Monday, December 26, 2016

The forgotten ‘500’ champion- L.L. Corum

Part three

1924 Indianapolis ‘500’ race co-winner LL “Slim” Corum qualified the #17 supercharged Duesenberg straight-eight  for the 1928 ‘500’ on Monday May 28 at 86.172 miles per hour (MPH). Scheduled to start near the rear of the field, Corum crashed the car in practice on Memorial Day morning and was forced to withdraw from the race.

In 1929 Corum was not entered for the 17th annual International 500-miles Sweepstakes but served as a relief driver for the Duesenberg team and drove just four laps in place of fifth-place finisher Freddy Winnai during the middle of the race.      

The 1930 Indianapolis 500-mile race ushered in the era of the so-called “Junk Formula” rules package pushed through the AAA Contest Board by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker in 1928. 

Backed by a group of Detroit investors, Rickenbacker bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November 1927, but the lack of entries and poor attendance at the 1928 International 500-mile Sweepstakes led to Rickenbacker’s demand for rule changes. 

Based on the success of the 1927 AAA stock car races, Rickenbacker believed the semi-stock formula would lead to larger ‘500’ starting fields and more paying spectators at the Speedway.

The new AAA rules package published in January 1929 allowed competitors to race with stripped down “semi-stock” passenger cars was designed to encourage more participation by automobile manufacturers but effectively killed  the nascent rebirth of stock car racing.  There were an increased number of entries received for the 1930 ‘500’ and all 38 entries made the starting field.  

LL “Slim” Corum was entered as the driver of a “semi-stock” Stutz owned by Milton Jones of Cleveland Ohio. Jones purchased the Stutz Vertical Eight Torpedo Speedster from Cleveland dealer Walter Weidley on March 15 1930 and it was prepared at the Stutz factory by vice-president of production and former racer Bert Dingley. 

The car powered by a 322-cubic inch straight eight engine was fitted with Firestone balloon racing tires, stiffer springs and a 42-gallon fuel tank with its windshield, top, fenders, and headlights removed for the race.

Corum and the riding mechanic, his car owner Milton Jones, qualified 27th for the 38-car starting field and finished the 500-mile grind in tenth place and made just one pit stop at the 250-mile point to add 30 gallons of gasoline. The “Jones Stutz Special” averaged 85.34 miles per hour (MPH) over the race distance with a reported average fuel consumption of 8.8 miles per gallon and won $1,400. 

On April 23 1931 Corum was named the driver of the Stutz Bearcat roadster entered for the ‘500’ by the Stutz Motor Car Company of America. Stutz President Edgar S. Gorrell stated in an interview published in the Circleville Herald newspaper that “we don’t expect to win the race, it is not reasonable with a stock car. We believe the public will appreciate the fact that if Stutz makes a good appearance in the race it can be attributed to the soundness of our engineering and construction principles.”

The car was powered by the new eight-cylinder 322 cubic inch Stutz DV-32 with four valves per hemispherical cylinder and double overhead camshafts. Gorrell added that the new engine construction “has resulted in increased horsepower which is reflected in higher speed with consequent acceleration in the touring ranges.”        

Despite the build-up, the semi-stock Stutz Bearcat while fast in a straight line, handled poorly and failed to make the 40-car starting field as Corum could only average 98.38 MPH for the ten-mile time trial run. Although his average was faster than the slowest car in the field, the Cummins Diesel Special driven by Dave Evans, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had issued a special exemption that guaranteed that a diesel-powered car would start the race provided it averaged over 80 MPH.

The Cummins entry, the first car to post a qualifying time posted an average of 96.871 MPH, fast enough to “lock” it into the field. Corum’s qualifying speed was insufficient to “crowd out” the second-slowest qualifier Harry Butcher, whose Butcher Brothers Buick semi-stock entry qualified at 99.343 MPH.  Stung by the failure, 1931 marked the final entry of a factory Stutz race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

L.L “Slim” Corum was entered for the 1932 Indianapolis 500-mile race as the driver of a car powered by a Duesenberg Model ‘A’ engine fitted in a chassis and body built by Herman Ringling but failed to qualify for the 40-car starting field. With over 70 entries received for the race, three years into the “Junk Formula” and Eddie Rickenbacker was beginning to see the results of his rule change.

