This is an excerpt from a novel I've been working on since 2002. I type at it a while, then put it away. It's set in several parts of Indiana in 1911, and revolves around the first Indanapolis 500 Sweepstakes race. The characters are real people These two sections of the first chapter are unchanged from the original. I can't decide whether I should keep these in this order, or reverse them.
Copyright © 2002, 2006, Michael A. Banks
I. THE DRIVER
Johnny Aitken loved his job, which fact was one of the reasons people called him “Happy Johnny.” He was paid to drive—fast. The National Motor Vehicle Company gave him the munificent sum of twenty-eight dollars per month to demonstrate their cars to customers, drive them in races, and incidentally keep them and the garage where they were stored clean.
Though he had a tendency to get too “happy” at local bars, Aitken knew his business. He had won eight out of 12 races last year, and finished second or third in the rest—not bad for an old man of 45. The wins had all been in a 1910 National 40, and he was determined to drive this year’s Model 40 in the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes. His boss, Arthur Newby, had argued against this, wanting instead to build a special for the race. But Aitken convinced the automaker that winning or placing would be far more impressive in a production car than a race car.
Not that this automobile would be exactly like the Nationals sold to customers. Aitken had spent most of the past three months tuning the big six-cylinder engine, tinkering with the carburetor, and fine-tuning the chassis and steering. The results were gratifying, and the way the car burned up the track added to the fun of showing it off for spectators.
And there were always spectators. Lots of locals, but sometimes newspaper or magazine writers and photographers came to watch him and other drivers do test laps—that happened more and more often as the date of the race approached. Other times National engineers, salesmen, or customers turned out. Newby came by every Wednesday morning, usually with some VIP.
Today Aitken planned to take his friend Crosley for a few laps around the track. Originally a Cincinnati boy, Powel Crosley had worked for National as a salesman and publicist for most of 1910, but now worked for Inter-State over in Muncie, where he had some sort of family connection. He showed up at the Speedway three or four times a week, hanging around and talking with anyone who was there—drivers, mechanics, the press, whomever. You couldn’t miss him; he was tall and rangy, and never shut up. He constantly offered opinions and advice—some of it worthwhile, according to Fred Duesenberg, whom Crosley had helped out with some sort of gimmick for balancing crankshafts. For a guy in his mid-twenties, he did know a lot more about some things than you might expect.
When Crosley wasn’t telling people how to do things, he was begging to be allowed to drive a few laps around the track. Whose car it was didn’t matter. Crosley would drive anything, as long as it was faster than his Ford. His not-so-secret ambition was to become a racing car pilot, and he gloried in the few opportunities he’d had to show off his ability to handle an automobile at high speed.
Ernest L. Moross, a racing promoter and the Speedway’s publicity manager, had taken a particular liking to Crosley and helped him with introductions and advice. It was probably thanks to Moross that the brash young man was even tolerated at the Speedway—Crosley having managed to annoy or piss off half the owners, drivers, and mechanics at the track.
Crosley had recently told Aitken that Moross, who managed Eddie Rickenbacker and Barney Oldfield, was interested in managing his own driving career. But the fact was, Crosley didn’t have a racing career. Meanwhile, Newby had warned Aitken to never allow Crosley to drive a National, saying that Crosley was reckless. But all race pilots were reckless. Aitken figured it was something personal between the two, and maybe the fact that Crosley worked for a competitor.
Crosley had approached him early that week, wanting to go for a high-speed ride so he could write about it for the newspapers. Aitken wondered whether Crosley’s employer might object, but the young man had told him it was no problem, that he was using a pen-name to make extra money.
Crosley could easily have fabricated a story, but, as he told Aitken, he was a stickler for authenticity, and he wanted a ride worth writing about. “Take her out and show me what she can do,” he said. “Let’s see if you can break eighty-five!”
Never one to turn down a challenge, Aitken had agreed to meet the young man at 8:00 AM on Friday, when no one else would be on the track. So here he was, sitting at the inside of turn four, the National’s green paint gleaming in the weak sunlight and its distinctive radiator pointing at the mile-and-a-half straightaway stretching south. He had just swung the car around and raised his goggles when he saw a black Model-T Ford coupe bumping across the collection of potholes and dirt clods that was called the parking lot. That would be Crosley.
Breezing by the paddock entrance, the Model T gained the brick track just north of turn one and sped along the straightaway toward Aitken. He watched as the car accelerated, counting off the seconds. Doing forty-five, at least, Aitken guessed. Less than two minutes later, the black coupe slowed and lurched to a stop on the berm next to the National roadster. The door opened and a tall, thin young man in a starched white shirt, coat, and black bowler hat stepped out and unfolded himself.
“Morning, Stretch,” Aitken greeted him.
Crosley grinned, which had the effect of making his long face even longer. “Are we ready?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be, I reckon.” Aitken gunned the engine, its unmuffled roar shaking the ground.
Crosley placed his hat on the Model T’s bench seat, then climbed into the mechanic’s seat on the left side of the National. This being a stripped-chassis car—the only kind Aitken drove—the seat was bolted directly to the frame rail. The cockpit was completely open. The only enclosed space was the cowling around the engine. Crosley donned a cap and goggles laying on the floorboard. Aitken adjusted his goggles.
