Friday, May 12, 2017

George Souders- the story of the 1927 ‘500’ winner
Part four

George Souders - 1927 Indianapolis 500 champion
Photograph appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

George Souders in Europe

Following his surprising 1927 Indianapolis ‘500’ victory George Souders made only one other AAA (American Automobile Association) 1927 championship appearance at Altoona Pennsylvania in June before he traveled to Europe to compete on the Grand Prix circuit.

In 1927, the Grand Prix circuit was much different than it is today. Organized by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) (translated into English as the International Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs) the 1927 world championship encompassed only five events. The five races began with the Indianapolis 500-mile race followed by the French, Spanish, and European (held in Italy) and ended in October with the British Grand Prix.

Championship points were much different as they awarded to the marque, not the driver. In order to be eligible for the championship the car builder had to participate in at least two races. The manufacturer that scored the lowest point total was awarded the 1927 championship.  Points were awarded to the highest finishing car of each marque with one point for the win, two points for second place and three points for the third finisher. A car that simply finished a race out of the top three earned that its builder four points, while a “did not finish” result was awarded five points and a “no entry” or “no start” earned the team six points,.

The championship was open to single-seat bodied cars with a body having a minimum width of 80 centimeters (31-7/16 inches)  powered by engines not displacing more than 91 ½ cubic inches (1.5 liters).  Duesenberg took the early 1927 AIACR world championship lead by winning the Indianapolis ‘500’, followed by Miller, while the French manufacturers Delage and Bugatti each received six points for their lack of participation. George Fernic was entered in the ‘500’ in a Bugatti, although he failed to make the starting field after his car broke a connecting rod in practice. 

Neither Duesenberg or Miller cars appeared at the French and Spanish Grand Prix events in July, both won by Delage, which after three races left Delage with the points lead with 8 points, followed by Bugatti and Duesenberg tied with thirteen points, as Caberto Conelli’s Bugatti had finished second in Spain. Three American cars appeared at the European Grand Prix held at Monza in Italy – two Millers driven by Earl Cooper and Peter Kreis and Souders in a Duesenberg. Since the American cars’ bodies did not meet the minimum width requirement, the cars raced with crude boxes grafted onto the body to meet the spirit of the AIACR 31-7/16 inch body width rule.   

The September 4th race at Monza with just six entries was run in a rainstorm after a six abreast standing start. Kreis who had qualified third was out after the first lap with a split crankcase, while Souders retired after twelve laps with carburetor and magneto troubles from water intrusion.  Robert Benoist in his supercharged straight-eight double overhead camshaft Delage 155B won his third straight race while Cooper finished in third place with relief from Kreis. At the end of the fourth 1927 season race the championship points tally was Delage leading with nine points, followed by Miller with 17 points and Duesenberg third with 18 points.
Since they had no mathematical chance to capture the championship neither the Miller nor Duesenberg teams appeared at the October 1 British Grand Prix held on the high-speed rough concrete Brooklands track which used part of the high-banked oval. Delage led by Benoist swept the first three places, followed by six Bugatti racers.  

In the final season points tally, Delage captured the world championship with ten markers, followed by Miller with 23 and Duesenberg tied for third with Bugatti with 24 points due to the four points Bugatti earned in the British Grands Prix by Louis Chiron’s finish.  Robert Benoist later received the Legion of Honor medal from the French President for his accomplishment of four straight victories in French-built racing car.

After winning the world championship, Delage dropped out of racing following the 1927 season and sold the racing cars, one of which appeared in the 1929 Indianapolis 500-mile race driven by Louis Chiron.  Benoist who wound up without a Grand Prix ride for the two-race 1928 Grand Prix season later worked for the Bugatti factory and then served with the French Resistance in World War Two before he was captured and executed at the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944.

George Souders in 1928

On February 9 1928 in Fort Worth Texas George Souders married Ruth Heeman identified as his college sweetheart who was also a practicing lawyer in Texas.  The Huntington (Indiana) Herald newspaper of April 21 1928 in an article headlined “Effect of matrimony to be noted,”  revealed that “the young driver who in his first year of big league racing won the International 500-mile race on the most difficult race course in the world has no business worries. His lawyer-wife can negotiate his contracts and other tangled skeins of commercial commotion that cause temperamental and un-businesslike sportsmen more hours of grief and worry than their speed creations.”
George Souders in his 1928 '500' entry
 Photograph appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

George’s entry in the 16th annual International 500-mile Sweepstakes, a two-year old light blue and white trimmed supercharged 91-cubic inch Miller was purchased by William S. White from Harry Hartz. Under Hartz the car was driven by Fred Comer to a fourth place finish in the 1926 ‘500’ and sixth in the 1926 AAA (American Automobile Association) season points, with a total of eight top-five finishes during the season. Eddie Hearne drove the car to a 7th place in the 1927 ‘500’ before the car was sold to White who entered the car for Souders at Indianapolis with sponsorship from the State Auto Mutual Insurance Company of Columbus Ohio.    

