Tuesday, April 18, 2017

George Souders- the 1927 ‘500’ winner
Part one

The subject of this article George Souders will be honored with a plaque placed by the Indiana Racing Memorial Association (IRMA) at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds in Lafayette Indiana on April 21 2017

Eight drivers have won the International 500-mile Sweepstakes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in their first attempt - most recently Alexander Rossi in 2016.  First-time or “rookie” drivers won the ‘500’ three times in the first four years – 1911, 1913 and 1914, then a dozen years passed before a “rookie” driver won again in 1926.

Lockhart’s 1926 surprise

Californian Frank Lockhart began the month of May 1926 as the designated relief driver for Miller team driver Bennett Hill. Before time trials, Lockhart was tapped to replace owner/driver Peter Kreis behind the wheel of the #15 Miller after Kreis contracted the flu and was briefly hospitalized. During his first practice run in the car on May 26, the 23-year old Lockhart surprised the ‘railbirds’ when he posted a lap of 112.22 miles per hours (MPH).

On the first day of time trials for the 1926 ‘500’ held on Thursday May 27, Lockhart set a new one-lap speed standard of 115.488 MPH that broke Peter DePaolo’s year old record of 114.255 MPH. After his second lap, Lockhart’s car experienced tire trouble and he was unable to complete the last two laps of his attempt, but his new one-lap record was recognized as official.  At the close of the first day of time trials at sundown, Earl Cooper, in what proved to be his final Indianapolis ‘500’ start claimed the pole position in one of two front-wheel drive Millers entered in 1926.

At the end of the second day of time trials, Lockhart still was not among the 19 drivers who had qualified for the starting field. A wire story which appeared in the Syracuse Herald accurately predicted that Lockhart “probably will take it slowly to play it safe and be sure to get Kreis’’ car in the big melee.” On the third day of time trials on Saturday May 29 Lockhart with his third and final qualifying attempt posted a four-lap average of 95.783 MPH. Although nearly twenty miles per hour slower than his record pace, it was still the fastest run of the day and earned Frank the 20th position in the starting field.

On Decoration Day 1926 Lockhart blazed his way to the front of the field, led 95 laps and scored a dominant victory in the rain-shortened 160-lap (400 mile) race with a two-lap advantage over second place Harry Hartz at the drop of the checkered flag. Lockhart used a portion of the $35,600 purse to buy the winning car from Kreis and with it scored four more wins during the 1926 AAA (American Automobile Association) championship season. 

The 1927 ‘500’
Copy of one page of the Lockhart intercooler patent application
Over the winter of 1926-1927 Lockhart and his crew dramatically modified the Miller 91 principally with the addition of a U-shaped intercooler which cooled the pressurized air that entered the engine and produced more horsepower.  Frank’s air-water intercooler, credited by racing historians as the first used at Indianapolis, later received United States patent # 1807042A in 1931.

With his more powerful Miller, Lockhart won the pole position for the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race as he set two new Indianapolis Motor Speedway track records with a best lap of 120.918 MPH and a four-lap average of 120.1 MPH. On Decoration  Day 1927, Lockhart led the first 81 laps of the race and was the leader on lap 119 when a connecting rod broke in his Perfect Circle Special’s four-cylinder Miller engine and ended his bid for a second consecutive ‘500’ victory.

Lockhart’s mechanical misfortune handed the lead to 1925 ‘500’ winner Peter DePaolo who was driving in relief of Bob McDonough in Earl Cooper’s new front wheel drive entry.  “Rookie” George Souders, who drove William S. White’s older Duesenberg chassis powered by 90-cubic inch double overhead camshaft supercharged straight-eight Duesenberg engine, surged past DePaolo into the lead on lap 150.
A 1927 portrait of George Souders
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

Souders a native Hoosier led the final 51 laps, and won over Earl Devore to become the second straight 500-mile race “rookie” winner. Devore had inherited second place when the Duesenberg driven by Babe Stapp in relief of Benton “Ben” Shoaff in a factory Duesenberg entry broke the pinion gear in the rear end and retired on lap 198.

With a margin over Devore of more than twelve minutes the 26-year old Souders (pronunciation of his name rhymes with “powders”) recorded the second largest winning margin in Speedway history; his margin was exceeded only by 1913 ‘500’ winner Jules Goux who won by 13 minutes. Despite his remarkable victory, George Souders’ racing accomplishment including his improbable 1927 “500’ victory is too often overlooked which this article is intended to rectify.  

George Souders’ early life and career

George R. Souders was born on September 11 1900 on his parent’s farm in Tippecanoe Township in Tippecanoe County Indiana four miles west of the historic Hoosier town of Battle Ground. The little town was so-named due its proximity to the site of the 1811Battle of Tippecanoe where General (and Governor of the Indiana territory) William Henry Harrison and his army of 1000 men defeated a group of warriors from local Native American tribes.

As a young man, George, his brother Richard and their parents, Charles and Cora, moved to a home at 1512 North Thirteenth Street in nearby Lafayette Indiana. George graduated from Jefferson High School as the 1918 class president, and then entered his hometown Purdue University as a member of the class of 1923 for the study of mechanical engineering. Sadly, Charles Souders passed away in January 1920 and George dropped of Purdue to work in a garage on Fourteenth Street in Lafayette to help support his family.

Legend has it that George became involved with automobile racing by happenstance when he accompanied an acquaintance who was entered in races held on July 4, 1922 in Danville Illinois.  The earliest recorded result uncovered by the author of George Souders as a race car driver was in the June 29 1923 edition of the Tippecanoe County Democrat newspaper which reported on a race held at the Tippecanoe County fairgrounds ½-mile track on the previous Sunday, June 24.  

