Monday, April 24, 2017

George Souders the story of the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner
Part two

George Souders' portrait in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
part of the collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

The subject of this article George Souders was honored with a plaque placed by the Indiana Racing Memorial Association (IRMA) at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds in Lafayette Indiana on April 21 2017. In part two  of our series, we look back at the 1926 season exploits of the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner, George Souders of Lafayette, Indiana.

George Souders opened his 1926 racing season on January 3 at the one-mile 143 foot long fairgrounds oval in Albuquerque New Mexico for a $1500 program that opened with a 10-lap race followed by a 15-lap affair held an hour later and then topped by a fifty-mile feature race. 

Souders retired from the 10-mile race with a slipping clutch but returned to win the second 15-lap race. Souders then dominated the feature as he led 49 of the 50-lap race and crossed the finish line in a time of 49 minutes flat for an average speed of 62.8 miles per hour (MPH).

On May 30 1926 George Souders returned to the fairgrounds in Albuquerque for a smiliar three-race program with nine other cars and drivers. Souders was of course considered the pre-race favorite after his domination of the January races at the same track. Souders and A. A. Womack were entered with their Chevrolets in a field that also boasted a Duesenberg, a pair of Hudsons, and several Frontenac-Fords.

The afternoon’s scheduled program opened with time trials with two of the eleven entries were eliminated during qualifying. The engine in Johnnie Mais’ car suffered burnt bearings and Chuck Anderson was disqualified by referee Frank Vallely after Anderson spun out on three successive laps. ‘Slim’ Harper with his Mais entry sidelined by mechanical troubles took over Anderson’s car and proceeded to set the fastest time - a new track record of 46 seconds flat.

Souders swept the balance of the program as he won all three races. George led the 10-mile race from start to finish followed by Harry Milburn with Gallup’s Johnny (Gianni) Biava in third place. 3,000 fans watched as nine cars started the second 15-mile race and Biava led the first three laps before Souders took the lead which he never relinquished. As Biava tried to keep up the pace he crashed on the race’s eighth lap and his Frontenac-Ford racer crashed through the wooden fence and flipped twice in the air as it rolled down the embankment while Biava was thrown clear.

The Albuquerque Morning Journal reported that Biava landed 120 feet from the track and broke his left arm and shoulder.  His doctor told the paper Sunday night the Biava would survive his injuries but that his left arm would be permanently stiffened. Souders dominated the seven-car 50-mile feature which was marked by a high attrition rate as only Souders and second place finisher Milburn completed the distance.  Souders earned a reported $1250 for his day’s work.

July 5 1926 found George racing at the familiar West Texas Fair Speedway in Abilene Texas for the American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned sixth annual “Speed Classic of the South.” Besides Souders, the other “foremost racing stars” entered included Fred Lecklider, Frank Lockhart, and Texans Elbert ‘Babe’ Stapp and Harry Milburn. Lockhart has committed to race in Abilene before his Indianapolis victory, but the AAA Contest Board ruled that Frank had to keep his commitment rather than race his championship car at Rockingham Speedway in New Hampshire.

Following the afternoon races, fans were encouraged to go to nearby Lytle Beach for the second annual “Bathing Girl Revue,” which also featured swimming and diving contests and fireworks.
George Souders' poses in his #401 Chevrolet courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

During a practice run on Sunday July 4, Souders’ #401 Chevrolet suffered a damaged radiator after he hit the inside rail and the car rolled over, but the damage was quickly repaired   On July 5 during morning time trials Frank Lockhart earned a $25 bonus as he lowered his nine-month old track record by 2-1/5 seconds as he completed two laps around the 5/8-mile track in 65 seconds.

Souders failed to complete his July 5 qualifying run, as his car’s engine reportedly broke three pistons. The day‘s second fastest qualifier was Lecklider at 68 4/5 while Babe Stapp qualified two cars, Ralph Hamlin’s front wheel drive Frontenac-Ford powered entry at 71 1/5 seconds in sixth place and a Duesenberg (possibly owned by William White) at 71 4/5 seconds for seventh position.