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself was under new leadership for 1928 after Captain Eddie Rickenbacker led a group of investors that bought the facility on November 1, 1927.  The defending champion reportedly had early steering problems with the Miller traced to the ½-inch wider new for 1928 Firestone “balloon” tires  Souders but still qualified on the first day of time trials May 26th with a four-lap average of 111.444 miles per hour (MPH). The starting field wound up short of a full field after three days of qualifying, and remained short with only 29 cars even after the track held time trials the morning of the race.  

Starting from the twelfth position on the outside of the fourth row on Decoration Day Souders led race for 16 laps from lap 63 to lap 78, and never ran lower than fourth place after first 100 miles. However, Souders was never in contention for the win due to two added pit stops because of two blown Firestone tires.
Years later Souders, who finished in third place 5-1/2 minutes behind rookie winner Louie Meyer, stated in an Indianapolis Star interview “I should have had my head examined for not driving the Duesy.” The previous year’s winning supercharged Duesenberg, still owned by White was driven to an eighth place finish by Souders’ teammate Fred Frame who also carried State Auto Insurance sponsorship.  

Souders and Bill White’s Miller appeared at the next 1928 AAA championship round on the one-mile dirt oval at the Michigan State Fairgrounds held June 10 in Detroit. The program featured a 100-mile race for the supercharged AAA championship car supplemented by a scheduled 50-mile support race for twelve non-supercharged cars.

Souders qualified in the eighth positon in the 14-car field on a track that had been treated with calcium chloride following three straight days of rain but on the second lap was hit in the mouth by a rock and retired after he completed just two laps. Souders lost his right lateral incisor in the incident and forever after wore a gold tooth in its place.  

On July 4 at the Rockingham Speedway 1-1/4 mile board track in Salem New Hampshire Souders in the #3 Miller failed to qualify for the 14-car starting field as did his teammate Jimmy Gleason in the old Duesenberg. Eleven days later, George appeared at the non-championship “Knights Templar 100” and this second visit to the Michigan State Fairgrounds Detroit nearly cost him his life.

The third week of July 1928 the City of Detroit hosted the 27th triennial conclave of the Knights Templar fraternal organization. In addition to the official ceremonies and the grand parade, boats were chartered for boat rides, and there were water sports, banquets, dancing, airplane trips and guided tours of ten of the city's largest factories.
The Detroit Civic Opera scheduled special performance for the Knights that included one act of "CavIeria Rusticana" and the following night a ballet entitled "Moon God."  Mid-week one thousand children recruited from the city's playfields participated in a special show held on Belle Isle; first was a pageant fore 500 girls followed by a juvenile circus with an equal number of boys.  

The automobile race on Sunday was held in honor of George W. Vallery of Denver the 27th Grand Master of the Knights, who occupied a special band stand built in front of the reserved grandstand for him and his honored guests which included Governor Fred W. Green.  A few days before the race, the Detroit Free Press reported that with the official close of entries, 22 drivers had entered the race but that “late nominations are expected to bring the qualifying field up to 30 or more cars.”

Time trials started at 10 o'clock Sunday morning and concluded at 1 o'clock with the race refereed by AAA President Thomas P. Hardy and long-time AAA Contest Board representative WD “Eddie” Edenburn set to start at 3 PM. Each driver was guaranteed a chance to take one lap alone on the mile track with the fastest 14 cars qualified to start the 100-mile race.

The race records are mostly lost to time, but the account in the Chicago Tribune newspaper stated that Souders came to the pits late in the race while leading. After repairs, Souders left the pit area at high speed and then crashed through the inner guardrail in turn one as his unidentified car “turned over a dozen times and was demolished.”  The Tribune reported that only two cars finished the race; Howard Taylor of Flint Michigan won with an average speed of 73 MPH and Russell ‘Bud’ Marr who lived Detroit finished in second place lap behind Taylor.

