hero- part two
Bill Cummings and Earl Unvershaw shown here in 1931
won the 1934 "500' from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
in IUPUI University Center for Digital Studies

In February 1935, 1934 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner Bill Cummings traveled to Daytona Beach Florida where he drove Clessie Cummins’ 364-cubic inch supercharged six-cylinder two-stroke diesel powered 1934 Indianapolis ‘500’ entry in record attempts on the beach while fellow Indianapolis driver Dave Evans piloted the competing Waukesha ‘Silver Comet’ diesel powered machine. Evans first set a new record of 125.065 miles per hour (MPH), which Cummings eclipsed on March 1 with a two-way run that averaged 133.023 MPH. Before he left the beach the next day, Cummings set a mark of 137.195 MPH.

In May 1935, defending Indianapolis ‘500’ champions Cummings and his friend and riding mechanic Earl Unversaw qualified the 1934 Boyle front-drive Miller fifth in the starting field and were considered the favorites to repeat their victory in the Decoration Day race. The pair never led a lap and finished third, four minutes behind the Offenhauser-powered car driven by the winner Cavino “Kelly” Petillo who broke Cumming’s 500-mile speed record by over one mile per hour.

Later in the 1935 American Automobile Association (AAA) racing season, Cummings finished second to Petillo at the Minnesota State fairgrounds in St. Paul then finished second again behind Billy Winn at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. Cummings closed out the season with a sixth place finish on the new Altoona mile and an eighth dirt track located in Tipton Pennsylvania. Cummings the defending champion skipped two races on the schedule and finished as the runner-up in the 1935 AAA National Championship behind Petillo. 

According to Bill Neely’s book Daytona USA on March 8 1936 the AAA sanctioned a “strictly stock car” 250-mile race on a 3-mile combination road and beach course at Daytona Beach Florida. With a $5,000 purse, entries came from open wheel racers Bill Cummings, Milt Marion, Bob Sall, as well as George ‘Doc’ MacKenzie in a Buick and Bill Schnidler prior to the loss of his left leg in the race’s lone Dodge. Cummings, the fastest qualifier at over 70 MPH in Michael J Boyle’s supercharged Auburn 851 Speedster, started last in the fully-inverted 27-car field that went off in one–minute intervals in a handicap start.

The Schweitzer supercharged straight-8 Lycoming engine in Cummings’ Auburn failed after 16 laps and he finished 26th. The race was stopped at 241 miles with Milt Marion in the lead in a 1936 Ford V-8 when the tide came in and blocked the course.  The fifth place finisher in a 1935 Ford was a local service station owner named William “Big Bill” France, who later formed his own stock car racing sanctioning body twelve years later. Bill France told author Neely that due to the large number of fans who watched the race with buying a ticket, race promoter (and former IMCA big car champion) “Sig” Haugdahl allegedly lost $22,000 (equivalent to $380,000 today).

For unknown reasons at the 1936 Indianapolis ‘500,’ the team of Bill Cummings and riding mechanic Earl Unversaw separated after they had run the five previous races together. Reportedly the two were such close friends that Cummings named his only daughter, Earlene, after Unversaw, although this appears to be wishful thinking as Earlene was born in 1928. Earl who rode with Mauri Rose in 1936 and 1937 died in 1990 in Whiteland Indiana at age 95.

The 1936 ‘500’ was an embarrassing defeat for Cummings and mechanic Henning – after he qualified thirteenth, on Decoration Day, the clutch in the Boyle Miller front drive machine overheated on the grid. When the Packard 120 pace car with Tommy Milton behind the wheel pulled away, Cummings’ car did not join the field and he finished dead last. News reports of the day stated that Cummings was the first driver in Indianapolis ‘500’ history that lined up on the grid but did not make the start of the race.

After the ‘500,’ Cummings’ faithful Miller front-drive chassis was fitted with a 255 cubic inch four cylinder Offenhauser engine and the results were forgettable in the three remaining AAA points-paying races all of which were held in New York State. Bill started and finished eleventh in the ‘Goshen 100’ race held at the Good Times Park thoroughbred track in southern New York, and then was involved in a three-car crash with Shaw and Gardner in turn one on the first lap at Syracuse. Cummings finished seventh in the Vanderbilt Cup on the twisting Roosevelt Raceway road course in the wholly unsuitable Boyle Miller front drive machine.