In 1933 Corum was a member of the five-car Studebaker racing team, along with Tony Gulotta, Zeke Meyer, Luther Johnson and Cliff Bergere. All his teammates returned from the 1932 Studebaker effort, and Corum replaced Peter Kreis, who left the team to drive Fred Frame’s Miller marine-powered entry in the 1933 ‘500.’

One of the 1933 streamlined Studebakers
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Mechanically the Studebakers were the same as the year before, but Studebaker hired Herman Ringling to build new streamlined bodies with higher cowls and enclosed cockpits for four of the five machines. 

In general the streamlining increased the Studebaker’s lap speeds during qualifying by two miles per hour, but turned the cockpits into ovens during the race. The Studebaker crews doused driver and mechanic with water on pit stops and eventually used a borrowed hatchet to chop holes in the aluminum bodies to allow the entry of cooling air.

 Tony Gulotta’s car which was unmodified from 1932 finished the 500-mile grind in seventh, 15 minutes behind winner Louis Meyer while the other four factory Studebaker entries finished in order from ninth through twelfth positions. 

Corum and his riding mechanic, hometown boy James “Jimmy” Lowden, soldiered on through the race and brought the #47 Studebaker home in 12th, just seven seconds behind teammate Cliff Bergere, who had received relief mid-race. Based on his 1924 experience, one can believe that it would have taken a tire iron to persuade Corum to allow a relief driver in his car.

In 1937 the final year that riding mechanics were required at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jimmy Lowden had a close brush with death in a practice crash on Friday May 28. Driver Overton “Bunny” Phillips with Lowden alongside piloted the “Mannix Special” entered by James Kemp and James L Mannix at full speed down the front straightaway when the crankshaft broke in catastrophic fashion and punctured the car’s gasoline tank. Fully engulfed in flames, the Mannix Duesenberg careened out of control and crashed into the ‘Ray 8” Studebaker parked in the pit area and receiving service. Both cars burned and were destroyed.

The horrific aftermath of the Phillips 1937 crash
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

The crash fatally injured one man, George Warford, who was pinned against the pit wall and severely burned, and Phillips, Lowden and three others - Otto C. Rohde, Anthony Caccia, and Walter King were seriously injured.  Rohde a vice-president and the chief engineer for the Champion Spark Plug Company, who was changing the spark plugs in the engine of the “Ray 8” received critical injuries when he was thrown over the pit wall.  

Warford, 42, was pronounced dead upon arrival at City Hospital, and Rohde, 60,  one of the originators of the Champion 100 MPH Club, died of his injuries at City Hospital six days later on June 2

King, a Cornell University medical student initially erroneously identified as Phillips’ riding mechanic, and Caccia, the brother of the late driver Joe Caccia were spectators seated on the pit wall next to Warford a former Indianapolis fireman who reportedly sought a mechanic’s job with the Ray Brady team when the accident unfolded.  

Practice was suspended for four hours while the injured men and the wreckage of the two destroyed cars were removed. When the track reopened for time trials Frank McGurk in Murrel Belanger’s straight eight Miller powered machine crashed and rolled over. McGurk was injured but his his experienced riding mechanic Albert Opalko died of his injuries.

On June 4 Caccia filed a a personal injury lawsuit against the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation in Marion County Superior Court #2 which asked for $100,000 ($1.7 million today) in damages. On June 8 Warford’s widow Adeline filed a $10,000 suit in the same court, which was withdrawn after she settled for an undisclosed amount on June 24 1937.  In November 1938, Caccia who suffered a broken pelvis and left leg accepted a $3,000 pre-trial settlement from the Speedway after a jury was seated.

The others injured apparently recovered from their injuries, though Jimmy Lowden never appeared at the Speedway again. Phillips entered a Bugatti chassis powered by a Miller engine which failed to qualify for the 1940 ‘500’ but was successful in 1941 and finished thirteenth. Phillips later became an expert restorer and acknowledged expert on Bugatti cars before he passed away in Southern California in 1999.  