Souders thrown from his car during the crash was unconscious when he arrived at the nearby Highland Park General Hospital suffering from a compound skull fracture, broken bones in both arms and severe body contusions. Listed in critical condition doctors were unable to x-ray for internal injuries “due to the condition of the patient.” 

On July 25 1928 an Associated Press article reported in a follow-up article that “x-rays revealed no fractured skull,” and five days later reported that Souders was “still unconscious but reported slightly improved.” Souders apparently remained unconscious for many days, perhaps weeks, and was hospitalized for many months.  Unfortunately Souders’ driving career was finished as a result of the accident. A May 28 1976 Associated Press article entitled “Time not kind to Indy Old-timer,” revealed after the crash in 1928 at Detroit, George’s broken left arm never healed properly, and George said “it fills a coat sleeve is about all.”

Souders after 1928

In February 1929 George Souders formally retired as a racing driver to enter an unidentified business in Columbus Ohio. In a May 28 1929 Associated Press story datelined Columbus Ohio Souders said he was through with racing and glad of it.  “I’m not so homesick for the smell of gasoline that I’d ever drive again,” said George, “it’s a tough racket and I’m glad to get out of it.” It was reported that Souders planned to watch the 1929 Indianapolis ‘500’ from the pit area.   

George’s 1927 ‘500’ winning Duesenberg and his 1928 State Auto Insurance Miller were damaged (or destroyed) in the March 5 1929 Los Angeles Auto Show fire in which more than 300 cars were lost. The remains of the Miller may have been sold to and rebuilt by Leon Duray although historians Michael Ferner and Mark Dees disagree on this point.

December 1929 found Souders living in Fort Worth Texas and according his former hometown newspaper the Abilene Morning News, designing a new car. The article stated Souders would not drive it but “enter it in the bigger events on the national program including the Indianapolis event when it is completed.” Souders, the News said, had returned to Fort Worth after he spent several days visiting DH Jefferies, the AAA official and promoter of many races early in Souders’ career.
George Souders as a former winner was always welcome at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here he is pictured to the left of Speedway “rookie” Pat O’Connor next to Pat’s Lindsey Hopkins entry in 1954. Photograph appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Another article from December 1929 that appeared in the Butte Montana Standard gave a few more details explaining that the Souders design combined “his theoretical engineering training gained at Purdue .with the practical knowledge of a successful career on the track. Out of this combination Souders expects to affect a real powerplant which will not only be practical but conducive to the best results in speeding competition.”

Later the Standard article described a cylinder head Souders was designing, which “will be adaptable to several basic motors now on the market and would make a stock motor conform to racing standards.”  The author could find no record of George Souders entering a car for the Indianapolis 500-mile race, but an article which concerned Souders entry of a car for the 75–mile stock car race at the Roby (Indiana) Speedway on Sunday September 14 1930 noted that “his racing team has been touring the dirt tracks of the country this summer.”

The Indianapolis Star printed a United Press International report that Souders was sued for divorce in Fort Worth Texas, April 12 1933 and that Mrs. Souders, the former Ruth Heeman, sought custody of the couple’s 2-year-old daughter Marianne born in May 1930.  While his ex-wife and daughter remained in Texas George returned to Indiana and worked in a Curtiss-Wright propeller factory in Indianapolis along with driver Adelbert “Al” Putnam during World War Two. Souders later reportedly worked at the Purdue University airport and golf course but was best remembered as operating a service station in Lafayette.

George was photographed in May 1967 on pit lane as he chatted with three-time winner Louis Meyer (left) who won his first ‘500’ in George’s final Indianapolis appearance in 1928. Photograph appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

On December 19 1974 while he was eating breakfast in a local Lafayette restaurant a fire destroyed his three-room mobile home along with all of his old racing trophies. The Indianapolis ‘500’ Old-Timers Club, a benevolent group organized in 1961 by Souders’ old racing compatriot Harry Hartz later purchased Souders a new trailer which was located in a park across Georgetown Road from the first turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The New York Times reported that George aged 75 years was found dead in his apartment in Lafayette on July 26 1976. Survived by his brother, sister, and daughter, George was interred in the Battle Ground Indiana cemetery not far from the farm where he was born in 1900. The man from Battle Ground who went to Texas to establish his name in dirt-track racing then won the fabled 500-mile race in his first try, before injuries tragically ended his career at just 27 years old returned home for his eternal rest.

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