The early history of lap prizes for the Indianapolis 500-mile race
Solicitation for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway International 500-mile race lap prize fund in 1931 must have been daunting, given the deepening economic depression that gripped the United States. Bowman Elder, son-in-law of multi-millionaire entrepreneur William Fortune took over as committee chairman. The committee met on May 1 and announced that they expected to close the books on the fund on May 20.
The fund fell well short with a total of $11,150 collected. The distribution as described in the Indianapolis Star, included payment from lap one to 17 inclusive. Thereafter every odd numbered lap paid through lap 81, then laps 82, 84 and 85 each paid $100, while lap 83 only paid $50. The fund paid $100 for every odd numbered lap from 87 to lap 200.
Rookie Paul Bost started from the outside of the front row in the Empire State Special and led the first two laps and banked $200. Bill Cummings took the point for four laps, then Richard “Billy” Arnold and his riding mechanic William “Spider” Matlock took the point until they crashed out and were injured on lap 162, and Arnold collected $8,550 in lap money.
After Arnold’s crash, Indianapolis native Louis Schneider in the hometown sponsored ‘Bowes Seal Fast Special’ inherited the lead, led the rest of the way and won. Although Schneider led 39 laps, because of the odd distribution of the fund, he only added $2,000 in lap money to his $27,500 in prize and accessory winnings.
Bowman Elder served as the lap prize fund committee chairman for the second consecutive year, but due to the economic depression, the lap prize fund again did not reach its goal despite Henry and Edsel Ford each giving $2500. The final fund distribution was very confusing, with no lap prizes were earned until lap four then the even-numbered laps paid out until the fund total was exhausted. It is unclear who was behind the new provision which stated that the prize money for laps run under the yellow flag had to be reallocated to “competitive laps.”
The fund presented $10,700 to the drivers at the victory dinner held at the Indianapolis Athletic Club which Elder chaired with toastmaster Paul Richey. Six drivers shared in lap prizes. Winner Fred Frame in the Harry Hartz-owned car won $3,800, while his teammates Arnold and Matlock injured in a crash for the second consecutive year won $2,800 for leading 59 laps.
Hoosier rookie driver Bob Carey took home $1,800 in lap money while fellow Legion Ascot Speedway star Ernie Triplett earned $700 for leading 14 laps. Ira Hall, the former prizefighter from Terre Haute Indiana who claimed to have survived 43 accidents, led six laps and received $200, while Wilbur Shaw collected $1400 after he led 27 laps, the first laps led in his august career at Indianapolis.
With the nation in a terrible economic depression with nearly 25% unemployment, there was no mention in the press about the make-up of the committee or details of the solicitation for the lap prize fund. The race itself became a very low-key event – instead of a dinner, prizes for the 21st annual International 500-mile Sweepstakes were handed out the afternoon following the race by “Pop” Myer on the sidewalk in front of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway office at 444 North Capitol Avenue. ‘500’ winner Louis Meyer collected just $18,000 and the keys to a new Ford sedan for his second 500-mile race victory
The lap prize fund totaled just $3,150, with Meyer the big lap prize winner with $850 for leading 71 laps. “Babe” Stapp who led 60 laps before his Boyle Special ran out of fuel on lap 156 earned $800, while Bill Cummings got the same amount for leading 32 laps. Even more confusing is the case of defending champion Fred Frame who received $700 for leading 37 laps.
The economic situation of the nation continued to serious affected automobile racing as the American Automobile Association (AAA) National Championship included just four races in 1934 – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the mile dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, the dirt ‘Moody Mile’ in Syracuse New York and the December road course race at Mines Field in Los Angeles.
On May 23rd, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that all the lap prize money would be paid after the halfway point of the race “as a means of preventing the drivers of fast cars from burning up their mounts in the early stages.” This made some sense, since $100 in 1934 is equivalent to nearly $2000 today, but pushing it past the half-way mark also meant the lap prize fund need not be as well-funded.
The 1934 lap prize fund totaled $4,225, and only four drivers led during the 1934 International 500-mile Sweepstakes – Cavino “Kelly” Petillo, the pole position winner, led the first six laps which paid him nothing. The race then settled into a three-way battle between Mauri Rose, Frank Brisko in the Miller-built Four Wheel Drive Special and Bill Cummings in the Boyle Miller.
The manner of the distribution of the 1934 fund remains unknown, but Brisko, who led four laps after the halfway point, banked a reported $1,300, while runner-up Rose who led 46 laps after the 250-mile mark received a check for $1,300, while the race winner Cummings who led 50 laps late in the race, including the final 26 laps, got a check for $1,625.
Automotive industry pioneer Joseph McDuffee, the President of the Prest-O-Lite Storage Battery Company, served as the chairman of the 1935 “Appreciation Lap Prize Fund” committee. A report from an Indianapolis Real Estate Board luncheon published in the May 24 1935 edition of the Indianapolis Star shows how badly the Lap Prize Fund suffered during the great Depression.