In January 1937, Cummings returned to his roots and was one of 98 riders in the first Daytona 200 race for motorcycles held on a two-mile beach/asphalt loop at Daytona Beach Florida. For the 1937 Indianapolis ‘500,’ Cummings was paired with a new riding mechanic Frankie DelRoy, who would later become a Speedway chief mechanic and was the chair of the technical committee for the United States Auto Club when he and six other officials perished in the 1978 USAC plane crash.  In time trials the 255 cubic inch Offenhauser powered Boyle #16 set a new one-lap speed record of 125.19 MPH and Cummings started for the pole position at Indianapolis for the second time in his career.

At the drop of the green flag, Herb Ardinger in Lew Welch’s supercharged Offenhauser powered car shot into the lead from the outside of the front row. The fuel limitations of the last four races were gone, so the race pace was faster. Cummings finished sixth behind first time winner Wilbur Shaw who drove a car that Shaw owned and had built with the assistance of Ford Moyer.  Cummings made just one other AAA appearance during 1937, in the Vanderbilt Cup race at the much-revised Roosevelt Raceway, and repeated his previous result with a seventh place finish.
A candid 1938 photograph of Cummings
 from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
in IUPUI University Center for Digital Studies

For the 1938 Indianapolis ‘500,’ Cummings drove the same eleven-year old Boyle front-drive entry as in previous years but with a narrowed chassis and new body powered by a 268 cubic inch engine as the AAA "junk formula" era had ended.  The 1938 Boyle entry carried sponsorship from the labor union with which car owner Boyle was associated, the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers (IBEW). 

Cummings qualified a disappointing 16th and dropped out of the ‘500’ on lap 72 with a radiator leak. Cummings attempted to qualify an unidentified Maserati at for the race at the Springfield Illinois state fairgrounds and then finished eighth at Syracuse in Russell Snowberger’s “Loop CafĂ© Special’ (the old Boyle front-drive Miller) after mid-race relief from his car owner to close out his 1938 racing season.

On Monday night February 6, 1939, as he drove his passenger automobile along State Route 29, now known as Southeastern Avenue, Cummings dropped the car’s right front wheel onto the soft shoulder. The car veered, plunged through the wooden guardrail on the bridge approach near Adina Boulevard and traveled an estimated 50 feet into the waters of Lick Creek below. Passing motorists who witnessed the accident found Cummings beside the wreckage of the car face lying down in approximately 18 inches of water.

The March 1930 issue of Motor Age 
contained these two photos of Cummings accident

Three men pulled the unconscious Cummings from the water and saved him from drowning; when he arrived at Methodist Hospital ten miles away he was admitted in critical condition with a concussion. The next day, doctors performed emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on Bill’s brain but later that night, Cummings began to slip away.

The Indianapolis Star newspaper reported that “doctors injected insulin into his blood and his heart rallied for several hours but he died at 6 o'clock in the morning.” Cummings never regained consciousness after the accident before he died on Wednesday morning February 8 at age 32 survived by his widow Leota and 10 year old daughter Earlene.

700 people attended services held on Saturday afternoon February 11 at the Royster & Askln Mortuary located at 1902 North Meridian Street in Indianapolis presided over by evangelist Raymond G. Hoekstra.  Among the guests who attended the service were Harry A. Miller, Roscoe Dunning, (mechanic and car builder), driver Louis ‘Billy’ Devore, riding mechanic Lawson Harris (who would die later that year in a crash with Babe Stapp during a tire test at the Speedway), and Earl Twining of the Champion Spark Plug Company.

Other attendees at Cumming’s funeral service included car owner Bill White, Fred Lockwood of the Borg-Warner Corporation, former driver and AAA official Charles Merz, and a pair of Bill’s former dirt track competitors from the early days Howard ‘Howdy’ Wilcox II and Frank Sweigert. Indianapolis Motor Speedway General Manager Theodore E “Pop” Myers, Mauri Rose, and Peter DePaolo also attended.

