I found this article by Frank Buhrman about some events from the old days. I thought it was a pretty good read.
The Start of the 1949 Indy 500
Article by Frank Buhrman
Spent a little time today browsing through a copy of the August 1949 issue of Speed Age magazine, perhaps the first magazine devoted to racing (1947-56). (See note below for more information.) Had I bought it new, it would have cost a quarter (or $3.00 for a year’s subscription). I’d love to see a copy of its 1949 Racing Album, a 108-page review of the 1948 season with more than 200 photos.
The big news in that issue was the ’49 Indy 500, won by Bill Holland, whose black-and-white photo adorned the magazine’s cover (Speed Age having added a cheesy cartoon crown to his helmet). As I read portions of the story, it quickly came back that “the good old days” sometimes aren’t as positive as rose-colored memories recall them.
I don’t think you’d read accounts of many major 2016 races that would include this: “Pickpockets, prostitutes, professional gamblers and other practitioners of frowned-upon vices conducted their business surreptitiously.” The author declares that most of them ended up “in the local lock-up.” He also notes that the FBI “reportedly was called in” to deal with counterfeit ticket problems.
1949 Indy 500 Winner Bill Holland
The racing was declared to be great, but a driver died in practice, and a couple of others narrowly escaped death during the race. Here’s how George Lynch’s crash was described: “Riding in tenth spot, the Offy rear-drive car went into a spin, slid sickeningly to the upper rail and crashed and rolled over, then scraped on its side toward the apron. Lynch was dragged with it, flopping rag doll fashion.” Somehow, he escaped with a broken ankle, plus cuts and bruises.
That, however, is not what caught my attention. Over in the infield, nearly 100 fans had climbed onto the roof of a rest room, which collapsed, injuring several seriously. Also injured was “the surprised lone occupant, a dentist from Hillsboro, Illinois.”
If you think precarious privies were the worst thing that could happen to a fan, though, think again. Another wreck saw Charlie VanAcker’s car spin, “(roll) wildly for three full sideways somersaults to come to a crunching stop on the infield apron.”
What followed was – to a modern race fan – incredible: “Courageous but foolhardy fans vaulted the fence and rushed through the oncoming cars to VanAcker’s aid. Several cars were forced to swerve to avoid striking the fans, but fortunately, no spectator was injured.” VanAcker also survived.
That was Indy, 1949-style. Meanwhile, down in Georgia . . .
There’s a two-page, 10-photo spread from the famed Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta showing driver Carroll Tillman rolling his Hill Motor Special #44, then opening the door, climbing out and walking away.
Then the car caught fire, and efforts to put the fire out didn’t go too well, so track officials pushed the car into the infield lake (they didn’t call it Lakewood Speedway for nothing). It sank completely. The final photo is of a large crowd at the edge of the lake and seven or eight heads sticking out of the water while the attached bodies presumably are feeling around for the race car. That’s trackside emergency preparedness for you.
I’ve seen some nutty things at the races – the guy at South Boston who poured moonshine on his wooden bleacher seat and then set it on fire to prove its purity (I guess) comes to mind – but collapsing bathrooms, firefighting dunk tanks and fans running across the track during a race aren’t among them, and for that I’m kind of thankful.
(A background note: My copy of Speed Age came from the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing at the Latimore Valley Fairgrounds in York Springs, Pa., where I’m privileged to be a volunteer. It’s a fantastic museum – entirely volunteer-run – and you can see some fantastic old race cars on the 1930s track at the Latimore Valley Fair June 24-26 and the annual convention August 12-14. Lots of people donate racing collections to the museum’s library, and excess publications are sold to raise operating funds. I’ve seen the April 1949 issue of Speed Age offered for sale online for $20; I paid a buck.)