Great Moments in American Auto Racing


By Matt Christopher

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The history of auto racing is chock-full of famous moments, with big-name drivers like Mario Andretti and Jeff Gordon. The histories of the Indy 500 and Daytona 500 races are rich with legendary drivers, family dynasties, rivalries, and tragedies. Fans of this sport are truly loyal and fanatical, and readers will eat up all the descriptions of nail-biting moments of tension.

Packed with facts and action, this is a book young NASCAR fans will reach for again and again — and because it comes from Matt Christopher, young readers know they’re getting the best sports writing on the shelf.


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Rev 'Em Up!

Have you ever dreamed of driving a car that can go more than two hundred miles per hour? If so, then you might be the next champion car racer. But what kind of car do you imagine yourself driving: open-wheeled or stock? Do you know the differences?

Open-wheeled race cars look very different from everyday cars. The wheels are set alongside the body of the car rather than below and are not covered by fenders. The chassis (the car's framework and body) rides low and has front and rear wings to help the car hug the pavement. These single-seaters offer little cover above the driver.

In the United States, these racers are called Indy cars. They get their name from the most famous race they enter—the Indianapolis 500. Every Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of thousands of fans flock to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana to watch the best Indy car drivers test their skills on the oval course.

Unlike Indy cars, stock cars look like regular cars. That's the only "regular" thing about them! These racers are made to take the beating of hundreds of fast-paced miles. Their engines are superpowered, and their chassis are built to minimize drag and maximize safety. Even the tires are different—they're filled with nitrogen, not air, so that they won't explode as they heat up on the track.

Stock car events in the United States are run by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. The highlight of NASCAR's year is the Daytona 500. Like its cousin in Indianapolis, the Daytona 500 attracts the finest drivers of its sport and fills the stands of the Daytona International Speedway with countless cheering fans.

These two races share many similarities. They're the same distance: 500 miles, or 200 laps. The Indy 500 is also known as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." The Daytona is called "The Great American Race." Each holds qualifying laps to determine which driver gets the best starting position, called the pole. Both races use a system of colored and patterned flags to tell the drivers when to go, slow down, or stop and when the race has been won. The races both start with a pace car leading the field once around the track so that the drivers can begin from a rolling, rather than a standing, start.

But not much else about these two events is the same. Thirty-three cars participate in the Indy 500; 43 race in the Daytona 500. The Indy 500 takes place on Memorial Day every May; leading up to the race is Festival 500, a month of activities that celebrate cars and past races. The Daytona 500 is in mid-February after Speed Weeks, a two-week-long NASCAR extravaganza that includes sports cars and truck racing plus two days of qualifiers. Daytona drivers are typically from the United States, while the field of Indy drivers is more international.

Now, maybe you already count yourself as a fan of car racing. But if you want to know even more about the most exciting moments of the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, then put on your seat belt, rev your engine—and speed into the pages of this book!




The Brickyard

Carl Fisher, owner of a car headlight company, had an idea. He wanted people to come to his home-town, Indianapolis, Indiana, to buy cars. If they did, then he'd sell more headlights.

But how could he get people to come? That was the big question.

The answer, Fisher believed, lay in car racing. Car racing had been around almost as long as cars themselves. The first gasoline-powered car was built sometime between 1885 and 1886 by German manufacturer Karl Friedrich Benz. The first race took place on June 22, 1894, when 21 cars drove for first place from Paris to Rouen in France. A year later, the United States held its first race, a round-trip journey in Illinois from Chicago to Evanston and back.

Hundreds of car enthusiasts followed these and later events closely, either in person or through newspaper accounts. By the early 1900s, car racing had become a very popular sport, generating huge crowds of rabid fans. Fisher wanted to bring that fan base to Indianapolis. So in 1904, he decided to build a state-of-the-art racetrack there.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a two-and-a-half-mile oval with four banked corners and a surface of tar covered with crushed stone, opened three years later. On August 19, 1909, the track held one of its first events, a 300-mile race.

It was a disaster.

As the race progressed, the track disintegrated. The asphalt melted under the hot sun. The crushed-stone surface became unstable. One car skidded off the track and flipped, killing the driver and his riding mechanic. Another mechanic and two spectators died later when a blown tire sent a car lunging into the stands. When yet another accident occurred, officials canceled the remaining laps and closed the track.

Fisher knew he had to do something to save his Speedway. Since the surface was the problem, he repaved the oval with 3.2 million bricks.

"The Brickyard," as the Speedway was now nicknamed, held three small events in 1910. In 1911, Fisher focused on one spectacular 500-mile race. The distance was determined by the number of hours (seven) he guessed spectators would watch cars race multiplied by the cars' top speed (seventy-five miles per hour). He chose May 30, Memorial Day, for the first Indianapolis 500-Mile International Sweepstakes.

Forty drivers entered the event. One was Ray Harroun, who sat behind the wheel of the Wasp, the only single-seater in the race. Back then, there were two men in every race car—the driver and the riding mechanic, who helped keep the car going and warned the driver of approaching cars.

Instead of a riding mechanic, Harroun had the first-ever rearview mirror, which he invented. It didn't work very well.

"The thing vibrated so much I couldn't see out of it," he admitted.