In his address to the realtors gathered at the Hotel Washington, Indianapolis Motor Speedway General Manager Ted “Pop” Myers reported that of the 40-1/2 laps funded, only 8-1/2 laps came from Indianapolis contributors. Myers suggested that “a local live committee of representatives” be formed to create city support.
The eight local supporters include the Wheeler’s Lunch restaurant chain (their donation in the form of 1,095 meals), the L. Strauss and L. S. Ayres department store chains, Indiana Bell Telephone, the Prest-O-Lite company, the Claypool Hotel, the Allen A. Wilkinson Lumber Company, and the Vonnegut Hardware Company founded by the great-grandfather of the author.
In his speech to the Realtors luncheon, the 1925 500-mile race winner, Peter DePaolo, predicted that within two or three years “stock cars” (meaning semi-stock entries) would dominate the race. DePaolo’s crystal ball proved bit hazy, as the “Junk Formula” ear ended after the 1937 race.
Donors included Bendix Aviation for three laps, while the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation and the Champion Spark Plug Company paid for two laps each. The Norge Appliance Company of Detroit posted $200 for the leader of lap ten plus the race winner received a Norge Refrigerator. While this might seem like an odd sponsorship, in 1915 as a young man, Norge’s President Howard Blood worked with Louis Chevrolet on the ground-breaking Cornelian racing car that featured monocoque construction and 4-wheel independent suspension
The 1935 ‘500’ lap prizes were assigned randomly throughout the race. In addition to Norge’s sponsorship of the tenth lap, the American Automobile Association (AAA) sponsored lap 12, while the Ford Motor Company sponsored five laps – laps 40, 60, 105, 100 and 180.
“Pop’s” advice to the Realtors went unheeded and the 1935 Appreciation lap prize fund topped out at $4,250 with the proceeds divided among four drivers at the Indianapolis Citizen’s Committee Appreciation Dinner held at the Indianapolis Athletic Club. In addition to the drivers, the dinner featured among its honored guests, aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who served as the race referee, movie stars Monroe Owsley and James Dunn, boat racer Gar Wood, and Elmer Baumgarten, secretary of the American Bowling Congress.
Race winner Kelly Petillo in his own ‘Gilmore Speedway Special’ won $2,050 in lap prizes, while Rex Mays led 89 laps in the first half of the race before a steering knuckle broke on the ‘Gilmore Special’ on lap 123, earned $2,000 in lap prizes. “Babe” Stapp raced the Marks-Miller entry out front on lap 140 and collected $100 from the Plymouth Motor Company, while Wilbur Shaw, runner-up race finisher for the second time in three years, led lap 65 and collected the $100 posted by the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation.
On May 12th 1936 the officials of the Chamber of Commerce announced the new high-powered members of the Appreciation Lap Prize Fund committee, led by A. L. Block of the L. Strauss Company, Fred Ayres represented his family’s department store chain, along with P. R Mallory, of the eponymous battery and switch company, Roy Adams of the J. D. Adams Road Grader manufacturing company, and A. E Sinclair of the Kingan meat-packing company.
Automotive industry members included McDuffee of Prest-O-Lite repeating as the committee chairman, joined by Jesse Vincent of Packard, Jeffery DeWiitt of Champion Spark Plug and Louis Schwitzer.
According the Indianapolis Star, expectations were high for larger fund than previous years. Herman Deupree, a local public relations representative and secretary for the committee, reported that the fund already contained $2,000, according to an article published in the following day’s Star newspaper. Alas, the May 29th Indianapolis Star carried the news that the fund topped out at $5,500.
The AAA sponsored lap five, the first paid lap. Locally, the downtown seven-story Marott Shoe store on Massachusetts Avenue donated $100 for lap 110, while the medical supply firm, the Akron Surgical Supply House, sponsored lap 185. The automotive industry strongly supported the appreciation fund as the Ford Motor Company paid for five laps, while Chrysler, Dodge, DeSoto and Plymouth each bought a single lap sponsorship, as did Charles “Boss” Kettering.
The fund distribution spread out over the race with $1400 paid over the first hundred miles, followed by another $1400 in the second hundred miles, while the laps during the third hundred mile segment paid $1200. The leaders of laps during the fourth hundred miles collected prizes that totaled $800, with $500 paid out over the last hundred miles. While there was no prize posted for leading the race’s final lap, this race began the tradition of the race winner being presented the Pace Car, in this case the 1936 Packard 120.
The 500-mile race’s first three-time winner, Louis Meyer, won $1,900 in lap prizes with Wilbur Shaw close behind with $1,800. “Babe” Stapp collected $1,100 in lap money before his entry retired on lap 89, while second place finisher Ted Horn banked $400 and Rex Mays whose car ran out of fuel with less than ten laps to go, earned $300 in lap prizes.
In our next installment of the early lap prize story we will examine the final years under the Speedway ownership of Eddie Rickenbacker.