At the conclusion of the service, Cummings’ casket was carried down the mortuary steps to the waiting hearse by the six of his fellow racing drivers; Wilbur Shaw, ‘Shorty’ Cantlon, Deacon Lltz, Lou Moore, Chet Miller, and Russell Snowberger. The hearse carried Bill Cummings’ remains east on Washington Street to the Memorial Park Cemetery for the graveside service. As Cummings’ casket was lowered into the grave an airplane piloted by Lawrence “Gene” Genaro a test pilot for the Civil Aeronautics Administration circled overhead and dropped flowers. Genaro pioneered the aerial filming of the Indianapolis ‘500’ and helped Cummings earn his pilot’s license in 1932. 

A widely circulated article headlined Cummings planned a comeback was written after his death by Bob Consodine of Randolph Hearst’s International News Service. The article inaccurately stated that Cummings “won about $50,000” for winning the 1934 Indianapolis ‘500’ as it was actually $29,725 some of which had of course gone to car owner Michael Boyle. 

Consodine wrote of Cummings “he cashed in on his new fame. Big car companies signed him up to extoll the merits of their cars, the accessory companies paid him for his stamp of approval, and the jerk-town tracks that once paid him off in hot dogs gave him good guarantees just to appear.”
A brochure drawings of a 1935 Chevrolet master Deluxe Sedan
the model that Cummings drove

Like many other top drivers Cummings endorsed the use of Richfield gasoline, Champion Spark Plugs, and Pyroil oil additive. The author also found a 1935 newspaper advertisement that stated “’Wild Bill’ Cummings, National AAA racing champion, recently took delivery of his second Chevrolet - a new 1935 Master Deluxe sedan with which he is pictured. Cummings became a Chevrolet owner following his victory at Indianapolis last Decoration Day.”

A 1936 advertisement in Popular Science magazine for the “turret-top” 1936 Chevrolet contained a photo of Cummings and famed British land speed and boat racer Kaye Don as they examined the all-steel roof of a new Chevrolet which was advertised as being both safer and cooler than a fabric insert.

Notice that Cummings is wearing a helmet
 in his official 1934 IMS photo he wore a cloth helmet.
This style helmet was required at Indianapolis in 1935

Research also uncovered Cummings’ June 1934 nationwide endorsement of Camel cigarettes, complete with headshots of Bill in a hard-shell helmet and text that quoted the 1934 Indianapolis 500 winner “I felt pretty well played out at the end of the race. My mechanic and I turned to Camels for that first luxurious smoke that chases that tired feeling away.” 

Consodine’s article continued “with the coming of that dough he got soft - the hungrier more desperate men became to pass him even on the turns. The glamour peeled off him and in a little while he was broke again and for the first time he knew doubt. When at last he hit bottom, he started back and his reflexes dulled by success became razor sharp again.”

Mr. Consodine’s claim that Cummings became ‘soft’ after his Indianapolis victory and subsequent rebound is just not supported by the facts. Cummings was the fastest qualifier in two 1934 races after his ‘500’ win and Bill made a strong defense of his Indianapolis win and AAA national championship title in 1935. While the results of his disappointing 1936 season marred by a crash and mechanical failures was certainly sub-par, Cummings had another successful season in 1937 before his puzzling poor last season in 1938.

To characterize Cummings as “broke” at one point is probably a case of journalistic embellishment. Cummings bought a tavern in Indianapolis and built a home in the Five Points suburb of Indianapolis, though at the time of his death, Cummings reportedly worked between races during the offseason as a car salesman.   

The mention of a “comeback” is odd, as Cummings was just 32 years old, and no racing historians are aware of any Cummings retirement announcement. The article mentioned that Boyle mechanic ‘Cotton’ Henning was headed to Italy to pick up an Alfa Romeo which Cummings hoped would return him to the top, but that statement is erroneous.
Henning did travel to Italy not to buy an Alfa Romeo, but the Maserati 8CTF which Wilbur Shaw drove to back to back wins for Boyle Racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1939 and 1940. If he had not crashed into Lick Creek that February night, could that have been Bill Cummings behind the wheel of the Boyle Maserati in 1939? 

For his accomplishments, William C Cummings Junior was inducted in 1970 as a member of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Auto Racing Hall of Fame. 

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