Souders finished second behind SE Keith in the day’s first ten-mile race behind the wheel of a car owned by Elmer Schuck of Lafayette. The race was marred by an early crash which sent five spectators to the hospital - one with a broken leg, one with burns from the crashed car’s radiator and three after being struck with debris from flying timbers. Shortly after the completion of the ten-mile race, heavy rain and lightning forced the cancellation of the balance of the program. After the storm had passed, the estimated 5,000 fans attempted to obtain rain checks or refunds but found that the promoters of the race had disappeared.

Later during the 1923 racing season Souders behind the wheel of the ‘Schuck Special’ competed several times at the ‘new’ ½ mile oiled dirt Hoosier Motor Speedway which was located at the intersection of 38th street and Pendleton Pike on what is today Indianapolis’ near east side. George qualified twelfth fastest in the ‘Schuck Special’ the day before the scheduled July 4th 100-lap race which was rained out. The race was rescheduled for July 7th but was rained out again. 

Souders was one of 27 drivers listed as entrants for the 100-lap race rescheduled for Saturday August 4 1923.  The entries were to winnowed down through qualifying and heat races and apparently Souders was not among the eleven drivers that started the feature race   Earl Warrick in his own blue-hued car won the 100-mile grind in a time of 56 minutes and 15 seconds.

The Indianapolis Star reported that Warrick grabbed the race lead on the eighth lap and led the rest of the way and finished more than a lap ahead of second place finisher Chance Kinsley. Kinsley, who was the Hoosier Speedway track record holder in a Frontenac-Ford racer owned by Arthur Chevrolet, will be the subject of a future article on this site.    


George Souders’ racing results for 1924 are spotty and both the results the author uncovered came from the same track, the ½ mile dirt oval at the Macon County fairgrounds in Decatur Illinois. On September 23, George was the fastest qualifier in his #401 ‘Souders Special’ as he toured the oval in 33.2 seconds, then won the five-mile “fast” heat race and the 20-mile feature race

The following month on Saturday afternoon October 11, Souders who listed his hometown as Covington, a border town about 50 miles southwest of Lafayette, scored a second consecutive Macon County ‘clean sweep’ behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Special. George set the day’s quick time in qualifying as he sped around the oval in 31-9/10 seconds, and then won the first five-mile heat race and the 20-mile feature race over Charles “Dutch” Baumann.  


The 1925 season found Souders racing in Texas on the successful AAA southwestern circuit overseen by Abilene petroleum transporter D. H. Jefferies.  July 4 saw George racing on the dirt track at the West Texas Fairgrounds at Abilene “considered one of the best and safest dirt tracks in the country” in a “specially built Chevrolet special” owned by car dealer Earl Warrick of Covington Indiana.   

Souders who listed Lafayette Indiana as his home earned $1,200 in winnings on July 4 after he won both his 10-mile race and the 25-mile feature race. In local newspaper advertisements in the weeks following his victory, Souders credited his racing success to his use of gasoline from the Texhoma Oil and Refining Company of Wichita Falls, Texas and the fact that his car was shod with Dayton ‘Thorobred’ tires.
George Souders in his #401 Chevrolet Special in 1925
courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

On August 8 1925 Souders raced in the AAA-sanctioned event on the 5/8-mile dirt track in Breckinridge Texas as part of the two-day opening of the “Oil Belt Fair” track that featured auto races and an aviation show. John Lee of San Angelo Texas was the day’s fast qualifier in Hoosier John Mais’ 16-valve ‘Dodge Special’ with Souders second fastest in his ‘Chevrolet Special.’ 

George won the second five-lap heat race over Harry Milburn in a Duesenberg with John Mais third in his own ‘Hudson Special.’  Souders won the 10-mile feature race over the two Mais-owned machines with Lee second and Mais third.  There were automobile races held the following day with many of the same drivers, but Souders was not mentioned in published reports of the race won by hometown driver Bob Stillwell.

In a race held on Wednesday afternoon September 23 1925 the “California Phenom” Frank Lockhart lowered his own West Texas Fairgrounds track record by 2 1/5 seconds as he circulated twice around the 5/8-mile track in 67 1/5 seconds.  George Souders meanwhile qualified fifth with a time of 69 2/5 seconds then finished as the runner-up to Lockhart in the first 10-mile 16-lap race for the day’s eight fastest cars. Lockhart won the day’s 30-mile 48-lap finale and led second-place finisher Souders across the finish line by 37 seconds.

Friday afternoon October 5 1925 found Souders racing on the Haskell County Fair Speedway in Haskell Texas about 50 miles north of his new hometown of Abilene. George qualified third fastest behind the new track record holder John Gerber, considered to be the original ‘outlaw’ racer. Souders won the second five-mile heat race on the 5/8-mile dirt oval then placed third in the fifteen-mile feature race and won $75.

George Souders closed out his 1925 season far west of his adopted hometown of Austin Texas as he raced on Christmas Day in Douglas Arizona on the 7/8 mile Cochise County Fairgrounds track. Souders finished fifth in the 50-mile race behind the winner, local driver Jimmy Randolph.

Part two of our series will trace George Souders’ path to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Thanks to fellow historian Bob Lawrence for providing information on several races during Souders’ 1925 season. Readers are encouraged to check out Bob’s work at http://kansasracinghistory.com/



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