Crosley gripped the hand-hold to the left and below his seat, nodded, and Aitken throttled up. Crosley heard the roar of the engine and the scraping sound of the rear tires slipping on the worn bricks, and then they were hurled forward, leaving Crosley feeling, as he would later write, “as if the earth were being jerked out from under me.”
A minute later, they swung into turn one at sixty-five miles per hour. Crosley leaned left as the big National ran up the slope of banked track to within a foot of the edge. Aitken laughed and guided the car through the quarter-mile straightaway and the inside of turn two. Crosley glanced at the speedometer. The needle was approaching seventy.
“Hang on!” Aitken yelled, barely audible over the big engine’s roar. Coming out of turn two, a jarring vibration shook the vehicle twice, then smoothed out. Now doing seventy-six miles per hour, they were barely a third of the way through the back straightaway.
Crosley grabbed the second hand-hold, attached to the back of Aitken’s seat, and hunched down behind the cowling. They were going faster than he had ever driven. The sensation was exhilarating, but at the same time a bit discomforting since he wasn’t the one behind the wheel.
The acceleration finally let up as the car swooped through turn three, inches from the inside wall. Now Crosley leaned right, lest he come into contact with the blurred concrete surface. Dust flew and grit stung his face.
Coming out of turn four, Aitken poured on the coal again. The speedometer needle crept to eighty and hung there, quivering. Crosley glanced at Aitken, who stared fixedly ahead, his body rigid. There was a final burst of speed and Crosley felt the car “laying into the groove,” almost as if it was settling closer to the ground. The rumbling of the tires took on a deep bass note.
As they headed back into turn one, Crosley thought about tires. He thought about Cedrino. Cedrino, the ace driver who had been tossed to his death on this very turn when a tire failed and burst, turning his beautiful machine into a nightmare pinwheel.
“—qualified!” Aitken shouted.
“What did you say?” Crosley looked over at Aitken’s now-grinning face.
“I said I qualified. I passed seventy-five miles an hour and held it. That’s the qualifying speed for the race. All I have to do is do it again from a running start next Thursday, when I do my qualifying run. Should be a cinch!”
Aitken had let up on the throttle as they came out of turn one for the second time. Now the car surged as Aitken accelerated through the short straight. Crosley glanced at the speedometer, expecting it to see it rise back to eighty. But the needle was pegged at zero. The speedometer was broken and Aitken hadn’t noticed.
II. THE PROMOTER
Carl Graham Fisher stood pompously—the only way he was capable of standing—and glared past his cigar at the partially-completed timing stand in the oval track’s infield.
“God damn it, boys! Have you been sitting on your asses all day?” He removed the cigar to spit, then eyed the dark clouds rolling in from the northwest. “It’s looking like rain again, and you haven’t even started on the damned roof!”
The crew of carpenters and helpers scowled back at Fisher, who now stalked toward them, his expensive two-tone shoes making squelching noises in the mud. “Who the hell is in charge here?” he squawked. “Dammit—just who the hell is in charge?”
The foreman, a stocky man with a short, curly beard, nodded. “That’d be me, Mister Fisher. I’m sorry we ain’t got to the roof yet, but we been workin’ inside while we’re waitin’ on shingles, so as not to waste your time and money.”
The wind expertly taken out of his sails, Fisher squinted through comically thick glasses, spat out the chaw of tobacco in his mouth, and stuck in a fresh one. “Well, then, who in blazes didn’t deliver the shingles?” he demanded.
“That’d be the supplier,” he drawled. “Portman’s lumber yard.”
“I’ll burn that son-of-a-bitch,” Fisher muttered, then turned abruptly and marched back across the infield. Crossing the brick surface of the track, he stamped his feet to remove the mud from his shoes, which effort was rewarded by splatters of mud on his sky-blue slacks. He didn’t notice.
The big yellow 1911 Cadillac Model 30 was idling on the other side of the brick track outside the paddock entrance where he’d left it. Jane Watts Fisher sat quietly beneath the canvas roof, eyes resting on the slightly rolling Indiana landscape to the east. Trees, corn, and the occasional barn were visible in the distance, the scene distinguished from a painting only by the stirring of stunted cornstalks in the brisk May breeze.
Nearer was the timing tower, which reminded her of the pierhead light outside Michigan City at the Dunes, only square instead of octagonal. Just beyond that she could see Grandstand C, about three-quarters of a mile away. Several men shoveled a pile of something into a wagon next to the structure. A mule stood unmoving in a harness attached to the wagon.
The car leaned and creaked as Carl Fisher stepped up on the right-side running board. “Dumb bastards!” he said, shoving his bulk behind the huge steering wheel. He spoke as if he were announcing dinner.
“Who, dear?” Jane asked.
Fisher put the car into reverse and advanced the throttle. “All of ‘em, just all of ‘em. There’s not a man who can get a job done without being reminded of what he’s supposed to do. I swear, I don’t know how the world gets by.