 LL "Slim" Corum made a final appearance at the Speedway as a late addition to the hastily-assembled 10-car Miller-Ford team in 1935 which used Harry Miller-built front drive chassis powered by a reversed 220-cubic-inch Flathead Ford V-8 engine. The lack of preparation or testing severely hampered the Ford factory effort, the cars arrived late and only nine of the Miller-Fords were actually ready to run during the month of May 1935.

By the time Corum took his first laps behind the wheel of a Miller-Ford on May 24, two of the team’s original “big name” drivers, Peter DePaolo and Cliff Bergere had already quit the team due to the myriad of problems.  With the struggles with sorting out the handling of the 4-wheel independent suspension and a lack of horsepower, only four Miller-Fords made the 33-car starting field, while the qualifying runs of two cars – those of Billy Winn and Dave Evans were too slow. Three cars - rookie Johnny Rae in #47, Wesley Crawford in the cream-colored #48 and Corum in the blue-and-white #49 never attempted to qualify before the track closed for time trials.  

As bad as qualifying had been, Memorial Day turned into a public relations disaster for the Ford Motor Company.  As the red 1935 Ford V-8 Convertible Sedan led the field to the green flag, one of the Miller-Fords driven by George Bailey still sat in the pit area, though Bailey joined the race after the first lap was completed.  On the 47th lap Bob Sall retired his gold-colored #46 car followed on lap 65 by George Bailey. 

Seymour’s blue and silver #42 entry with relief driver George Barringer behind the wheel was out on lap 71 then finally Ted Horn’s black and white #43 dropped out on lap 123 after several long pit stops. All the Miller-Fords were eliminated in 1935 by frozen steering gears, because of a design flaw which placed the aluminum steering box too close to the flathead Ford engine exhaust manifold. 

L.L. Corum disappeared from the public eye for three years but resurfaced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in April 1938 “on the comeback” working for Harry A. Miller as a mechanic on Miller’s entry for Billy Winn. The construction of the pair of radical machines originally started by Miller for former driver Ira Vail was taken over by the Gulf Research Development Company in Harmarville Pennsylvania when Miller went to work for Gulf a longtime supplier of 80-octane No-Nox fuel and Gulfpride lubricants for race cars in February 1937.

These two radical front engine-rear wheel drive cars featured new “aviation style” Miller 255-cubic inch double overhead camshaft 4-cylinder engines designed to produce 235 horsepower connected to a four-speed transaxles that used Cord 810 gear sets.  The engines used Coffman cartridge style starters typical on aircraft with an exploding blank shell which drove a piston that engaged a screw thread to turn over the engine   

The 95-inch wheelbase chassis was a wonder of engineering with features that included streamlined four-wheel independent suspension, driver-adjustable hydraulic shock absorbers, and 360-degree (not spot) hydraulic disc brakes. When shown to the press in April 1937, Miller predicted lap speeds of 126 MPH more than two miles per hour faster than the standing Speedway one-lap track record.

The most striking features of the cars drafted by Everett Stevenson were visible at a glance; instead of a radiator, the cars featured a series of externally mounted chrome plated copper tubes wrapped around the nose and the car carried mid-mounted shaped “pontoon” fuel tanks shaped like inverted wings. 

In early tests conducted at Langhorne Speedway the engines overheated then the brittle tubing broke, so when the cars arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the tubing had been replaced by small square conventional radiators mounted on either side of the car mounted parallel to the wind stream.    

The Associated Press’ Harold Harrison in an article written during mid-April testing wrote that “Slim doesn’t look much a race driver anymore,” as his brown hair had “thinned considerably” and he wore horn-rimmed glasses.  Described as the “forgotten race winner,” Corum told Harrison “maybe I’ll drive again. I’m not so old, only 39, and it’s possible I can pick up where I left off. Racing has changed a lot since my best days but I’d like to drive the 500 miles again –just once.”

Corum recounted his version of his career after the 1924 ‘500’ win to sportswriter Bill Braucher of the Central Press Association wire service “I cracked up at Indianapolis in 1925 and never could do much after that. I joined up with the engineering department of an automotive firm (Stutz) and tried a comeback in 1933 but got no better than twelfth place.”  Stutz Motor Car Company was declared insolvent on April 3 1937, but as Corum described it “last November, the slump hit the mechanical end of the automotive business and I hooked up with Harry Miller to speed up the new cars he’s building.” 