Souders’ Chevrolet engine was repaired in time for him to make a qualifying attempt after the day’s third race, a 20-mile race won by Lockhart. George ran two laps in a time of 72-4/5 seconds and then lined up to start fourth in the fourth race of the day, a 15-mile 24-lap affair. As described the following day in the Abilene Daily Reporter, “Genial George” Souders staged a race-long duel with Colorado’s ‘Slim’ Harper in John Mais’ 16-valve ‘Dodge Special’ that brought the capacity crowd of 10 to 12 thousand fans to their feet.

As the cars started their eighteenth lap, Souders forged into the lead ahead of Harper and held on to win the $500 purse in a record time for the distance of fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. Lockhart won the final race of the day, shortened to thirty miles, in his Miller followed by Lecklider in a similar machine. Souders wound up third in the feature trailed by Milburn’s Duesenberg.  For his efforts in Abilene Lockhart won a total of $1675, this included besides his qualifying bonus, $1000 for the 30-mile race win and $650 for his 20-mile race victory.

George Souders was listed as one of “winners of races held in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico” in advertising that promoted the $2000 ‘Southwest Classic’ on Sunday  August 29 on the one-mile 143 foot long fairgrounds track in Albuquerque.  Among the other “twelve dirt track champions“ listed as entrants for the race were Jimmy Randolph, ‘Slim’ Harper, Harry Milburn and the California racing brothers Ray and Chester “Chet” Gardner. Advance advertisements in the Albuquerque Journal newspaper in the days leading up to the race stated that the adult admission of $1.50 was “remarkably low- 75% lower than AAA races elsewhere.” 

Despite being pre-entered, Souders’ name did not appear in the results listed in the Albuquerque Journal article on August 30. Only ten cars took place in time trials as Dick Calhoun re-set the “southwest record” to 43 2/5 seconds at the mile post which was later matched by Californian Cliff Bergere in a Miller. To decide the winner of the silver cup trophy, the two drivers flipped a coin and Calhoun called it properly.

The racing events that followed were plagued by dusty track conditions but no accidents occurred. Bergere took the lead from Millburn during the first lap then cruised to victory in the 30-mile feature.  Other races that day were won by Chet Gardner and Lee while Jimmy Randolph the Arizona champion was a non-factor as his car suffered from carburetor trouble all day

On Labor Day, Monday September 6 Souders in his Chevrolet Special finished second behind Dick Calhoun in races held at Cushing Speedway Park in Cushing Oklahoma near a small town mid-way between Tulsa and Oklahoma City which had been hosting races since 1921.

After he attended the ‘Detroit 100’ in early September AAA zone representative and race promoter DH Jefferies announced he had secured agreements for a stout field of entries for the upcoming races at the West Texas Fair in Abilene on Wednesday September 22 and Friday the 24th.  In addition to Souders and Calhoun, Fred Frame, ‘Babe’ Stapp and Peter DePaolo, the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner, were scheduled to appear.

The Abilene Daily Reporter dubbed these men “the Big Five” who would compete in a five-race program topped with 20-mile feature race. DePaolo, although not known for his dirt track prowess, was signed to drive a new Miller “especially built for dirt tracks” owned by Hollywood millionaire William S. White. Stapp was entered as the driver of a Chrysler Special owned by EM Little of Abilene while Calhoun was scheduled with the ‘Gallivan Special.’ Fred Frame was entered in the Miller driven in Abilene in 1925 by Lockhart along with Souders in his #401 Chevrolet Special. Other entrants included ‘Slim’ Harper in the Mais’ ‘Dodge Special’ and Breckinridge driver Bob Stillwell.   

Qualifying runs were held each day not to set starting positions but to offer a $50 prize offered to the driver who could break Lockhart’s track record of 65 seconds flat for two laps around the 5/8-mile dirt oval. On Wednesday twelve cars took times but none broke the record; the qualifiers were led by Fred Frame at 66-3/5 seconds, with Souders third fastest, Chet Gardner fourth and DePaolo fifth.

Calhoun won the day’s first five mile race start set by draw for the eight fastest cars (barring Millers) over Souders. Chet Gardner emerged as the day’s big winner with $840 in winnings as he won the ten-mile heat for specially built speedway cars which featured two separate crashes involving Calhoun and Frame. Gardner capped off his successful day with his victory in the day’s 20-mile feature race.