“Five days, Jane—only five days until the race, and the grandstands aren’t painted.” He finished backing the car around to point it in the direction of the drive that led south to the highway. “The God damned mud is everywhere, and Newby’s complaining about the tickets, and—” he paused to turn his head and spit into the breeze, “and the lumber yard can’t find half the materials it was supposed to have here last week!”
Jane looked away for a moment as he wiped “tobacco juice” from his cheek with a stubby finger. “It will come together in the end, dear.” She patted his arm. “Everything you do comes together. It’s just that it takes you to make it happen, and I know that’s hard on you.”
The heavy car lurched over the rutted, tree-lined drive that led to the highway. Fisher slowed as they approached the Speedway entrance, which was framed by an eight-foot high green-and-white picket fence. He waved at the man watching the gate, and noticed that his cigar had gone out. He stopped the car, fished in his coat pocket for a match and struck it on the Cadillac’s dashboard, incidentally scarring the polished wood surface for the hundredth time.
As he puffed the cigar alight he mumbled around it, “Well, I’ll damned well make it happen, or know why. You can take that to the bank!”
They rode the rest of the way into Indy in silence, the car’s suspension fighting bravely to smooth out the bumps and dips of 16th Street. Roads, Fisher mused, now there’s something else that needs done.
But his ideas about roads—wide paved roads running south to Florida and west to California—would have to wait. For now, the race consumed nearly every waking moment. And as usual it looked like he was going to have to do everything. Allison and Wheeler had put up more money but begged off managing the new construction at the track, pleading business pressures. Business? Hell, he was in business with Allison—they owned the Prest-O-Lite Company, and made headlamps for just about every car that rolled off an assembly line, from Fords and Cadillacs on down to John North Willys’ Overlands. Though how much longer they would be doing that was debatable.
Partners—why did he bother? They left it to him to hire and supervise contractors, deal with track management and the manufacturers who wanted time at the brickyard, and handle just about everything else to do with the coming International 500-Mile Sweepstakes. Here he was, lining up last-minute publicity and confirming drivers and a thousand and one other things that a man in his position ought not to be bothered with. And on top of that, Arthur Newby was trying to slip out of paying for the tickets because he hadn’t okayed the printer.
Fisher turned south on West Street, silently appreciating the now-smoother road surface. At Washington Street a quick left aimed them at Monument Circle—the most confusing street in America, for Fisher’s money. It was a simple roundabout, but for some reason it induced manic confusion in local and out-of-town folks. But that was one of the things that made Indy its own city: rather than a town square, it had a town circle.
Fisher turned right onto Monument Circle, edging into the counterclockwise traffic flow while cursing the driver of a Buick who seemed intent on forcing him up on the sidewalk. Before Fisher could damn the driver to Hell a second time, the Buick sped up and got out of the way. He drove three-quarters of the way around the roundabout and turned north onto Meridian Street. His goal was the Fisher Automobile Agency, whose sign loomed over the building four blocks away.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he announced, out of nowhere.
Jane Fisher was accustomed to her husband speaking without referents, sometimes picking up a conversation from the day before. “About?” she prompted.
“About the Star. They want me to take out a whole signature—a four-page advertisement for the race, to run Monday. I just don’t know that I should buy another damned advertisement. The King of Siam himself must have heard about the race by now. What is another advertisement going to do? Nothing.”
He drove across the concrete apron that fronted the Fisher Automobile Agency and into the building’s cavernous garage, sounding the Cadillac’s new electric horn in case no one noticed him. He shut off the motor and climbed out, nodding to a shop hand to take care of the car as he stepped around the front to help Jane down from the running board. He paused to look down the length of the garage, wide enough for three ranks of autos, with mechanics at work on a half-dozen in the light from the big windows on the building’s north side. At a glance, he picked out several new Cadillacs, as well as Oldsmobiles, REOs, and an Apperson. Coupes, phaetons, sedans, runabouts—nearly every style of automobile made.
Jane waited patiently for him by the door to the offices. At 17, she had an infinity of patience when it came to her husband, largely because she had yet to learn that she couldn’t change him. But they had only been married for two years; that sad realization would come later. In the meantime, she was content to be the supportive wife of a mad genius businessman.
Satisfied that nothing he had to handle was afoot in the shop, Fisher spun on one heel and headed for the twin doors to the offices. He pulled open the right-hand door, held it for Jane and followed her in. Ahead of them was a long hallway that led to a showroom, with several office doors on either side. Immediately to the right was a staircase, then a wide counter behind which a neat young man operated an adding machine and made notations in a ledger. The walls were covered in dark wainscoting that rose halfway to the ceiling, white plaster filling in the rest. The ceiling itself wore painted tongue-and-groove paneling. Criscrossing it were new electrical conduits that supplied lights up and down the hallway.
Seconds after the door swung shut behind Fisher and his wife, heads began popping out of the office doors while others peered down the length of the hall from the showroom, as if a silent alarm had gone off.
They all rushed him at once. The salesmen wanted to talk with him, as did the sales manager, the office manager, and the shop manager. Fisher held up his hands, shook his head and darted up the dark staircase to his private office, Jane at his heels.
Copyright © 2002, 2006, Michael A. Banks