The resurfaced track was a big improvement, and the cars chewed up the course. By mile 300, Harroun and Ralph Mulford had left the others behind. Then Harroun was stopped with a blown tire. When he entered his pit (an offtrack area where cars stop to refuel and be repaired), Mulford roared past—and then hit the pits with his own tire troubles!

While Mulford pitted, Harroun recaptured the lead. After six hours, forty-two minutes, and eight seconds, he crossed the finish line to become the first winner of the Indy 500.

But had he really won? Mulford argued that he had lapped Harroun during Harroun's tire change. Therefore, he was the winner, not Harroun.

His protests fell on deaf ears. Mulford accepted the verdict with grace—although he always believed that he was the true victor.

Just 24 cars lined up for the second Indy 500. Among them was the Gray Ghost, a Mercedes driven by dirt-track champion Ralph DePalma. With his riding mechanic Rupert Jeffkins at his side—a rule change now required a second man in every car—DePalma sped to the front, where he stayed for the next 194 laps!

Then, in lap 197, the Ghost began to backfire. With less than a mile to go, it quit altogether. DePalma and Jeffkins refused to give up. They jumped out and pushed the Mercedes across the finish line!

Their heroic efforts didn't count for anything, though. The rules stated that cars had to cross the line under their own power. Joe Dawson was declared the victor after having led for only two laps—the least number of any Indy 500 winner ever.

The next two Indys were won by Frenchmen, first Jules Goux and then René Thomas. In 1915, DePalma took the lead when, in a bizarre repeat of the 1912 race, his Mercedes began to buck with just three laps remaining. Luckily, the car finished without help, earning DePalma his only Brickyard victory.

The 1916 race was unusual because its distance was shortened to 300 miles. World War I was raging throughout Europe, and while the United States had yet to enter the conflict, the country had little time or money for racing. The victor, Dario Resta, is the only driver to win the Indy "300."

In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. The track closed until 1918, when the international conflict ended.

The first postwar Indy 500 was won by Howard "Howdy" Wilcox of Indianapolis with a track record average speed of 88.05 miles per hour. That same day, René Thomas reached the fastest speed ever in the race, 104.8 miles per hour. Sadly, their accomplishments were overshadowed by the deaths of drivers Arthur Thurman and Louis LeCocq, whose accidents were caused by the increased speeds. A mechanic was also killed in the explosion that engulfed LeCocq's car; another was badly injured but survived.

In 1920, Ralph DePalma nearly made history as the first driver to win twice at the Brickyard. He was in the lead when his engine burst into flames. DePalma continued to drive while his mechanic (and nephew), Pete DePaolo, crawled onto the hood and put out the flames.

Meanwhile, Gaston Chevrolet roared into the lead. He had almost run out of gas, but a quick fuel stop solved the problem, allowing Chevrolet to cross the finish line in first place.

Tragically, seven months later, Chevrolet was killed in a racing accident in California. Tommy Milton, the driver hired by Arthur and Louis Chevrolet to take their brother Gaston's place, won the Indy 500 the following year—an amazing achievement considering he was nearly blind!



"That's a Duesey!"

In 10 years, the average speed at the Brickyard had risen from 75 to 90 miles per hour. In 1922, that number jumped to 95. The winning car, driven by Jimmy Murphy, was designed by brothers August and Fred Duesenberg.

Innovative designs make good race cars—and, as Tommy Milton discovered, innovation sometimes keeps good cars running. He was tearing up the oval in 1923 when his gas-tank cap fell off. His pit crew didn't have a replacement, so someone wrapped an orange with thick tape and shoved it into the tank opening! Milton zoomed over the finish line—and into the history books as the first driver to win two Indianapolis 500s.

"Two" was the number of drivers it took to win the 1924 race. Lora L. Corum and Joe Boyer were each driving Duesenberg cars. Boyer was running well ahead of the pack until engine trouble knocked his car out of the race.

Meanwhile, the more cautious Corum stayed in the middle. That upset Fred Duesenberg. When Corum pulled off to pit in lap 109, Duesenberg ordered him out of the car—and put Boyer back in the race in Corum's place!

"Put it in front or burn it up," Duesenberg instructed Boyer. Boyer obeyed, speeding from behind to victory. Because Corum had driven for half the race, however, he shared the win with Boyer.

Pete DePaolo was at the helm of a Duesenberg the next year. His uncle, Ralph DePalma, was also on the track. Neither was thinking about the other when the green flag waved; they were thinking about speed!

And at the 1925 Indy 500, speed was king. DePaolo and two other drivers surpassed the 100-mile-per-hour mark.

DePaolo was near the lead throughout the first half. It took great effort to stay there; his hands became badly blistered from the steering wheel and needed medical attention. So Duesenberg replaced him temporarily.

"My heart ached to see my baby rolling away from the pits without me," DePaolo recalled.

Once behind the wheel again, DePaolo streaked into the lead and crossed the finish line at 4:56:39, the fastest time ever. His average speed of 101.127 was also a track record that stood for the next seven years.


On Sale
May 10, 2011
Page Count
144 pages

Matt Christopher

About the Author

Matt Christopher is the best-selling name behind more than 100 sports-themed books for young readers.

Learn more about this author