Monday, November 14, 2016

The 1916 Jovian Trophy race

In late August this site featured an article about the 1970 Shriner’s race and that article noted that unlike today when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts multiple races and events during the year, from 1919 until 1994, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted just one sanctioned race each year.

Prior to the cessation of racing at the big brick oval from 1917 to 1919, in 1916 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted four races – the ‘International 300-mile Sweepstakes’ on Memorial Day, May 30, and three short races, of 20, 50 and 100 miles all dubbed the ‘Harvest Auto Classic’ which were held on Saturday September 9. The Speedway founders decided that the 500-mile race, which took six hours to run, was too long and decided to schedule several shorter races to attract more spectators.

A fourth, little-known 1916 race, for the Jovian Trophy was scheduled for October 18, held in conjunction with the 14th annual convention of the Jovian Order held in Indianapolis. The motto of the Jovian Order, formed around 1900 as a social and business fraternity to promote electricity was “All together - All the time - for Electrical Interests.” In 1916 there were 60 to 70 local Jovian Order chapters known as “leagues,” across the United States with the home office in St Louis Missouri.

Members of the local Jovian leagues met for weekly or bi-weekly luncheons to discuss important electrical industry topics and socialize. The leagues worked to educate the public through public display rooms, teach school students the basics of electricity, and to educate architects. Jovians campaigned for efficient and uniform electrical inspections and contractor licensing, maintained an employment bureau and even had a benevolent fund for needy members of their community. Delegates reported that the leagues generated and fostered the "all together" doctrine, and stopped, or at least abated destructive competition and price cutting by bringing men of the same industry together socially.

The organization which was apparently governed based on ancient beliefs about mythological gods, elected officers that were named after Roman mythological gods; the group’s top position was Jupiter (also known as Jove) the Roman god of thunder and lightning as “the father of electricity” with the lesser officers named after Jupiter’s children and siblings with titles such as Neptune, Vulcan and Mars.

The base of operations for the three-day 14th annual Jovian convention was the Hotel Severin located across the street from the Union Station, a location very convenient for out of town visitors who arrived on one of the more than 300 trains that arrived in Indianapolis daily. Interspersed with the Jovian annual business meeting and election of new officers, there were social activities which included a 100-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scheduled to start at 2 PM on Thursday October 19 2016.

 Drivers advertised as entrants for the Jovian Trophy race included John Aitken, Charles Merz, Dave Lewis, Howard Wilcox, and Gil Andersen, which makes sense since all were drivers of cars owned during the 1916 season by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) Team.  The IMS team, formed and funded by James Allison supplemented the short fields during the 1916 season caused by a lack of foreign entries due to the conflict in Europe, provided seven cars for the 21-car 1916 Indianapolis 300-mile race.   It is unclear what if any other cars were planned for the Jovian Trophy race.

Johnny Aitken

Aitken, a hometown driver had a spectacular season in 1916 in the IMS Peugeot, as he started from the pole for the Indianapolis ‘300’ and scored five consecutive American Automobile Association (AAA) race victories that included a clean sweep of the three-race ‘Harvest Auto Classic.’ Aitken is credited with 15 victories in 41 starts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 1916 would prove to be the 31-year old Aitken’s last full racing season as he died during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Charles Merz

Merz another hometown driver raced also extensively at the Speedway in the early days, and had business ties to Arthur Newby, James Allison, and Carl Fisher, three of the four founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Merz was unfortunately involved in one of the Speedway’s first fatal crashes in August 1909 when his riding mechanic and two spectators died after Merz’ National blew a tire and crashed. Merz’ three career AAA wins all came on road courses, although he notched two top-four finishes in his four starts at the Speedway.  

1916 was Merz’ last season as a race car driver; during the war years of 1917 to 1919 he served with the U.S. Army Air Corps in Washington DC. Merz entered the signal corps industrial department as a Captain, was later promoted to Major; after the war he served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps reserve at Fort Benjamin Harrison and was recalled to active duty in 1940.

Merz succeeded W D “Eddie” Edenburn as the ‘500’ Chief Steward beginning with the 1935 ‘500’ and served in that role through the 1939 race. In January 1940, Merz was named by Theodore E “Pop” Myers to role of assistant to the General Manager at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Charles a prolific engineer and inventor founded Merz Engineering in 1927 to manufacture of aircraft parts and machine tools in its plant located north of downtown Indianapolis. He ran the eponymous company until his death at his home in 1952, four days after he celebrated his 64th birthday.
A photo of the 1923 HCS team
Milton left, Stutz center and Wilcox to the right

Howard Wilcox, Dave Lewis and Gil Andersen all drove “Premiers” for the racing team owned by the Speedway which were in effect copies of the Peugeots built in Indianapolis   Wilcox, another Hoosier driver, qualified for the pole position for the 1915 Indy 500 and won the 1919 ‘Liberty 500-mile Sweepstakes’ after he led the final 98 laps. In 1923 Wilcox drove 46 laps during the 500’ in relief of his HCS teammate Tommy Milton to help Milton become the first two-time 500-mile race winner.  