The following day’s Abilene Morning News described DePaolo as “outclassed” and noted “he could not keep in step with the dirt track artists,” with a best finish of second place in the 20-mile Speedway car dash.  The characterization was accurate, as DePaolo was much better racer on the high-speed board tracks as opposed to dirt tracks.

George Souders was running in third place during the third 10-mile race when the connection to the fuel tank in his Chevrolet broke and knocked him out of that race. With repairs made, Souders dueled with Gardner for the lead in the 20-mile speedway car dash before his Chevrolet engine broke a connecting rod on the 27th lap and finished him for the day.  

Scarcely mentioned in the next day’s race report was the death of Freeman Midyett whose #111 Frontenac Ford crashed through the outside rail in the third turn on the first lap of the second race. Midyett a 32-year old driver from Breckinridge Texas was thrown from his car as it tumbled down the embankment.  Suffering with a fractured skull, Freeman was rushed to the West Texas Baptist Sanitarium where he was pronounced dead at 4:15 PM, four hours after the accident. Several drivers donated their winnings from the race to Midyett’s widowed mother and the West Texas Fair Association paid his funeral expenses.

For the September 24 1926 Friday afternoon races in Abilene, George Souders replaced Peter DePaolo in the seat of Bill White’s yellow Miller racer. Souders led the field in the day’s third race until lap 12 when lubrication problems forced the Miller out. Souders returned for the day’s longest race the 25-mile feature but once again the Miller was beset with oiling troubles and dropped out before the finish.

Harry Milburn the Fort Worth driver captured the feature race win and banked $650 while Dick Calhoun earned the title of the day’s unluckiest driver. Calhoun captured the five-mile heat race and the 15-mile race but then he crashed his $3000 Frontenac Ford after a spindle broke during the 25-mile finale.  Calhoun was initially reported as killed in the accident but upon arrival at the West Texas Baptist Sanitarium he was found to have suffered no broken bones, only “minor internal injuries.” To add insult to his injuries, in the crash Calhoun reportedly lost the $300 cash in his pocket which he had won in Wednesday’s races.

Although his results with Miller in the second day of races at Abilene were disappointing, Souders’ career had taken a major leap forward as he had established himself with car owner William S. White.  A mysterious “Hollywood millionaire,” the source and extent of White’s fortune remains murky to racing historians. Some sources attribute it to his family’s Hawaiian fruit business, while others suggest much darker and more sinister sources of income.

White owned “big cars” in the early nineteen twenties with drivers that included Jack Petticord, Harlan Fengler and Leon Duray. According to National Sprint Car Hall of Fame historian Tom Schmeh, White first entered a car in the International 500-mile Sweepstakes at Indianapolis in 1927 for Harlan Fengler. White continued through the years to enter cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as late as 1947 and promoted a number of post-war races at several venues across the Los Angeles basin.   

On September 28 1926 Souders and the White Miller were entered in the races held in conjunction with the Oil Belt Fair. Souder was the quickest qualifier turning two laps around the 5/8-mile oval with a total time of 74-2/5 seconds, and then placed second in the first 7-½ mile race behind Fred Frame’s Miller. A sudden downpour hit the track during the feature and starter DH Jefferies stopped the event on the twentieth lap of the 24-lap 15-mile race. Fred Frame was 100 yards ahead of Souders with Chet Gardner a close third place. When track conditions caused Jefferies to declare the race official, Frame was awarded a $400 purse while Souders earned $200.    

Souders was entered in the Miller in the races held on October 9 and 10 as part of the Tri-State Fair on the 5/8-mile dirt track in Amarillo Texas, while his “Souders Special” was entered for driver Roy Meachum, but the author could find no results for those races. 
As the year 1926 drew to a close, Souders was entered in Bill White’s Duesenberg along with Harry Milburn, Fred Frame, the Gardner brothers, “Slim” Harper, the recovered Dick Calhoun and Jimmy Randolph for the New Year’s Day fairgrounds races in Albuquerque New Mexico. The four-race auto racing program was to be part of a two-day show with an American Motorcycle Association (AMA) motorcycle race scheduled for January 2 1927.  

In our next installment we will relate the story of Souders’ success in 1927 and his career as the reigning Indianapolis king. Thanks to fellow historian Bob Lawrence for providing information on the results of several races during Souders’ 1926 season. Readers are encouraged to check out Bob’s work at

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