During early Speedway tests, Billy Winn barely escaped injury on April 21 when he stopped the car in the pit area after the engine caught fire. Winn leaped out and mechanics put out the fire with extinguishers. Early in May, Winn, described as a “dirt track demon,” was listed as an early favorite to win the Indianapolis ‘500’ along with Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer and Bill Cummings.

Winn tried both of the Miller entries and made two qualifying attempts on the last day of time trials in the #24 Miller, but abandoned both of the ten-lap runs due to the lack of speed. Tragically, Winn who always raced in red shirt lost his life three months later in a crash during the “Governor’s Sweepstakes” at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

While the Vail cars were indeed radical Gulf and Miller launched another program in early 1938 to design and construct cars which would be suitable for both Grand Prix and Indianapolis competition. This car, with design features years ahead of its time, was powered by a 180-cubic inch six-cylinder, supercharged engine mounted in the middle of the car behind the driver in a chassis that used both four-wheel-drive and four-wheel independent suspension. The extremely complex car was rushed to completion arrived late at Indianapolis, and Ralph Hepburn was on track warming up the rear-engine Miller when the 4 PM deadline came on May 28 1938.

Gulf press photo of the re-worked 1939 Gulf/Vail cars

The Gulf/Vail Miller cars remain among the least documented of all the Millers built perhaps since they were overshadowed by the mid-engine Miller creations. After failing to qualify for the 1938 ‘500’ both cars were extensively reworked. The pontoon-style gasoline tanks were removed and replaced with a single spherical gas tank mounted high in the tail of the car. The noses of the cars were rebuilt with conventional radiators but after testing at the Altoona Pennsylvania dirt track the cars did not appear for the 1939 Indianapolis 500.

Later Gulf sold the “Vail” cars, which never raced, to Preston Tucker who removed the engines for their use in a failed high-speed landing craft project. Years later the rolling chassis were reportedly found in a Chicago basement and after multiple sales and trades, one of the cars was rebuilt with a Miller ML-510 engine a development of the original 255 cubic inch engine.

The Miller mid-engine four-wheel drive cars although ground-breaking technologically, were also failures. Three Gulf-Miller cars appeared at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1939 but only one, driven by George Bailey, made the race and retired after just 47 laps. Bailey died in a fiery practice crash at the Speedway in May 1939 and the other two Gulf entries were withdrawn.

The two much-revised mid-engine cars returned for the 1941 Indianapolis ‘500’ and both qualified, but the car qualified by George Barringer was destroyed in the Race Day morning garage fire, and the remaining car, driven by Al Miller, was out after 22 laps. In 1946 and 1947 the remaining car now known as the “Tucker Torpedo Special” dropped out early each year and failed to qualify in 1948.

LL Corum worked for the Studebaker Corporation during 1939, but his later history remains unknown. Lora of course was too old for service in World War Two, but his son Robert enlisted in the US Army and rose to become a Sargent in the 147th Combat Engineers Brigade. Unfortunately, while stationed in England he contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalized in February 1944.

Robert returned stateside in May 1944 and remained hospitalized at Billings General Hospital on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison northeast of Indianapolis. It was there that Robert passed away on March 23 1945 at age 21, and he was interred at Memorial Park Cemetery on Indianapolis’ east side. 

Lora was despondent over the death of his son, and frequently left home for days at a time. On Monday March 7, 1949 his mother Margaret found Lora hanging in the garage behind the family home at 33 North Keeling Avenue. Marion County Deputy Coroner Joseph Hewett determined that Lora had likely hung himself on Friday night while his parents and wife were away. Lora was buried in the family plot near his son and was later joined there by his father who passed away in 1950 and his wife and mother, who both died in 1973.     

LL “Slim” Corum never received the credit he was properly due for his accomplishments at the Indianapolis Speedway; he qualified for nine starting fields but he only started six, and in those six races Corum has an enviable record as he went the full distance three times unassisted. 

Corum drove the first 111 laps of the 1925 ‘500’ and was running in third place when he was relieved. In the history of auto racing at Indianapolis there is only one other driver who accomplishments sadly remain as overlooked as those of LL Corum- the 1941 ‘500’ co-winner Floyd Davis.

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