Four months after the 1923 “500,’ Wilcox died in a crash on Labor Day at Altoona Pennsylvania after his Duesenberg blew a tire and crashed on the high-banked 1-1/4-mile board track. A second race driver of the same name, known as Howdy Wilcox II, was not related. Wilcox’ son, Howard Wilcox Junior four years old at the time of his father’s death, served on the United States Auto Club (USAC) board of directors.  
Dave Lewis

New Yorker Dave Lewis debuted as a member of the Stutz racing team in 1911, and had a long racing career that stretched into the late nineteen twenties. Lewis drove the first front wheel drive entry in the Indianapolis ‘500’ in 1925 and finished second in the Miller ‘122,’ his best finish in the ‘500.’ In his mid-40’s Lewis proved to be a steady top-five finisher on the brutally fast board tracks.

In early May 1927, Lewis set a new world’s record as he won the 200 mile race on the high-banked 1-1/2 mile Atlantic City wooden oval at an average speed of 130 miles per hour (MPH).  The following month he crashed in spectacular fashion at Altoona Pennsylvania after his car hit a hole in the wooden racing surface.  Dave was thrown from the car when it “turned turtle” (rolled over) but he was unhurt and returned from the hospital in time to see the end of the race, but his front-drive Miller was destroyed which ended his 1927 AAA season.

Less than a year after the accident, on Sunday  May 13 1928 Southern California fire wardens responded to a grass fire four miles above the site of the failed St. Francis Dam and found Lewis, a newlywed who had just turned 47 years old, dead from a gunshot in his mountain cabin. Days later a coroner’s jury ruled that Lewis had died by his own hand after he panicked when a fire he had set got out of control. His widow Laura rejected the jury’s finding as she claimed Dave planned to leave for Indianapolis the following day to drive a new Miller race car.  

In the days after the suicide ruling, a woman named Margaret Hixson came forward and filed a claim on Lewis’ estate as she claimed that she and Lewis had a 16-year relationship and a 14-year old daughter. This claim was filed although they had never married, and paternity could not be proven. Hixson said she traveled with Lewis as his wife though he was already married but he later divorced his first wife. After a few months, this controversial story faded from the headlines with the final outcome of the claim unknown.   
Gil Andersen

Gulbrand “Gil” Andersen a Norwegian emigre was an early star driving for Harry Stutz; it was Andersen’s performance in the inaugural Indianapolis ‘500’ which led to the Stutz advertising slogan “the car that made good in a day.” Andersen started his “White Squadron” Stutz from the pole for the 1912 ‘500’ not due to his driving prowess but because his entry was the first one received at the Speedway office on North Capitol Avenue.   

Gil became a member of the Premier IMS team after the Stutz factory team’s withdrawal from AAA racing in 1915. Andersen retired from open-wheel competition at the end of the 1917 season, but returned to racing during 1927 as a member of the Stutz factory stock car racing team. Andersen died at age 50 on September 20 1930 from tuberculosis at his home in Indianapolis.  

On October 19 1916 the Indianapolis area dawned warm and the temperature reached 65 degrees at noon but soon after, a cold front arrived; it began to rain and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. The scheduled 100-mile race for the Jovian Trophy was called off due to the cold and rain and the conventioneers moved to a reception at the Indianapolis Athletic and Canoe Club located on the banks of the White River.        

Events far from Indianapolis conspired to make the September 1916 ‘Harvest Auto Classic’ the last race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until 1919. In the early months of the 1917, the Speedway staged a battle with hotel managers over high room rates; Allison threatened to move the 500-mile race to other speedways. The hotel acquiesced to Allison’s demands for regular room rates to be charged.

On March 23 1917 days after the entry blanks for the race were mailed out, Speedway President James Allison canceled the 500-mile race. Allison stated that “racing means taking away from the government the services of skilled mechanics whose services can be used by the government to better advantage in time of war than by the Speedway Corporation as a means of entertainment” and he noted that “many materials and accessories used in racing will become absolute necessities in times of conflict.”
The cancellation came days after President Wilson’s cabinet had voted to go to war, but a full two weeks before the United States Congress authorized the declaration of war on the German Empire.The facility that Allison had built on Main Street in Speedway as the headquarters for the IMS racing team was converted to make parts for Liberty aircraft engines, and the use of the Speedway grounds was offered to the government for free. In May 1917 Allison announced that the government had not selected the Speedway as a site for an aviation training school and that the Speedway was released from all obligations to the government.   
821st Squadron group photo

It was not until March 1918 that the government announced the formation of the 150-man 821st Aero Squadron Signal Corps under the command of Captain Edwin Webb with the Speedway’s 250-acre infield converted for use as an aviation repair and refueling depot. Sadly Captain Webb as a passenger on his first airplane flight lost his life in a June 2 1918 plane crash during a flying/bombing exhibition prior to a fund-raising baseball game at Washington Baseball Park.

Less than a month after the armistice was signed that ended World War One, on December 6, 1918, Speedway General Manager "Pop" Myers announced that the ‘Liberty  500-mile Sweepstakes’ would be held on May 30 1919.  Racing on the bricks continued through 1941 including a special match race held in September 1941 as a feature of another convention. On December 29, 1941 Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner and World War One flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker announced that the 1942 Indianapolis 500 was canceled.
All the black & white period photographs that accompany this article appear courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies




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